May Day in Delhi is now permanently associated in my mind with the May Day Bookstore situated here in the country’s capital. It’s a store run by LeftWord Books and managed by Sudhanva Deshpande, who’s an integral part of Jana Natya Manch (JANAM) – a street theatre company founded in 1973 by a group of Delhi's young and radical theatre artists, and among them roamed a man called Safdar Hashmi. Deshpande, a friend and comrade of Hashmi, has recounted Safdar’s extraordinary life and chilling death in his deeply humane biography – Halla Bol:The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi.
Thirty-four-year-old Safdar was beaten to death in broad daylight in Jhandapur, a village in the industrial town of Sahibabad not far from Delhi. A trigger warning for the weak-hearted: he was hit over twenty times on his head with metal rods so brutally that when he was brought to the hospital his brain fluid was leaking out of his nose.
There’s a scene in Sudhir Mishra’s modern classic Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, in which a character states when you travel a hundred kilometres from New Delhi you actually travel a distance of a thousand years, that’s the kind of disparity there is between the two worlds. Every time I think about Safdar’s killing, it reminds me of that line in Mishra’s film.
When authors meet — as booksellers! On Independent Bookstore Day @BShrayana and Sudhanva of @LeftwordBooks did duty at the sales counter at @BookshopJB, and encouraged readers to read the other’s book. #bookslove #indiebookshops #safdarhashmi @iamsrk pic.twitter.com/Z66g3QEkH7— LeftWord Books (@LeftwordBooks) May 1, 2023
Despite the blood-curdling cruelty at the heart of Halla Bol, Deshpande’s book is a testimony of hope and humanity, and a story of inconceivable courage in the face of hate. Safdar was attacked on the morning of 1 January 1989 while performing a street play called “Halla Bol”, and he died the next day on 2 January 1989. Less than forty-eight hours after his death, JANAM, led by his wife Mala, returned to perform “Halla Bol” at the very site of the attack. Safdar’s life and death wasn’t about heroism; it was a lesson in what it truly means to be the citizen of a democracy in this world. And Sudhanva’s moving, powerful book makes Hashmi and his ideals come alive once more.