Sudhanva Deshpande’s deeply humane new 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 like 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 isn’t much difference between a town in Uttar Pradesh and the heart of New Delhi where just a few days 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-year-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 in the same location, this time until the end.

Always in rebellion mode

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, which 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.

False eulogies

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 in my mind that when Hashmi’s skull was being crushed under metal rods he was afraid, just the 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.

Bertolt Brecht wrote, “A lot is won when a single man gets up on his feet and says no.” Brecht, apart from being everything that he was, could well have been a clairvoyant too because very few sentences manage to sum up Safdar as well as this one does. Purnendu Pattrea’s poem “A New Word: Safdar Hashmi” translated from the Bengali, which I came across in Sumana Roy’s essay “On the death of Safdar Hashmi” in The Sunday Guardian, also succeeds in making us aware of the legacy that Hashmi has left behind.

The grief of this death
Can never be lowered from our shoulders
How foolish barbarism is
As though death is enough to wipe out
The heart of a vow
Assault is not a new word
Violence is not a new word
The new word is Safdar Hashmi
Safdar Hashmi means waking up
Staying awake

— "A New Word: Safdar Hashmi", Purnendu Pattrea, translated from the Bengali.

The light in Safdar Hashmi’s eyes dimmed that January afternoon, but it managed to awaken a whole generation. At a time when we are observing countrywide protests against an act which divides this nation on the basis of religion, when the women of Shaheen Bagh and several other cities have been peacefully and resiliently protesting for over two months despite political threats and the city of Delhi has been wrecked by the recent targeted killings of minorities in certain pockets of the capital, Deshpande’s book is 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.

Halla Bol

Halla Bol: The Death And Life Of Safdar Hashmi, Leftword Books.