Government College, Ludhiana, is situated right in the heart of the city, near the Civil Lines area. Its boundary walls, about six or seven feet high, do not allow the curious onlooker a peek into what lies beyond. Which is just as well. The college campus is in a state of disrepair, and the teaching standards are nothing to write home about. The walls are as much a veil on a once glorious past as a cloak to cover contemporary truths. For, as a journalist wrote in an article on the institution, ‘Once known as the Oxford of north India – its science block is modeled after the English varsity – with an alumni list which sounds like the who’s who of India, today it’s just another teaching institution.’

It was to this once hallowed institute that Sahir found admission in 1937, after his matriculation from Malwa Khalsa High School.

L-R: Mahendra Kapoor, Yash Chopra, N Datta and Sahir Ludhianvi. Photograph courtesy Ruhan Kapoor.

‘Young people are in a condition like permanent intoxication, because youth is sweet and they are growing,’ said the Greek philosopher Aristotle. And nothing seemed truer of Sahir during his college years. The two defining aspects of his character, his poetry and his romantic disposition, flourished within the four walls of his alma mater.

Gaaye hain is fazaa mein wafaaon ke raag bhi Nagmaat-e-aatishi se bakheri hai aag bhi

(I have sung songs of fidelity in these surroundings/ As well as lit fires with songs of rebellion)

Ludhiana in 1937, much like the rest of undivided India, was simmering with discontent against the colonial rulers. The screams of those who had died in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at the hands of the British in 1919 still reverberated loud and clear… [A] conflict between the capitalists and the working class was at the heart of the growing fascination for communism in the Indian subcontinent. As Ajaib Chitrakar said, ‘He [Sahir] was an avid reader of Karl Marx.’ At the same time, war clouds were gathering, rather ominously, around the world. For someone as keenly aware of and sensitive to the social environment around him as Sahir was, there was far too much happening for him not to be influenced.

Then there were the Urdu poets like Faiz and Josh, who had strong communist leanings and who, as Sahir admitted, exercised a huge influence on him. At college, he opted to study philosophy and history but grew interested in economics and politics and started reading books on these subjects as well. With his political outlook taking shape from these encounters, he became a member of the Students’ Federation at college and actively participated in political causes which also influenced his poetry.

The late Krishan Adeeb, himself an Urdu poet and a friend and admirer of Sahir from those years in Ludhiana, remembers that most of Sahir’s poems were not accepted for publication. He was not yet a name to reckon with. However, poems like ‘Jahaan Mazdoor Rehtey Hain’ (Where Workers Reside) were published under the name of A.H. Sahir in an underground newspaper called Kirti Lehar. And these poems, as Krishan states, were brimming with ideas of revolution.

Around this time, in 1937–’38, Sahir met many workers of the All India Students Federation (AISF), which was affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI). The AISF, which was founded in the mid-1930s, was committed to working for the independence of India and opposed imperialism and colonialism in any form. The AISF’s objectives aligned with Sahir’s own personal and political leanings. Consequently, he began taking an active interest in the affairs of the organization. He gave speeches to students and workers at various forums and even recited poetry with weighty political connotations at these gatherings.

Azhar Javed, renowned Pakistani poet and writer, who authored a book on Sahir and who passed away at the age of seventy-four in February 2012, gives an example of Sahir’s rebellious behaviour

There was yet another function being organized on the college premises. The British commissioner and deputy commissioner attended the celebrations. The students were also participating in the event and Sahir was to recite his poetry on stage. But when the moment to appear on stage presented itself, Sahir greeted the audience and spoke in his typical belligerent style saying, ‘As long as this Union Jack is flying above our heads, neither my friends nor I will participate or recite our poetry.’ Needless to say, Sahir’s audacious act left those on stage and in the audience stunned.

This was also the time Sahir found himself drawn to the opposite sex. While these liaisons were fleeting most of the time, a couple of attachments were serious enough to alter the course of Sahir’s life and inspire poetry tinged with romance. While the college romances did not lead to anything permanent, they give an insight to a character quite different from the average love-struck Romeo.

The first such girl to make her way into the young poet’s heart was Mahinder Chaudhary. Mahinder was Sahir’s classmate from college and the daughter of one of Ludhiana’s prominent personalities, Ram Raj, a lawyer by profession and a respected member of the Congress party. The relationship between Sahir and Mahinder blossomed owing to their political leanings. Given her family’s political background, Mahinder, too, was against the British establishment but could not come out against it openly. Knowing of Sahir’s revulsion for the British, Mahinder was drawn to him. She idolized him and was influenced by his writings and poetry. She enjoyed Sahir’s presence, for the budding poet gave expression to her thoughts which she could not bring herself to express. As time went by, Sahir’s pen became a conduit for Mahinder’s innermost feelings.

