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THE HUB

YAMA, INTERRUPTED

Arun Pathak is notorious for being a professional suicide artist. Rahul Bhatia gets the measure of him

Deus Ex Machina: Pathak in repose, in the middle of the river, once his stage
 
Pathak might cut a satirical figure from afar, but telescope in and he’s a dangerous keg of borrowed ideas and fervid ambition. ‘If I ever get elected,’ he says, ‘I will be like Anil Kapoor in Nayak.’
February 5, 2000. Tulsi Ghat, Varanasi. A young man on a boat ties a stone around his neck and leaps into the Ganga. Director Deepa Mehta shudders at the memory even now, six years later. She has reason to. That suicide attempt heightened the perceived rage against her film, Water. Her sets burnt, people demonstrating wildly at her door, she was forced to abandon shooting the film at Varanasi. It took her five years to leach her own anger and resume the film in faraway Sri Lanka.

The people of Varanasi are much more circumspect. If Arun Pathak really wanted to kill himself, they say, he should have tied a heavier stone to himself before leaping into the river. He could have also consumed a more potent concentration of ‘sulphas’ before jumping. And if he truly, badly, wanted to sacrifice his life so Mehta would stop her sacrilegious film on the Varanasi widows, his friends shouldn’t have been at hand, so carefully choreographed, to dive in a moment later to rescue him. Because Pathak chose a light stone, and swallowed a substance whose lethality is disputed, and especially because he remembered to hand his wristwatch to the person beside him before jumping into the river, people are not convinced he wanted to die. Death would have meant martyrdom, and of what use is martyrdom, ask they, to a politician-in-waiting.

Pathak was 19 when he discovered his novel trick in the grand circus of Indian politics: an appetite for attempted suicides. Before the Water fiasco, he had tried killing himself four times, each attempt with a spectacular lack of success. The first was in 1995. Freshly enrolled in the Shiv Sena, Pathak insisted on offering prayers at the disputed Vishwanath temple-Gyan Vapi mosque in Varanasi. “Let me offer water, or else blood will be offered,” he told the police grandly. They weren’t impressed so Pathak cut himself several times, slicing a serious vein in the bargain. The police relented. Pathak came away from that first episode with 28 stitches, a nasty gash on his left arm, and a fair amount of notoriety.

Barely a year later, in 1997, he launched his second attempt. This time his cause celebre was preventing alcohol shops from opening up near holy sites. Pathak climbed a water tank 300 feet tall and threatened to jump off. A crowd of 10,000 gathered to watch. The police were apparently forced to send up a note agreeing to his demands before Pathak deigned to come down. When the police tried to arrest him, he unbuttoned his shirt to reveal explosives strapped inside. Much to the cops’ relief, they turned out to be fake.

December 1998, and Pathak had found yet another cause to almost die for. The police had prohibited flags and posters celebrating the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition. Ever the combatant, Pathak and his supporters festooned the area around the police station with flags at night. The next day, PK Singh, the official in charge, had it all pulled down and burnt. Pathak saw his opportunity. He demanded Singh’s transfer. When nothing happened, he swallowed 50 sleeping pills outside Singh’s office and was rushed to hospital. Released three days later, he found Singh still in his seat. Pathak then swallowed some more pills and lay down before the chief minister’s motorcade. That got the superintendent transferred, but not Singh.

Two years later, Pathak had notched the Mehta episode on his belt and earned himself the reputation of being a “professional suicide artist”. That’s a curious epithet for any man and it’s difficult to assess quite what it’s got Pathak. On the face of it, several broken bones from beatings in jail, some mean scars, one finger he cannot straighten, and an aching body. “When the wind blows from the east,” says he, “my bones hurt. Some days I need a full body massage to get sleep.”

But a deeper malaise runs through the slightly sinister man sitting in Varanasi’s Broadway Hotel in a white safari suit, hair gleaming with gel, red tilak flaming across his forehead. Pathak might cut a satirical figure from a distance — the staged leaps and slashes — but telescope in and he is a dangerous keg of borrowed ideas and fervid ambition. “If I ever get elected,” he says, “I will be like Anil Kapoor in Nayak.” His utopia is a Bollywood fantasy: a world where corrupt ministers are disposed of in ruthless ways. Beatings by hand and foot. No solution except revolution. Food on every table. No one sick. No one corrupt. As he sits talking, his phone rings. He hears out his caller, then threatens to smack a minister with his shoes. Then, turning to the men around him, silent, watchful, unsmiling, he says, “Our time is coming, our time is close at hand. When a Hindu or Muslim baby dies of hunger, do our leaders visit? They’ve grown fat in office. It’s time for a change.”

