AS I think of Kaloji, memories are fresh as raw wounds and there is a terrible sense of loss that we shall not see the likes of him again. In spite of his unique stature, he was a product of his times, shaped and inspired by the struggles of the period. A freedom fighter, prajakavi, non-violent revolutionary, he towered above the others in his generation in uncompromising honesty, fearlessness and his capacity to support every struggle for rights and justice. Imprisoned several times, he remained cheerful and forward-looking to the very end. His last years were shadowed by a disillusionment with the political climate around.
Remembering Kaloji, one thinks of his irony, his humour, his tenderness, his world view, his choice of the popular dialect, all of which mark the unique stamp of a man who towered above his people while he gave voice to the essence of their hopes and dream.
He grew up in a home where four languages were used in conversations in the family _ Telugu, Kannada, Marathi and Urdu. Kaloji was a man of the people. He loved travelling and mingling with people. His sharply satirical wit brought out the social relevance of every trivial incident. His piercing eyes and quizzical smile made him irresistible to many women. He loved good food and wine and entertainment. But, he never hesitated a moment from stepping out to defend human rights, lead a procession, face violence and danger. He was sensitive and suffered deeply when he saw a hungry child, a homeless man or woman, a youth killed in an encounter. He would start discussing it and tears would start flowing copiously. Kaloji was a man who was not ashamed to weep when he saw grief.
Kaloji first came into our lives in the mid-seventies post-emergency, and had been a part of our household ever since. How do I describe Kaloji’s influence on me? I learnt to be uncompromising in my conduct. Talking about the deepening division between communities he would say: “Make it a point to drink a cup of tea with a Muslim friend once a week.“ So simple, yet neglected.
I remember he refused to go through a security check while visiting PV Narasimha Rao in Delhi. He said, “I’ve come to see the man, not a minister. Tell him that Kaloji is here” and PV came running out apologising. During his election campaign, the police would get very upset at his referring to Vengal Rao as Vengalarayadu. They said “Please say Garu” and he replied that he was not christened ‘Garu’, you can call me Kaloji. And Kaloji he was. That election campaign was an education in political principles for me. Kaloji would only talk about what the Vengala Rao government had done, describe the encounters, explain the civil rights that had been violated. And explain that he stood for civil rights. Never once did he say “vote for me”. He said “choose what you think is right”. Vengal Rao, at one meeting, mocked, “What can that Kaloji do for you? He can drink and write poetry.” Kaloji’s meeting followed soon after. He asked the crowd, “How many of you drink? Raise your hands.“ Almost the entire crowd raised their hands. Then, he said, “How many of you write poetry? Raise your hands.” No hands went up. So Kaloji explained to them that not everyone could write poetry after a drink.
He was one of the most democratic tyrants I have ever met. I learnt constantly from him, marvelling at his clarity. His uncompromising stance on questions of human rights, communal harmony, diversity and principled opposition made him a pillar of strength and hope to all of us who were in different movements. When he was offered the Padma Vibhushan, an honour he richly deserved, he was advised to refuse. He replied that if he was accepting a freedom fighter’s pension from the government, what was the logic of rejecting an honour that was being conferred on him. An award to which he brought honour, grace and simplicity.
Kaloji detested idolatry. He laughed when people fell at his feet at Yadagirigutta when he recited his powerful political satire on Narasimhaswami because he had experienced a vision of a God who destroyed evil. And I remember and smile when his admirers want to put up his statues. Kaloji needs no statues. That is the poverty of our response. Memorials excuse us from the task of digesting his teaching and imbibing his principles. We need to read him, recite him, criticise him, emulate him. He is the voice of Telangana and embodies its spirit. But he will remain a stone idol if we don’t let the essence of his principles govern our lives.
(September 9 is the birth centenary of Kaloji Narayana Rao, who was an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan and was associated with many social and cultural movements in the state, particularly Telangana. The popular poet passed away on November 13, 2002.)