However, the relationship was not destined to last. Mahinder died all too suddenly, of tuberculosis. Sahir was left distraught. While the onset of love had spurred Sahir to poetry, now pathos and sorrow entered his lexicon, inspiring him to new poetic heights. The irony is poignant. While Mahinder’s death was a big personal loss for Sahir the young man in love, it helped Sahir the poet mature as a writer. Seeing Mahinder’s body being consumed by the flames at the cremation ground, Sahir wrote the poem ‘Marghat Ki Sarzameen’ (The Cremation Ground), an intense outpouring of his love and grief for Mahinder.

Just like spring follows winter, Sahir found himself smitten yet again soon after Mahinder’s demise. This time it was a dainty, attractive young girl by the name Ishar Kaur who caught Sahir’s attention. Ishar hardly ever spoke to anyone. She generally appeared a little lost and was different from the rest of the girls. Sahir would gaze at her for hours together, even as she tried to avoid eye contact with him. The girl, whose name was an anagram that emerged from his own (Ishar and Sahir), cast an irrepressible spell on his very existence. He was determined to win her over at any cost. Haafiz Ludhianvi outlines our protagonist’s wily stratagems at wooing his lady love:

Since Sahir was the president of the college union, he asked Ishar to sing at one of the functions being organized by the union. He was already aware that Ishar was a very good singer.

Ishar, though, was a little surprised by Sahir’s request. Shy as she was, she turned down his invitation. Not perturbed by her outright refusal, Sahir continued to request Ishar to participate in the union’s activities. She eventually relented.

The gap between inkaar and iqraar bridged, Ishar started to reciprocate Sahir’s feelings. The two grew close to each other.

Soon, the whole college was abuzz with stories of the alleged affair. This unnerved Ishar. Not knowing where the relationship would lead and afraid of how it could harm her reputation, Ishar decided to end her association with Sahir. She told Sahir she would not meet him again and even started avoiding him. Having cut Sahir out of her life, Ishar, who lived on the Government College premises, in the hostel, wept for hours together. Seeing her weep copiously and finding her void in his life too large to fill, Sahir produced yet another romantic gem: ‘Kisi Ko Udaas Dekhkar’ (On Seeing Someone Despondent).

Sahir Ludhianvi (second from left), Lata Mangeshkar and music director Ravi (extreme right). Photograph courtesy Manohar Iyer.

The poem, with its intense, melancholic tenor, only fuelled speculation about the relationship between Ishar and Sahir. Unable to bear being separated from her any more, Sahir decided to go to the college and meet Ishar. The college was closed for the vacations and there were very few girls staying in the hostel. Somehow, Sahir got Ishar to meet him. Yet, even though the college was empty, their secret rendezvous became public knowledge. It reached the ears of the college authorities, including the principal. Ishar was expelled from the college and, a few days later, Sahir also left Government College.

The popular version of the story has been that Sahir Ludhianvi, too, was expelled from Government College. Another view holds that Ishar Kaur was just a pretext to expel Sahir and that the real reason lay elsewhere. Sahir’s poems had long irked the college authorities because of their ‘seditious’ themes. In fact, some sources allude to Sahir having attended a political rally in a village called Sarabha, located close to Ludhiana, to commemorate the death of Kartar Singh Sarabha, a martyr who had died espousing the cause of the freedom struggle. It was alleged that the poem Sahir read at this function led to his expulsion.

Sahir Ludhianvi (fourth from left) at the Government College Ludhiana’s golden jubilee celebrations in 1970, where he was awarded a gold medal. Photograph courtesy Ajaib Chitrakar.

Having parted ways with his college, Sahir left for Lahore in 1943. In Lahore, Sahir took admission at Dayal Singh College. It was his final year of BA and he became the president of the Lahore Students Federation. His political work became even more intense and here, too, he ran afoul of the college authorities because of this. He was not allowed to take his examinations. Once again, Sahir was forced to leave college and deprived of a full year’s education. The next year he took admission at the Islamia College in Lahore. Disillusioned with the education system by now, he left Islamia College as well, without appearing for his BA examinations. However, disappointments on the academic front were more than offset by glad tidings when it came to his poetry. By this time, towards the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944, his first anthology of poems, Talkhiyaan (Bitterness), was published. He was only twenty-three.

Excerpted with permission from Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet, Akshay Manwani, Harper India.