Pathak’s vehicle for change was launched in 2003: the Kranti Shiv Sena. It boasts a visiting card that is saffron in colour with the Indian flag stretched along the bottom. In the centre is a three-quarter profile of him wrapped in an orange shawl with a yellow circle, representing the sun, behind him. Pathak says he has thousands of supporters. The police estimate there are about 200. In a way, the bathos makes him more dangerous.

Pathak grew up the son of a storekeeper in the Jain dharamshala near Assi Ghat in Varanasi. There was little to distinguish his childhood except his gift for speeches. “On Republic Day every year, my friends would dance and sing, but I would give speeches in clothes just like Nehru’s,” says he. One day, a teacher told him he’d become a politician. Pathak took the prophecy seriously. He left school when he was 14 to join the Shiv Sena. “The Hindutva wave appealed to me,” he says, “and I was told new recruits would get a Mauser pistol. I was looking for that protection because every month I earned Rs 30 which local bullies would snatch from me.”

Once in the Sena, Pathak rose quickly with his peculiar talent for faux deaths. Proud of his repertoire, he’s preserved all the press clippings — three folders — pictures of him in the middle of the river, pictures of him being arrested, being rushed to hospital in a rickshaw, neck lolling dramatically. Even faux suicide attempts, however, come with a measure of pain. What made Pathak game for that? To a large extent, the usual dynamos of the Sena. Hatred for lesbianism: “Like we have Indian culture, there is also lesbian culture, and the two don’t go together.” Hatred for Valentine’s Day: “How would you like it if someone gave your sister a rose?” Tell him it’s up to her, and he replies, “Wait and see. See how you feel when someone really does it. It’s like a drug, it messes your mind.” And, finally, a vague idea of Greater Good, in whose cause it is noble to both inflict and receive pain.

Pathak might have hoped all this ardour would rocket him into the upper ranks of the Sena but in 2003 the rose tints died out. The mentors had clay feet. The Sena’s ‘Mee Mumbaikar’ campaign — Mumbai only for Mumbaikars — created serious disillusion in Pathak. He responded by blowing up a bus after emptying it of the Maharashtrians it was transporting. He had issued an ultimatum to Bal Thackeray, but the apology was not forthcoming. “They just beat up my brother,” he says, referring to the north Indians hurt in the campaign. “They didn’t check to see who was Hindu and who was Muslim. They should have checked. They were doing what the isi does — instigate riots in this country. When that happened, I felt kranti, so I began the Kranti Shiv Sena.”

It hasn’t changed much in his life. Pathak, 31, still lives in a tiny blue room in the Jain dharamshala near Assi Ghat where he grew up. He sleeps on the floor on a thin mattress beside his wife and his young daughter, Rakshita. The walls have several photos of gods, and a large one of identical Chinese twin babies. “You can see it isn’t air-conditioned, and if people have problems they can come to me straightaway.” It’s a point of pride, because one of Pathak’s pet grouses is that the country’s rulers sit in chilled offices and are inaccessible. His own goal is to ensure swift and instant justice. “If the police harass anyone unnecessarily, we stop it. No one should suffer unnecessarily.”

His interventions have earned him a kind of sullen power. People give him free boat rides, free tea, free hotel food. But these people who love him are too quiet, too stiff, around him. “He’s a good man,” they say softly, and leave it at that. But some talk. One, who ferries people, says he has to be nice to Pathak. Another, a shopkeeper, says standing in the same frame as him is like taking a picture with a thief. A policeman describes him as “not a criminal, and not a politician either. He’s somewhere between the two, if you know what I mean.”

It’s a lesson Pathak hadn’t accounted for. Committing suicide to get in is one thing, it’s staying alive respectfully in politics that’s the much harder thing.

Jul 15 , 2006
 

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