[A shorter version of this beautiful encounter was published in Open magazine, Vol 04 Issue 17 dated April 24-30, 2012. Below is a detailed, more intimate version is below.]
A copy of 'New Age Weekly' is visible the moment we enter the room. It lies on the window sill, and the headline from an inside page 'Our Destination is Socialism' stands visible. A narrow bed with a clean white bedspread lies adjacent to the window. A large copper-coloured chariot – from the Mahabharata scene – rests on the sill too, with details about felicitation from IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association).
The top of an elongated wooden cupboard bears ground to an army of mementos from his days as an actor. On the wall is one sepia-toned photograph, as well as the certificate of honour of Padma Bhushan, signed by former President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam. The other wall has books authored by Engels, Eisenstein and others, whose pages are yellow and have gathered some dust. Next to it is a small shelf where bottles of syrups, and a bottle of Shower-to-Shower talcum powder, fight for space.
Quintessential dialogues by Paresh Rawal stream out from a tiny television kept low, below the bookshelf. Then, the sound of a walker reminds us whom we have come to meet. First, the wrinkled face is visible, and then the completely bent-forward body of the man who made “Itna sannaataa kyun hai bhai” a famous dialogue.
He notices the visitors and smiles lightly, pushing the walker with a lot of strength, as visible in the strains of his arms. The green-red assembly of veins and arteries of the arm are clearly visibly behind the paper-thin white skin. In his spartan white khadi kurta and lungi, Avatar Kishan Hangal moves towards his bed and settles on it quickly. A man settles the pillows and cushions, and it is only about 5 minutes later that Hangal is now seemingly comfortably seated – in a position what seems to be a painful slouch. He pulls his soft blanket and asks us to bring our chairs nearer to him. Prakash Reddy, leader of Communist Party of India (CPI), introduces us. When he introduces me as a journalist, Hangal remarks in Hindi, “So many journalists have already written so much about me. What is left to write now? Anyway, ask. I will answer.”
My lips are sealed and eyes are moist. Who am I really to ask him anything? I was visiting him because I had learnt that he had recently renewed his membership with the CPI. I wanted to hear about his days as a 'Comrade', fighting the British as a young boy and then working towards a fair world order through theatre, and thus IPTA. But what “new” will I write? How do I ask about the stories behind the long winding wrinkles, the stories of nearly a century ago? Silence. I shift uncomfortably in the chair. “Ask. Pucho. Daro matt.”
I remember the reason why I was there. He turned 97 this February, and soon enough, he had renewed his membership with the CPI. I began to ask about his association with IPTA, and he begins. “I was a Communist ever since my days in Peshawar.” He realises that the IPTA chapter was far away from the time he became an adult. So he stares up into the tubelight, and begins to talk of Peshawar. I inch forward so that his feeble voice is later audible on my recorder, despite the whirring of the air-conditioner. I did not gather the courage to request it to be switched off.
But he notices it quickly, that I am concerned about the air-conditioner's noise. He asks, “Bandh karnaa hai kya?” I smile and refuse the offer. He turns back to look at the tubelight to scan through the rich fabric of memories.
“I came from an affluent family but that was also the time when we had to fight off the British. Bahut maar khaaya, bahut laathi khaaya, goliyaan bhi lagi (I was beaten up by batons and also was shot at). I began to take up tailoring for a living,” he says. The words seem unclear when he says it at first, and after saying it three times, and louder, do we understand 'tailoring'. He makes that effort to explain that what he knows he has mumbled for a moment. “I was a high-class tailor; a highly paid tailor. The movement was also going on. I joined the movement when I was just 20. I remember the day clearly when Bhagat Singh was arrested, I remember the day when they sentenced him to death, I remember the day when he was hanged to death. Pathans had cried that day. The Pathans had cried! Everyone walked on the streets chanting 'Bhagat Singh, Bhagat Singh'. Tab toh bass dimaag mein baith gayaa tha kii angrezon ko bhagaane hai (It was rooted deep in my mind that the British power had to be overthrown).”
Sentences are paused with a long silence or a short dry cough, before Comrade Hangal speaks again. It seems he has a lot to say, and there is a lot that cannot be just forgotten. He seems far from forgetting anything. From Peshawar, he moved to Karachi, sometime in the mid-1940s, and continued his tailoring work as well as his work in the freedom movement as a Party member. “I also read that you were jailed for three years during the movement,” I say, hoping to hear him speak about that chapter. “Haan, I was in jail for three years. When I was released, I was very happy. But they told me that I have to be tadipaar now. 'Tadipaar' samajhte ho na? I just had one day to leave Karachi with my wife and son. When we were moving, scores of Hindus moved with us. We couldn't understand how our mulk (motherland) was being divided. But we reached Mumbai...” again, the voice trails off. The long pauses seem to reflect the long years spent, which have surely often been summed in just a few sentences or conversations. The flood of memories rush in at their own will or when beckoned.
