If I say that I have never met Hugo Chavez, the just-deceased leader of the neo-Bolivarian movement of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, it is only half true. I have seen him in various forms and have a couple of personal snapshots to offer. It can be considered a tribute.
I had seen him up on the stage at a mass-rally in Kolkata in 2005. Rakesh, now a humanitarian doctor at the Shramajibi Hospital in the Sundarbans, and I were in Medical College, Kolkata and members of an independent students association, which was regularly attacked by the ‘Party’s’ student wing. We saw the posters in the city that Chavez would speak at the Lake Stadium. What we had seen and heard about his politics and policies, 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 by the ‘Party’ and I too, was a known face. And here we were inside Lake Stadium, among thousands of their faithful. We hoped nobody recognised us. Realistically the chances were slim. Half-jokingly, half-nervously, I whispered to Rakesh that in this 10000 versus two scenario, we could be vanished without trace.
The event was nominally organized the government. The ‘Party’ top brass was in full attendance – some on stage, some near it. Events like these were a strange version of universalism that Kolkata used to experience. Once, the city played host to Che Guevara’s daughter. Around the time of such 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. An interpreter 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 organised. 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, eight 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 PPP slogan. ‘Har ghar se Hugo nikleyga tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai’. I remembered the 25-year old Bengali at Shahbag. Indeed. Tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai?
The writer is a post-doctoral researcher at the Massachuetts Institute of Technology (twitter.com/gargac) firstname.lastname@example.org