In eternal remembrance
Even in his death, D P Tripathi continues to bridge and heal political divides
This is a partial fulfilment of a promise made in April /May of 1982 that I would write a tribute 'from the heart' on the demise of Devi Prasad Tripathi and a longer academic paper on his 'life and letters' at leisure.
I was a Trainee journalist with the Times of India and one of our assignments was to update the obituaries, for those were the pre-internet /Wikipedia days when STD calls, telegrams and telex machines provided the main inputs to the newspapers. Dummy obituaries were kept ready for publication and one indicator of whether you had made it or not in public life was whether one existed in your name. These were updated every few months and usually this one of the first tasks given to the rookies who joined the office. He asked me to check ( when he was only thirty ) on whether a dummy obituary had been made for him and if not, why not!
That set me thinking on documentation and over the next two years, he gave me leads to so many primary and secondary sources: newspaper clippings, magazine articles, pamphlets from an eclectic source (Gurudwaras in Birmingham) to academic interactions at SOAS, papers from the Shah Commission hearings and a very interesting book- 'Through the Indian Looking Glass' by David Selbourne who wrote about him after his visit to India. Before I left TOI in 1985 for joining the civil services, I assured Devi Prasad that there was sufficient material on him in the Times of India, which was also the base library for Economic Times, Navbharat Times and all the other group publications. In this day and age, I would call upon all his friends to update his Wikipedia page with references and anecdotes connected with his life and work.
I have no hesitation in placing on record that he was the one who encouraged me to engage in active politics in JNU and thanks to his relentless campaign, our alliance (FT/SYS/DSF) got two of the four seats on the Central panel and the majority in the JNUSU council and I was elected as the Vice President. Later in that year, he also helped us to extricate ourselves from the confrontation with the JNU authorities and the Delhi Police.
He taught us all to celebrate whatever and whoever we were. There was a time when everyone in JNU would flaunt the jhola and their khadi kurta. I tried to follow suit but he advised me to continue with the Harris Tweed. What he did insist on was extensive reading and though a lot of it was the Marxist canon and the contemporary political scenario, one also read a lot of literature, especially literature in translation. Not only did this help in the election campaigns but also in getting the enrolment for M Phi. and my writings in the Economic Times and later, for the civil services.
He was not very happy with my decision to leave journalism and politics to take the civil services but once I had firmed up my mind, he did whatever he could and that included arranging a lovely but secluded guest house for me for over three months to enable me to study without any major distraction.
After 1985, the frequency of contact was affected because of distance and the nature of our professional commitments but in whichever academic institution I was associated with, I would miss no opportunity to invite him whenever we had a forum /discussion on themes of political economy/governance /South Asia. And then would insist that he spent all the honorarium money on a lavish meal at the finest restaurant. He was quite upset that I had practically given up 'sundowners' but I was still part of the late-night 'mehfils' where he would render Faizi, Firaq, Ghalib and Mir with the same felicity as Pablo Neruda, Eliot and Byron.
He was one of a kind person for he could make everyone feel special and when he spent time with you, it was with absolute concentration. Blessed with a very sharp and incisive mind, he read quite extensively and even though his visual impairment was a cause of worry, his photographic memory, his ability to pun and rhyme, made him a raconteur and conversationalist par excellence. He was the life of a party and an absolute charmer ( when he wanted to, which was quite often).
One can go on but let me share with my readers what I personally learnt from him. First and foremost: confidence in your own ability, marshalling facts for an argument, anticipating the arguments of the other side, the ability to deflect the issue when it was difficult to defend a particular action/issue, liberal use of 'quotes' and anecdotes, engagement with the audience, appropriate wit and humour, special punch lines and breaking the propositions into nuanced arguments, such that there was something for everyone.
My last meeting with him was the second edition of the Valley of Words at Dehradun, where in spite of his failing health, he came and shared his views on ' The best debates occur outside the Parliament' and it was a pleasure to see him sparring with Jairam Ramesh, Tarun Vijay, Manish Tiwari and Manoj Jha. He said that while the Parliament was the best venue, debates also required time which was a constraint in the Parliament where time was allotted not on the basis of the 'argument' or the issue but the numerical paradigm which means that some of the best debates perforce had to be held outside the Parliament. However, he pointed out that some of the best debates had taken place in the Constituent Assembly and he hoped that the quality, tone and tenor should try to match up with those legendary Parliamentarians.
This time too, we had invited him to speak on 'English is an Indian language'. Though he was not able to join the debate, he did suggest that we add an 'also' to the topic. This 'also' was a unique DPT trait, for this changed the contour of the debate without taking away from the main proposition.
While a lot has been said about what all he achieved, I have always had the feeling that less than a fraction of his potential had been utilised. He was a consensus builder, a man who knew many shades of opinion and who could get people to talk to each other, for everyone could confide in him.
But his faults, defaults and excesses were equally large. "No small vices" as he would say after he gave up smoking as well as beverages like tea and coffee in one go, his love for Bacchus was his major, though not his only weakness. As Manish Tiwari put it, "there was no excess that was unknown to him. His life was lived on the edge and on his own terms."
RIP DPT. The man is no more but the legend will continue and grow!
Dr. Sanjeev Chopra is the Director of LBSNAA and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun. Views expressed are strictly personal