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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Atal Bihari Vajpayee dead: A village remembers its favourite son

Born in Gwalior, Vajpayee moved to Bateshwar as a child and stayed there till he was in Class V, said his family.

Written by Anand Mohan J | Agra |
Updated: August 17, 2018 6:07:32 am
On the Yamuna ghat, at Bateshwar village in Agra district, where the former Prime Minister grew up. (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was 10 years old, every boy in his group used to take a dip in the Yamuna. But he didn’t know how to swim. Teased by the other boys, Vajpayee decided to take the plunge one day and almost drowned in the Yamuna, near Bateshwar Nath temple.

“His friends pulled him out and thumped his chest. Atal managed to spit out the water… in the immediate aftermath, he didn’t go near the water. Instead, he learned how to swim and two years later, returned to take a dip,” said Rakesh Vajpayee (60), his nephew.

On Thursday, when the former PM’s death was announced, priests of every single temple in Bateshwar, Agra district, offered prayers in his name. Locals gathered around a sweet shop owned by his extended family, and offered condolences. The handful of cousins who remain in Bateshwar still remember him as the boy who did not know how to swim, set a police post on fire during the Quit India Movement, and went on to become the Prime Minister of India.

Born in Gwalior, Vajpayee moved to Bateshwar as a child and stayed there till he was in Class V, said his family. He returned when he was 15. In the early 1930s, around 60 families from the Vajpayee clan lived in Bateshwar around the temples dotting the banks of the Yamuna. “Now, there are around five families. Atal had stayed here till Class V before leaving for Gwalior,” said Rameshwar Chandra Bihari (80), a nephew.

Rameshwar pointed to a broken archway with moss-covered bricks. “That is where he stayed during the Quit India Movement in 1942. His father reprimanded him in Gwalior for anti-British activities, and he returned to his house,” he said. At 15, Vajpayee was busy recruiting boys for anti-British demonstrations, and had his eyes set on a lone British police post in Bateshwar.

Locals recount how he and his friends, including his elder brother Prem, set the post on fire and went into hiding. “The British had imposed collective punishment on all of them. They arrested several people and imposed a fine. One of the newspapers also ran an incorrect story saying that Atal had asked for forgiveness from the British. He was furious and came out of hiding to refute the claims. He was arrested from a bordering village,” Rakesh said, adding that he was jailed for 23 days.

He subsequently left, only to return years later — this time as PM. Commuting to his ancestral home had always been difficult, so he decided to lay the foundation stone for a train track in Bateshwar in 1999. The project was completed 16 years later. Another nephew, Ashwani Vajpayee (71), said, “I just remember his hands waving at the crowd. So many people had come that I could not even see his face.”

Rakesh Vajpayee, who had by then become an administrator of the Bateshwar Nath temple, remembers the day: “He greeted us saying ‘aur kaise’, before having a meal. Then he intently took stock of all that has happened in Bateshwar before leaving,” he said. As the sun set on Thursday, the nephews retired to their house, asking if Vajpayee’s body would be flown to Bateshwar so they can see him one last time.

Near the ex-PM’s crumbling house, neighbour Mangla Charan Shukla penned a poem, like he would for Vajpayee’s birthday every December. This one, written on his death, read: “Jug jug jeeta rahe. Atal ban atal rahe. Afsos! Janam maran se. Vidhi se vidhan ko.”

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