PM holds a literary court

New York Sept. 26. As denizens of a cosmopolitan city, the New Yorkers can be infuriatingly partisan in their attention and interest. A few days ago, 65,000 of them came to listen to the Dalai Lama in the Central Park. Two days ago more than 1,00,000 came to the Dave Matthews Band, again, in the Central Park. But when it came to listening to a poet-Prime Minister, not more than 100 of them turned up.

Never mind. A Prime Minister is entitled to hold his literary court. And Atal Bihari Vajpayee presided over an assorted gathering of poets in a `kavi sammelan' of sorts. The host was the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan of the United States. The occasion was the opening ceremony of a three-day conference of Indian Literature on the theme of `tradition, modernity and beyond'.

The conference itself was described as a historic gathering of literary giants from all the regional languages "under one roof". It was not obvious why such a historic gathering had to take place in New York and not in New Delhi or Bangalore or Kolkata.

The organisers — most of whom had flown in from New Delhi — were insistent on hailing Atal Bihari Vajpayee the poet. He was variously hailed as "an able and well-respected poet" and "a popular poet"; another speaker declared that "words are inadequate and incapable of describing the litterateur and poet" that was Mr. Vajpayee.

The small gathering wanted to hear the poet recite his work. The evening's compere even told Mr. Vajpayee, "You are not now the Prime Minister, but the poet." Instead, they got a Prime Minister, reading out a speech written by some culture bureaucrat which was then translated into incomprehensible Hindi.

The sum and substance of Mr. Vajpayee's remarks was an advice: literature has no boundaries and it was the poet/writer's task to bring a cultural cohesion to a diverse society.

The prime ministerial speech over, the poets, as many as a baker's dozen, were invited to come up the dais. The former Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, was also requested to come up. And, then began the kavi sammelan/mushaharia. A poetess from Karnataka. Gulzar from Mumbai. And, then, it was time for the Prime Minister to leave the scene. But wait a minute. What about a recitation from the poet-Prime Minister?

Deferring to public request, Mr. Vajpayee obligingly recited his much-recited poem, `Geet Naya Gatta Hoo.'

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