For years, I had known him without knowing that I did. Growing up, I had not heard of Kavi Neeraj. The only Hindi poets I knew were the ones prescribed in the syllabus, and the poems picked out for us in high school were not doing much to foster any love.

What I did love were Hindi film songs. I was drawn to the poetry and was familiar with hundreds of songs written between the 1950s and 90s. For a while, I was even copying them longhand in a notebook so I could memorise them. Somewhere in that notebook, I must have met Neeraj.

I have seen the man himself only once and only in passing. At one of Delhi’s many cultural events, a white-haired gentleman arrived, surrounded by a posse of admirers. I turned to look as someone pointed: that’s Neeraj.

By then, I had begun to read contemporary Hindi poetry and understood the appeal of his work. Neeraj offered unadorned everyday emotion that anyone could relate to – heartache, memory, the joyous beauty found in nature, ego, a sense of helplessness against the onslaught of time – and he did it in a way that did not require that one arm oneself with heavy vocabulary.

It was inevitable that the early work of Gopaldas Saxena, born in 1925, would have a revolutionary shade. Most of India was caught up in freedom struggles in the 1930s and 40s. In various interviews, Neeraj has said that he was born into poverty. Perhaps on this count, as well as the fact that the village had few education prospects, his parents sent him away to live with his aunt in Etah. He was a good student and would have liked to continue studying after his matriculation. However, he also knew that it was time to pull his weight and support the education of his younger brothers. He found work as a typist in the supplies department.

Poetry, however, didn’t need college degrees. He had already begun to write a little in school, and after reading poets like Harivansh Rai Bachchan, he began to understand the possibilities of modern Hindi poetry. He kept writing and attending poets’ gatherings, and in the 1940s, he began to read his own work out in public.

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After one such gathering (video above) an older man drew him aside to ask where he worked and how much he made. Neeraj earned Rs 67 a month as a typist. The gentleman, who turned out to be Hafeez Jalandhari, offered to help with a position in the Hindi department, where he’d be paid Rs 120.

Neeraj accepted, but the work involved giving out information about various government schemes, and working for the government troubled his conscience. Then he visited Bengal during the great famine and witnessed a man fighting dogs for food. It affected him deeply and he began to recite revolutionary lines such as: ‘Main vidrohi hoon, vidroh karaane aaya hoon’ [I am a rebel, I intend to incite rebellion]. He was warned by a friendly state official, who told the poet not to return to Delhi if he wanted to avoid being arrested, and so he didn’t.

Eventually, his work leaned to romance and beauty, and spiritualism. His dohas are rooted in the land of Kabir and Rahim, as he grapples with morality and materialism in lines such as these:

“Gyani ho, phir bhi na kar durjan sang nivaas
Sarp, sarp hai, bhale hi mani ho uske paas”

“Stay away from a bad person, be he ever so learned
A snake is a snake, though he possesses a magic stone”

And:

“Jitna kam saamaan rahega, utna safar aasaan rahega 
Jitni bhaari gathri hogi, utna tu hairaan rahega 
Usse milna na-mumkin hai, jab tak khud ka dhyaan rahega”

“The less you have, the lighter you travel
The bigger your bundle, more’s the trouble 
Impossible to meet him, if your focus is yourself”

He went on to comment on religious orthodoxy and power structures:

“Jab tak mandir aur masjid hain, mushkil mein insaan rahega”

“As long as there are mosques and temples, humanity is in trouble”

Impending mortality and “breath” is a running theme across much of his work, both literary and for films. In some dohas, he muses on the conundrum of air being heavier than flesh:

“Tan se bhaari saans hai, ise samajh lo khoob
Murda jal mein tairta, zindaa jaata doob’”

“The breath is heavier than the body, understand this well
A corpse floats on water while a living being may drown”

The same word “saans” metamorphoses into a word of aching regret when he writes:

“Saans ki sharaab ka khumaar dekhte rahe 
Karvaan guzar gaya, ghubaar dekhte rahe”

“We stood watching the intoxication of our breath
We stood watching the dust, after the caravan was gone”

This poem, “Karvaan guzar gaya” (full translation below) was a turning point. He gained many fans, and was invited to write songs for Hindi films. He refused to move to Bombay, but his poems were turned into songs. He remained pragmatic about the attention films could bring him, and would not give up his job to start struggling in the film industry.