Life began to move on: he continued tailoring for raees ('rich') clients. He continued his deep association with the Party. He was instrumental in making IPTA a formidable force of political action on the stage, and then he joined the Hindi film industry. Did he have any conversations about politics with the people with whom he worked in films? Comrade Hangal nods his head in disapproval. “Doing films was just work. I enjoyed my time in IPTA.” Before I could ask him any more questions from that chapter of his life which was about the glitter of Bollywood, he turns to face Comrade Reddy: “Arre yaar kuch toh bataao aajkal Party mein kya ho rahaa hai!” (Say something now about all that's happening in the Party!)
Comrade Reddy gives him updates: “Patna ko toh laal kar diyaa iss baar... dus hazaar log aaye the.... (We coloured Patna red this time... 10,000 people had assembled).” Comrade Hangal listens with wide eyes and a wide smile. After a few minutes of updates, he says, “Chalo acchi baat hai.” He turns to me, to give the journalist an important piece of analytical information: “The Party has gone through several changes. It has made many mistakes too in the past, but the important thing is to learn from mistakes. It is going through a good phase now.” He straightens his back and tries to continue sitting up for us.
Hangal's son Vijay walks in and sits in a corner, as we continue to chat with his father. Comrade Hangal says politely, “I think this is enough for today? The boy will come any minute now to shave my beard. Lekin phir aana zaroor (But do come again).” But Comrade Hangal is already clean-shaven. Before we say our goodbyes, the rest of us want to now take photographs with Comrade Hangal, and surround him turn by turn. Comrade Hangal obliges with smiles. We urge Vijay saab to join in the photographs and he shyly refuses. Comrade Hangal then says, “I wish I could have given him an easier childhood. He and his mother suffered a lot due to my involvement in the andolan (movement). Even now, he has to look after me all the time. I feel bad for him.” Vijay saab says nothing. When photographs are clicked through tiny cameras and smart phones, Comrade Hangal wants to see each of them. “Flash nahi aaya. Phir se kheecho (The camera did not flash the light. Take another photograph).” And then he is happy to see them all. “Life is not just politics. This is also life,” Comrade Hangal laughs.
The barber walks in. “Iskaa bhi kheecho photo! (Photograph him too!)” Comrade Hangal says, and then he is very pleased to see the photograph. “Please definitely make a copy and give him the photo. Please do not forget,” he urges. We walk out, and Vijay saab invites us into the facing flat of this old, dilapidating building in Santacruz east, where they have been living since the 1960s. The building is among the few of that disappearing breed in Mumbai, that have a leafy canopy over the balconies on three storeys. Vijay saab asks us if any of us enjoy poetry, and all of us unanimously reply in the affirmative. It is a Sunday evening and none of us seem to have anything more pressing. So we follow Vijay saab into his neat room and he pulls out plastic folders that contain papers. This is his poetry, and Vijay saab begins to recite them. Memories of moments now unattainable, the reminiscence of mother's touch and the desire for his wife's company (Comrade Hangal and Vijay saab are both widowers) are the subjects of his lyrical words in English. He says later, almost apologetically, that he prefers to write in English although he is fluent in Hindi.
Vijay saab is 74 years old, and has been taking care of his father since a decade. He was a photographer but long travels had begun to take a toll on his health. Besides, long days away from Mumbai meant a constant worry about his aging father. He says that few people visit them, although the father-son duo would both love the company of people.
We hear the click of the walker and Comrade Hangal walks in slowly, looking brighter. He decides to sit on a sofa and begins to inquire about each of us. He wants a detailed background – not just names. He listens intently and later jokes about a few tongue-twisting surnames. He then suddenly remembers that he had not worn his denture. Nevertheless, he continues to chat. This time, he is more upright in his seat.
It is time to leave, finally. As we greet him, he presses our palms, one by one, between his tough yet soft hands. After we all are done greeting, he says aloud, “Come again when you are not too busy. I will like it.”
One of us says “Laal Salaam Comrade!” Comrade Hangal smiles widely and raises his fist up and shakes it vigorously, saying “Laal Salaam, Laal Salaam!” He laughs, and then coughs vigourously.