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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A gentleman and a gentle satirist: Vinod Bhatt

Logo Random Notes\ for STOI Dec 24, 1995,with a picture

Tushar Bhatt*
    Hurrying slowly has been his hallmark all his life, a trait that appears even more pronounced after he recently out-stared death during a serious ailment of the kidney and liver.Vinod Bhatt has always been a contradiction of sorts, a satirist who has been so mellowed that he hates to offend.Yet,his satire,as also his humour,retain that element of wit that makes for the soul of the genre.He is at his best when self-deprecating and mildly,subtly,mocking the world even while doing that.
    In a self-portrait in words in his book of pen-portraits,Vinodni Najare,the humour writer wryly describes his own appearance thus: Small eyes,with dark eye-bags hanging underneath,bigger than necessary nose,harsh,sandpaper face, a voice that is not pleasant to the listener for a longer time than essential,giving an over-all impression of an innocent,if not highly attractive countenance.He is not at all gullible,It is a deceptive face."
    Remorselessly,he piles on: "He may think of himself as an intellectual,but he is not able to impress people as so intelligent a person.Poor in knowledge,having been below average a student from the beginning.His monotonous failure in examinations used to irritate his parents to the point of boredom."
    All of which is highly exaggerated,and countless fans will testify ,is simply untrue.He is putting on a mask to hide the real Vinod Bhatt, a warm-hearted person, a friend who would go miles just to say hello to another friend.
    A prolific writer,he has written some 52 books since 19062 when his first volume,Pehlun Sukh Te Mungi Naar (The first happiness of life, a dumb wife) came out.These are in addition to innumerable columns he has done for dailies and weeklies over the past four decades of so.Most fall in the category of satire-humour,but there also are compilations, and biographies, such as Sadat Manto.
    He is ,like other humour writers,acutely aware of what he describes as "tragi-comedy of life" that when they encounter a satirist the people expect them to reel off a joke or two.He recalls having gone,along with his wife,Nalini,to mourn the death of a friend's father once. The friend had not met Nailni.Vinod introduced her to the grief-stricken man as a woman of learning ,vidhushi,since she has done M.A.,M.Ed. The friend's eyes shone with genuine pleasure and he blurted out " what a pair.The wife is a vidushi,the husband a vidushak (joker)."It is ridiculous ,but there it is.Most think that a humour writer is a bottomless treasure of jokes for all occasions.If not that,one to validate one's own sense of humour.This is at once tragic as well as comic.A humour-writer is not a joker."
    Born on the kite-flying day, utran,January 14, 1938,Vinod has not only been frank but transparent as well.Never a bright student,he recalls that once when he managed to scrape through an examination, scoring 35 per cent,the minimum marks needed,his mother suggested they should hold an ice-cream party to celebrate the high-water mark in his educational career.Jashwantlal,his father who was a partner in a tax consultant's firm,who apparently a streak of humour in him,riposted: "Do you know what would that mean? That we are celebrating his having got 35 per cent marks,and having missed as much as 65 per cent of the knowledge that could be had." Nevertheless,the ice-cream party followed a week later. "I was a dull student", says Vinod,with utter modesty, a modesty so utter that it might smack of pride."A good for nothing."
    The suspicion about the pride arises from the fact that that boy of yesteryear has risen to be a popular satire writer,and come to occupy the chair of the prestigious body in Gujarati literature,which in the past had been occupied by people like Gandhiji. To be sure, there were only two other humour-satire writers,preceding him as president,Late Ramanbhai Nilkanth,who wrote the renowned Bhadrambhadra,and late Jytoindra Dave.
    Why did he choose to be a tax consultant, an area that a creative writer might find no end boring,since one has to endlessly battle with figures ? "There was no option.Actually, I did not want to be what I became.But having been forced to switch to the arts stream after flunking the commerce faculty exams,it was judged that I was no good to be anywhere else,but at father's firm." But, that is a half-truth only,or as satirists are prone to do,clothing truth in self-deprecation. He very much wanted to be a writer from his young days.
    "I had been writing stories full of pathos in the beginning. So full of pathos that while with one hand I wrote, the other hand would be continuously mopping up tears welling up in my eyes."
    Unfortunately,he did not find the audience to appreciate it."In the beginning,whenever I venture out with a sheaf of papers,looking for potential listeners,other boys would make themselves scarce from the Nav Tadni Pole in Ghee Kanta area in the walled city of Ahmedabad where we lived.Some will suddenly remember they had unfinished home-work,others will think of domestic chores their mothers had ordered them to.Some will disappear quickly,without offering any valid reason.That left me with a half-crack listener,a man called Chiman Badashah.As I would start reading,with tears streaming down on my cheeks,the half-mad would also get affected. By the time the story was over, Chiman Badshah too would be crying.Then,he would place a hand of commiseration on my shoulders,and begin loudly showering the filthiest homilies on the heartless world. At that point, I too would make myself vanish."
    He did eventually manage to take his B.A. degree with economics and politics as special subjects.During the student days, he loved to reads,but books other than those required for getting through the examinations. So,by the time he passed out ,"in the third class in B.A. and in the second (since that was the minimum for passing) in LL.B.",Vinod had read a lot of literature and had been dreaming of becoming an author just as Ramanlal V.Desai,Gunvantray Acharya,Dhoomketu,K.M.Munshi and Pannalal Patel had been. "Reading them I used to imagine how good it would be to know them personally, and to know an author personally, one had to become an author himself."
    Says Vinod:" I believe writing is a gift of nature. One cannot become a writer, if the maker had not endowed him or her with the required talent to put words on a piece of blank paper,no matter it would get readers or not." It was a sheer coincident that his aunt had named him Vinod, which is Gujarati for humour,wit.Among the first writings,there only were one or two pieces of humour.If he did not lack anything, it was tenacity.He is also a patient wordsmith,revising more than once what he has put on the paper.
    What is his creative process in satire ? "That is easy to answer",he shoots back. More than fifty per cent of the material needed for writing humour has always been provided by politicians,irrespective of their ideologies and the colour of their party flag.His writing in newspapers and magazines has also been partly responsible in keeping in touch with the day-to-day happenings and relate these up in his pieces,"things which readers can easily identify and understand."
    He says that he has found that readers from Saurashtra are more responsive to satire than other parts of Gujarat."This is because an element of wit may be in their blood.It also may have something to do with poverty.The poor are able to understand and enjoy humour much more than the better-off,simply because humour serves as an escape route from their humdrum existence." Human beings are the only animals in the kingdom of God who can laugh,espcially at their own plight."When a child is born and does not start crying immediately,the doctor would be worried stiff. If later on,while growing,the child cannot laugh,it would be a cause of equal alarm.Laughter makes man a social being.Never trust a man who does not laugh heartily;also never take such a person seriously."
    Humour ,which causes laughter,has a social function too,beyond the personal one. Says Vinod,"Humour can help us mock our weaknesses and lead to subtle reforms."Vinod's own humour tends to be more subtle now as compared to the time when he started out. He himself acknowledges that the way he wrote in a devastating manner,poking fun at all and sundry,he would not write in the same vein today. He would be much more subtle."I strive to progress from coarse to the more subtle all the time. I would word things differently now to drive home the same points." Age may have helped him to mellow,and view the fads and foibles of the mad,mad world around us more sympathetically,yet incisively.
    His personal favourite as an author is a satirist of avant garde,Manto."I have read and re-read him innumerable time,all my life.” Vinod is quite sentimental about Manto.A few years ago, late Adam Sumro, a Pakistani journalist and friend,had come to see him in Ahmedabad.He asked Vinod if he could do anything in Pakistan for Vinod.The humour writer asked him to light some joss sticks and put flowers on Manto's grave in Lahore,if he ever went to the city.
    But, says Vinod emphatically: “I am not writing humour as an escapist. I write it as a creative expression of myself.No doubt I have seen dire days of poverty in my childhood but humour is no escape land for me." He comes across as a man who enjoys life,does not take himself very seriously and take the world only a little more seriously.
    He relishes the fact that he was elected unopposed as president of the Sahitya Parishad,the two other eminent people in the field,Dr Harivallabh Bhayani and Dr Ramanlal Joshi having withdrawn from the field.Especially,since even Gandhiji was once defeated by a solitary vote for the position wayback in 1920. Vinod took over the presidentship of the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad at its 38th session in Jamnagar in December, 1995.