However, he did take some time off his job, especially when he had a chance to work with a favourite composer. Dev Anand had expressed admiration for his work; so the poet wrote to him when he heard that Anand was mounting a new film with SD Burman as composer. Eventually, he took six days off to write the songs for Prem Pujari, which continue to be popular.

More movies followed, with hit songs like Likhe jo khat tujhe and Dil aaj shayar hai, gham aaj nagma hai. However, he worked with only a few composers, and though he did write a few songs until the 1990s, his best work in lyrics was in the 1970s, after which he turned his attention back to writing and publishing several volumes of verse.

He worked for several years teaching at a college in Aligarh and also edited a quarterly magazine. In 2007, he received the Padma Bhushan, and, near the end of his life, he was Chancellor of Mangalayatan University, Aligarh.

Over the decades, Neeraj had remained observant of society and the polity, and turned his critical gaze into rousing poetry. In one poem, he declared that what does not boil even after it suffers oppression is not human blood. And on a more caustic note, he writes:

“Adbhut is gangtantra ke adbhut hain shadyantra
Sant pade hain jail mein, daaku phirein swatantra”

“Strange are the machinations of this strange democracy
Saints are thrown into prison while bandits roam free”

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For all his criticism and reflections on life, death and breath, Neeraj’s work and persona were imbued with a sense of fun. There is a video of him (above) at a kavi sammelan where his recitation is not as clear as it used to be. A minute later, he pauses, and says that he has forgotten his teeth. Whilst still seated on stage, he takes his dentures out of his pocket, puts them into his mouth and the poetry goes on:

“Itne badnaam hue hum jo is zamaane mein
sadiyaan lag jaayenge humko bhulaane mein”

“I grew so infamous in my time
It will take centuries for me to be forgotten”

So be it, Neeraj. So be it.


The Caravan Has Passed

translated by Mustansir Dalvi

Dreams spill like wilted blooms, intimacies bled by thorns.
In the garden, the babool is bereft of its strings of pearls,
and here we stand, yearning for the coming spring
but the caravan has passed, leaving us to stare
at dust, rising in its wake.

Barely had we opened our eyes, woe! The sun began to sink.
By the time we rose to our feet, life silently slipped by.
Trees shed leaves, leaves. Branches, branches burned to ash.
A lifetime sped by before desires found expression.
Songwords turned into tears, verses were interred.
Lamps around us have taken to wearing veils of smoke
and here we are, bent and broken, stymied at every turn
bearing witness to the descent of our changing days
while the caravan has passed, leaving us to stare
at dust, rising in its wake.

O, the allure of youth, that every flower was smitten!
O, the enchanting image, that made the mirror lose control!
Here the earth rose, there the firmament flew,
every heart went a-flutter, every gaze turned upwards.
But then one day, an ill wind blew,
ravaging every bud, choking every street
while here we remain, despoiled, broken by fortune,
inebriated by the spirits of our own exhalations.
The caravan has passed, leaving us to stare
at dust, rising in its wake.

My hands came together to comb moonlight’s tresses,
my lips opened to call out to every sign of spring.
I was granted pain to ease every ailing soul with love
and breath, to guide the heavens to come to earth.
Nothing came to pass. Dusk turned to dawn,
the rising wave crushed bastions into rubble,
and here we are, floundering in our fears, eyes filled with tears;
we wrap shrouds around ourselves and gaze at the grave
while the caravan has passed, leaving us to stare
at dust, rising in its wake.

When a new ray of light rode like a vermillioned bride,
drums beat with abandon, each foot rose to dance.
A happy cry rose: Here comes the bride! Here she comes!
The whole town turned out, a twinkle in every eye,
but just then a blighted bolt befell us,
obliterated the sindoor, rent apart the bridal veil,
while there we were, oblivious, in a distant house
watching the palanquin with its bearers depart
and the caravan passed, leaving us to stare
at dust, rising in its wake.