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Safdar Hashmi’s biography reminds us what it means to be a citizen of a democracy. The line between Hashmi’s murder by a lynch mob in 1989 near Delhi and the killing of 53 people in 2020 in North East Delhi is a short one. 

Sudhanva Deshpande’s deeply humane book on the death and life of Safdar Hashmi opens with the sentence, “I wasn’t even supposed to be there.” This is how many of us feel in today’s India. There’s a line in Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi which says something on these lines– when you travel a hundred kilometres from New Delhi you actually travel a distance of a thousand years, that’s the kind of disparity there is between the two worlds. It holds true even when measured in terms of economic growth or basic amenities.

But when it comes to the radical religious and political venom which resides in the heart of the citizens of this nation, there is not much difference between a town in Uttar Pradesh and the heart of New Delhi where just a few months ago, a clip went viral in which a group of men were heard chanting “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalo ko” – the new favourite battle cry of hate-mongers, inside the busiest metro station in central Delhi.
A thirty-four years old Safdar Hashmi, while performing a street play in Jhandapur, a village in Uttar Pradesh not far from Delhi, was beaten to death in broad daylight, hit over twenty times on his head with metal rods so brutally that when he was brought to the hospital his brain fluid was leaking out of his nose. But this isn’t a story about the lack of hope or death. This is a book about an extraordinary life cut criminally short but fully lived, with truth and an innate love for theatre and people. This is also a story of inconceivable courage because two days after Safdar died, Mala, his wife, and the other actors went back and performed the play again at the same location, this time till the end.

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The very birth of Janam – the amateur theatre group (JA)na (NA)tya (M)anch founded by Hashmi and a few other young activists in 1973, was nothing less than a small act of rebellion. Hashmi had joined the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) when it was revived after having been defunct for over a decade since the late 1950s. But by the end of 1972 it was apparent that while the IPTA was keeping itself busy with “Indo-Soviet Friendship Society platforms” and “Durga Puja celebrations”, a faction within the association was more invested in the idea of performing for the working classes and farmers.

So when Hashmi wrote “we propose to leave this organisation at the earliest, carry as many general members along as possible, and start work on a completely new footing”, this group of young radicals was not only evicted, but in true theatrical fashion, their belongings were also thrown out of the first floor window of the IPTA office in Shanker Market. And Janam was born – which in its years of existence went on to produce and perform now iconic plays such as Machine, Raja ka Baja, Aya Chunav, Hatyare, and, of course, Halla Bol.

This brilliant and painful biography is like an intimate embrace from one of Hashmi’s oldest comrades and compatriots. It holds the reader’s hand and walks them through a life which defied odds and without intending to leave a mark, continued to do his work as a human being in a world which was rapidly fragmenting in the name of caste, class and religion around him.

Halla Bol also serves as a startling portrait of an India in transition between the early 1970s and the late 1980s, including the dreadful 18-month period of the Emergency from 1975 to 1977, and presents it through the under-utilised lens of art and artists revealing the large scale impact it can have on the political framework and future of a nation.

The book discloses how Janam stopped performing during this period and Hashmi too was dismayed and frightened, perceiving himself as “a great danger to the Indian state.” Many today remember him as a fearless hero, which is a troubling idea, because in deifying people who have suffered immeasurable pain we often tend to segregate them from the rest of us, treating them as rare exceptions and mythologising their stories, which in turn disallows these narratives from percolating into our everyday lives.

This is what we have done to someone like Hashmi, and this is what we continue to do with someone like Jyoti Singh by eulogising and commemorating her as “Nirbhaya”. There’s no doubt that when Hashmi’s skull was being crushed under metal rods, he was afraid, just the way Jyoti was inside that bus on that horrific December night in Delhi some twenty-three years later.

This book helps humanise such people and their stories. Heroes, they are – not by the virtue of their suffering, but by the strength of the dignity and struggle marking the lives they lived.

The light in Safdar Hashmi’s eyes dimmed that January afternoon, but it managed to awaken a whole new generation. At a time when we are observing countrywide protests against various acts and laws of the government, some of  which threaten to divide this nation on the basis of religion, Deshpande’s book is a necessary reading, to awaken not a hero or a rebel in us, because that’s not what Safdar’s life endorses if you read this book carefully, but to understand and reinvigorate what it means to be a truly democratic citizen in the most populous democracy in the world.

Every generation is given its heroes: people who give their bodies and minds over in the pursuit of justice and do so with compassion, wit and good grace. This book describes one such person, and we may make him a hero, a beacon, or we may simply remember that this too is a way of being a man in the world.

Varda Ahmad is a student pursuing Economics from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Rutba Iqbal

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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Written by Varda Ahmad

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