    He tried to make the parishad more people-oriented, a vehicle for cultural activities and a booster for literary ones. A high-water mark of his tenure  was a special grant of Rs.51 lakhs by the Gujarat government, chiefly because the chief minister at that time, Mr Shankersinh Vaghela was an old friend of Vinod. He and some other members of the parishad had called on the chief minister when Mr Vaghela quickly accepted the demand for some money. With a smile on his face, he asked them to name  figure and feeling nervous diffidence, they mumbled a low figure. Mischievously, the chief minister laughed and asked why were the writers miserly even in demanding? The solidly middle class men of letters weredumb-struck when Mr Vaghela named Rs.51 lakhs. Of course, it was not coming from his own pocket,but till todate,no other leader in power has been as generous even when the amount was to come government coffers. 
    What Bernard Shaw once said perhaps sums up how Vinod feels about himself and his craft.Said Shaw: " Although I have whip-lashed people with my satire,I am still alive because nobody takes a satirist-humourist seriously."
    On the other hand,thriving of humour,and high respect to humourist,is perhaps the inevitable symbol of a healthy democracy.Remember,the renowned Shankar's Weekly was closed down during the emergency,with its editor, Shankar,noting in the last issue: "Dictatorship cannot afford laughter because people may laugh at the dictator and that would not do."
    Satire has its awe-inspiring side.As Alexander Pope noted: "Yes,I am proud.I must be proud to see men not afraid of God,(but) afraid of me." Humourists are in a sense the high priests of the modern,secular democracies.
    (* Though they share the same surname Vinod Bhatt and Tushar Bhatt are not related)

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