[ Daily News and Analysis, 7 Mar 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 11 Mar 2013]
I never met the just-deceased leader of the neo-Bolivarian movement of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, in person. However, living in this subcontinent, somewhat fortuitously, I have seen him in various forms. What does his death mean to the subcontinent? Did he mean anything to us when he was alive? I have a couple of personal snapshots to offer. It can be considered a tribute.
When I say that I have never met Hugo Chavez, it is only half true. I had seen him up on the stage at a mass-rally in Kolkata in 2005. At that point, I was in Medical College, Kolkata and a member of an independent students association, which was regularly threatened and sometimes physically beaten by members of the ‘Party’s’ student wing. Rakesh, a class-mate of mine and now a humanitarian doctor at the Shramajibi Hospital in the Sundarbans, and I saw the posters in the city that the ‘Party’ was organizing a mass rally at the Lake Stadium and Chavez would speak. At that time, the coup that had briefly deposed him and his valiant and popular return had gained wide currency in our minds. We did not have too much access to the Internet and online videos never smoothly streamed anyways. But what we had seen and heard, from here and there, had made us realize that this would be an opportunity of a lifetime. A ‘red’ leader whose action, mannerism and style was in such contrast to the Dodos that walked about in Kolkata neighbourhoods back then – this was reason enough for us to go to his rally that evening.
I must confess that we were rather scared. Rakesh had been repeatedly threatened and assaulted by the ‘Party’ and I was a known face too. And here we were, among thousands of the Party faithful. We hoped nobody recognized us – realistically the chances were slim. Half-jokingly, half-nervously, I whispered to Rakesh that in this 10000 (or more) versus 2 scenario, we could be vanished without trace.
The event was nominally organized the government. But the ‘Party’s top brass was in full attendance – some on stage and some very near it. Events like these were a strange version of universalism that only Kolkata used to experience. Once, the city was also treated to an event where Che Guevara’s daughter had come visiting. Around the time of these events, the public posturing of the ‘Party’ and the tone of the columns in the ‘Party’ daily used to be such as if the dhoti-clad were very uncomfortable in their air-conditioned offices, and were itching to hit the trenches. The last installment of this periodic farce was when Maradona came to Kolkata.
And then Chavez spoke. There was an interpreter who translated his Spanish to Bangla realtime. That poor soul drew angry jeers from the ‘Party’ faithful when he said ‘Karlos Markos’ – a name Hugo Chavez had just mentioned in that form. And I perked my ears up. Over the cacophony of the mujahideen disgusted at the Holy Name being taken in a non-divine Spanish ( and not divine English, but not German, mind you), a different Hugo emerged to us. The person on stage had been engaging with Karl Marx, on his own terms, with a confidence that comes from being deeply embedded in one’s cultural ethos. Rakesh and I were won.
There were layers upon layers of irony that evening. In the Panchayat Elections held less than two years earlier, as many as 5030 Gram Panchayat seats were won ‘unopposed’ by the same party that was hosting the character who had unleashed the most democratic regime that part of the world had seen in recent times – even facing a recall election. At some point in his speech, Chavez mentioned Gandhi (I don’t remember whether it was the Father or the Mother). The crowd fell silent – evidently, Hugo had not been briefed about the time and place. Rakesh and I, dirty-minded as we were, deliberately chose to clap hard at that moment, amongst angry looks of people around us. Looking back, I feel, that bit of bravado was not worth the potential risk.
When he left the stadium, he stuck out his torso the car-window, waving spiritedly. For a moment, he waved directly at us, or so I thought. A day later, there was a picture of him in the ‘Party’ daily from one of the ‘agricultural progress’ tours they must have organized. He smilingly held a giant-sized pumpkin on top of his head – with the dhoti-wallas around him not sure how to react. That moment, from the unlikely vantage of a still-photo in a Party daily, he spoke directly to irreverents like us. Such was Hugo.
And then, 8 years later, I saw ‘Hugo’ again, in Shahbag, Dhaka. He was about 25, wore a similar beret cap, and was leading the sloganeering. I saw a few others in Shahbag, sporting the ‘Hugo’ look. Surely Hugo was more alive in the East, beyond the clutches of the dodos of the West.
On Hugo’s death, my friend Aiyan Bhutta of Lahore, improvised an old Pakistan People’s Party slogan that had originally been coined after the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. ‘Har ghar se Hugo nikleyga tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai’. ( From every home a Hugo will emerge, how many Hugo’s will you kill?). I remembered the 25-year old Bengali at Shahbag. Indeed. Tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai. Har ghar se Hugo nikleyga.