The first and only time I met Maqbool Fida Husain in person was walking down Park Street, Calcutta, many years ago. I was with a friend who recognised the barefoot figure in white. He had been in the news then for having been denied entry into Saturday —or Calcutta —Club (or perhaps both) because he, as was his wont, wanted to walk in barefoot. I don't quite remember whether the Telegraph had already been launched then, or if was the Statesman —one of the two for sure —that had helpfully reminded us that these were the very clubs that once, not too long back, used to have such signboards as "Dogs and Indians not allowed". I remember that all of us in school were suitably outraged and quite kicked with the idea of this barefoot bohemian, stirring up things a bit for the burra sahibs with his bare feet. (We didn't know then that it was a bit of a PR stunt that he seemed to have perfected). So seeing him strolling around, perhaps soon thereafter, somewhere near Flurys, we walked up to him and asked for an autograph. He didn't put on any airs, just smiled, asked what we studied and where and, without any fuss, doodled a signed sketch of the two of us. I still vividly remember it: fluent, firm strokes with a thick, black felt pen on the back of a cream-yellowish postal envelope. We proceeded to lose it before the day was out, but that's quite another story. And at that time, frankly there were no major regrets. Besides, we reasoned, it would in any case have caused problems about which of the two of us would get to keep it.
Years passed. Mr Husain was out of my consciousness till his old paintings of Sita caused a furore sometime in the late-90s. He offered then to publicly apologise and withdraw and destroy whichever paintings were found objectionable.I was provoked enough to take to writing impassioned, unpublished letters to the editors of newspapers in protest. Meanwhile, routine protests against his various paintings continued by the likes of Shiv Sena/Bajrang Dal/VHP//BJP etc. It was all very vile, but had not yet assumed the viciousness of a concerted campaign that was let loose after the Prophet Cartoon controversy brought things to a head in 2006. In UP, a Samajwadi Party minister offered Rs 51 crores to anyone who would chop off the hands of the Danish cartoonist. No legal action was taken against him. It was as if the floodgates of all competitive communalism and politics had suddenly opened up:
In Gujarat, a local leader offered a kilo of gold to anybody willing to gouge out Husain's eyes. In 2006, a fringe organisation calling itself the Hindu Personal Law Board offered Rs 51 crore for his head. Shortly after that, Madhya Pradesh Congress minority cell vice-chairman Akhtar Baig offered Rs 11 lakh to anybody who would chop off Husain's hands.
Our archives tell the shameful, sordid story of the way he was hounded out of India after that. Checking the (mostly) graceful reactions today from various (at least official) quarters, I do not have the heart to go over the FAQ I had hurriedly compiled last March when news of his having renounced his Indian passport to take Qatari citizenship trickled in. The very idea of encountering those done-to-death arguments is exhausting, but there's a distinct memory of what Javed Akhtar had said then:
You see, Husain has not gone to Qatar. I don't remember the title of the story (but) Camus, in one of his short stories, has written that the master tells the servant, "I am going away from here now" and the servant says, "Where are you going master?" and he says, "Can't you understand? I am going away from here. That's where I am going." Husain has not gone to Qatar. Husain has gone away from India....:
It is true even more today, now that he has gone away forever — and not just from India. Yet, as Vinod Mehta had reminded us then, it wasn't quite the case of a high-principled creative genius fleeing persecution who was "pining away in his Dubai penthouse, Ferrari at hand, for his beloved homeland. That is pure humbug."
It was a sentiment that Husain, despite the specially bestowed poignancy of his situation on him, I suspect, heartily endorsed. He was honest enough to himself acknowledge factors such as sponsorship for the sort of work he wanted to do— and taxes— as reasons for choosing Qatari nationality. Which is why, I think, he wouldn't quite have liked the maudlin sentimentality of the Seemab Akbarabadi verse wrongly attributed to Bahadur Shah Zafar that was invoked (mostly incorrectly) by very well-meaning people today with respect to the circumstances of his death in exile.
It may not be politically correct to say this, but it needs to be said: he chose to be away. He was too much his own man, and with more than enough means, to not live on his own terms, wherever he was. And it is a great disservice to his memory to reduce him to a situation of caricaturised, pitiful helplessness.
He was much bigger than any do gaz of zamiiN.
Also See: M.F. Husain: FAQ