Benjamin Zephaniah has died. He was a trailblazing vegan, a poet and an activist. Born in April 1958 in Handsworth, Birmingham, United Kingdom, which he thought of as a “cold suburb of Kingston, Jamaica”, Zephaniah began performing poetry locally in his early teenage years. He had dyslexia, and left school aged 14.
In 1979, he moved to London, and his first collection, Pen Rhythm, was published. He began performing at demonstrations, youth gatherings and outside police stations. “I was a big protester, not just against racism but also apartheid. We are a multicultural society but the institutions have to catch up with us,” he said in 2019.
He is most widely known for saying no to the OBE (Order of the British Empire) honour in 2003, saying it would be ‘hypocritical’ of him to accept it.
Here’s a re-look at my interactions with him over the past few years….
PUNE, INDIA, 2006-07: When I last spoke to Benjamin Zephaniah, in person, it was in Pune’s Koregaon Park. A rookie journalist then, I had to meet what my editor called “this famous writer/poet from England”. It was one of my few ‘big’ interviews till then and I went in the hope it will be carried half-page on or next to the Op-Ed page.
Benjamin Zephaniah spoke of many things that day and it was a memorable conversation. Post that interaction, a lot more than just my journalistic greed had been addressed. I had the op-ed piece and I would get the half-page coverage!
But what I did not tell anyone, and dared not admit to myself, was how the interview had turned my entire worldview (if a 26-yr-old has a well-threshed-out worldview in the first place) upside down. So much that did not make sense about this world — its politics, its violence and wars, its hurtling down a cul-de-sac way of living, its treatment of nature and of people, and a lot more — began appearing to me for what it really was — a sham, a trap, a scam, all dressed up in Moulin Rouge gaudiness.
BIRMINGHAM, UK, JANUARY 2017: Nearly a decade past that first interaction, it was time for another conversation, this time over the phone. In October 2016, Britain’s second city had played host to the Birmingham Literature Festival and slotted Benjamin’s session at 8.30 pm! Unable to attend and regretting it, I finally managed to track down the elusive writer who was now also a Professor, through persistent emails.
After having spent the first few days of the New Year amid the verdant greens and Arthurian atmosphere of Somerset and finding myself back in the industrial moodiness and Brutalist architecture of Birmingham, I missed the peace and calm that only nature and deep reflection affords. But a conversation with Benjamin Zephaniah always leaves your mind whirring happily. This time, we spoke of Black Lives Matter, spirituality of the Indian variety and what it means to say no to an OBE while still living in Britain…!
A patient listener, almost intuitive, Benjamin talked of unreported police brutality towards detainees in the UK and how his cousin had died after being run down and gassed by police. This becomes especially poignant in light of what passes for ‘acceptable’ behaviour by law enforcement officials, particularly towards women, minorities and special needs citizens. “All lives matter. That there is a conversation about Black lives is a welcome development,” says the poet who seems like a modern-day version of Bob Marley, with both dreadlocks and piercing gaze in place. “What is rarely reported is how many people are killed in police custody, while being thrashed in the back of the police van on way to the police station,” he adds. “Over the past 30 years, more than 1,000 people have died in Britain in police custody. In that time, only two officers have been convicted as a result,” the poet-professor had written in this Guardian piece.
Often taken for a sadhu in India, Benjamin reminisced over his experiences of reading poetry in India. “It takes me double the time to read the same poems in India than in Britain, because the audience laughs at every line,” he had said as we veered from the topic of police brutality towards the pleasanter aspect of Indian spirituality. Ever the dissenter, I asked him if Indian-brand spiritualism was grossly overrated. “There can be no generalisations; there are some things that are good, like Yoga and mindful living. And then there is the caste system and one wonders how does that work?” he had said.
Speaking of wonderment, among the many manys, what really left me agape was Benjamin’s no — in November 2003 — to an OBE. Writing in The Guardian about why he was turning it down, he had said, “I’ve never heard of a holder of the OBE openly criticising the monarchy. They are officially friends, and that’s what this cool Britannia project is about. It gives OBEs to cool rock stars, successful businesswomen and blacks who would be militant in order to give the impression that it is inclusive. Then these rock stars, successful women, and ex-militants write to me with the OBE after their name as if I should be impressed. I’m not. Quite the opposite – you’ve been had.”
Did he not fear a backlash, given that he continued to live in Britain after refusing an award many would pay billions (atleast) for, I asked Benjamin. “One of my friends did write a piece criticising my decision. But there was no way I could have accepted it. You have to be very clear about what you want.”
And so went a conversation that had begun several years ago, and still remains incomplete. One line has stayed with me though and is quite the talisman in these tumultuous times, not least because it comes from a former borstal resident who wrote and taught poetry and was vegan in a world gone mad from killing animals for food and destroying nature for greed.
“You have to be very clear about what you want.” — This mantra will stay with me forever.
You left too soon.