In the late 1990s, when I was in college, I passionately fell in love with Hindi film songs. Soon, I came to acquire hundreds of audio cassettes. On some of these cassettes, I read the name of the lyricist Neeraj, who had written such soulful numbers as Jeevan Ki Bagiya Mehkegi, Choodi Nahin Ye Mera Dil Hai, Jaise Radha Ne Mala Japi Shyam Ki and Dil Aaj Shayar Hai. There was a refreshing quality, lucidity and depth in the lyrics. Neeraj’s songs continued to regale me even as I finished college and became a journalist.

Some 20 years later, in 2017, when I learnt that Neeraj was still alive, I knew I had to interview him. But where could I find him? After making a few queries, I located a poet who was acquainted with Neeraj. “All you need do is reach Aligarh, you won’t have any problem finding his home,” the poet said. He passed on the mobile number of Neeraj’s assistant. “Talk to him, it will make things easier.”

Soon, I boarded an Aligarh-bound train from Delhi. Indeed, I had little problem in reaching Neeraj’s home – he seemed quite popular in his hometown. Dressed simply in a white vest and a pyjama, he was seated in the verandah of his house, taking deep drags of his bidi. Surrounded by people from all walks of life –the gathering included a rickshwala, a bank manager, a gardener and a vice chancellor of a university – he seemed at ease. He had just returned from a poetry soiree in Jaipur and was planning to attend one more in Raipur a week later. He was 92.

Choodi Nahin Ye Mera Dil Hai, Gambler (1971).

I was struck by Neeraj’s keen mind and his ability to remember small details. From his assistant Ram Singh Yadav, I learnt that Neeraj was gifted with a razor-sharp memory. “He has not only memorised his entire poetry but also the works of several great Indian and foreign poets,” Yadav told me. “He also remembers more than 200 mobile numbers. You just have to tell him your mobile number twice and he’ll never forget it.”

Neeraj told me about some unusual incidents from his childhood, including a brush with death on more than one occasion. The first time, Neeraj nearly drowned in the village pond and was pulled out by a stray dog. On another occasion, Neeraj tried to feed rice to a hooded cobra from his hands even as his mother watched helplessly from a distance.

Later, Neeraj jumped into the Yamuna for a swim, only to discover that the water was very deep. “When I started drowning, someone caught hold of my legs and flung me on the banks,” Neeraj recalled. “Surprised, I looked at the river. Nobody was swimming in it. Till date, I haven’t been able to figure out who saved my life.”

Neeraj had enormous faith in astrology and horoscopes. “I once stayed with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in DAV College hostel in Kanpur,” Neeraj said. “He is older by a mere nine days, and we often recited our poems at gatherings. Once, when I saw his horoscope, I was stunned to notice that it matched my horoscope a lot. As it turned out, we were similar in many ways – we were both poets with good command over the language, we could mesmerise audiences with our oratory, and we even had weak legs. There was fame in both our lives and we were destined to live to a ripe old age.”

Back in 2009, Neeraj had predicted that Vajpayee would die within a month of his death. Neeraj passed away on July 19, 2018, while Vajpayee died on August 16, 2018. Neeraj had also correctly predicted the diseases that would afflict the both of them in their sunset years.

Rangeela Re, Prem Pujari (1970).

During the freedom struggle, Neeraj joined a band of revolutionaries who taught him to use a pistol. However, his mother weaned him away from their influence. Even so, Neeraj couldn’t stop himself from participating in the Quit India Movement in 1942, for which he was jailed. The collector told Neeraj that if he apologised, he would be released. “Already 650 agitators out of 700 have apologised and I have released them. Is this how you will get independence?” the collector said. Neeraj replied, “I would rather say 50 people still haven’t apologised – they aren’t scared by the punishment. There’s only one Gandhi, not 20.” Pleased by Neeraj’s response, the collector released him and the rest of the agitators after three days.

Among the Hindi film music composers Neeraj worked with, he rated SD Burman’s talent the highest. “He shunned publicity altogether and kept himself immersed in music throughout the day,” Neeraj recalled.

Neeraj and SD Burman worked together for several years, creating such musical hits as Gambler, Sharmeelee and Tere Mere Sapne. “Once dada [SD Burman] asked me to write a song to convey the happy sentiments of a pregnant woman expecting her first child,” Neeraj said. “I gave him Jeevan Ki Bagiya Mehkegi. He was so elated that he began jumping with excitement. The happiness that shone in his eyes was the greatest award I got in my life.”

Jeevan Ki Bagiya Mehkegi, Tere Mere Sapne (1972).

Neeraj also worked with Shanker-Jaikishan. “Jaikishan was a thorough gentleman, while Shanker was very arrogant,” Neeraj said. Once Shanker told Neeraj that one of his songs for the film Kanyadaan (1968) could not be used. The reason was something else, Neeraj suspects – Shanker wanted to replace Neeraj with another lyricist. An angry Neeraj tore up the song he had written for the composer.

Rajinder Bhatia, the producer of Kanyadaan, told Neeraj that he should write a song that would force Shanker into submission. Neeraj wrote what became Likhe Jo Khat Tujhe late into the night, and Shanker was bowled over by the lyrics. Rajinder Bhatia gifted Neeraj his convertible as a reward.

At the height of his popularity, Neeraj returned to Aligarh in 1973. He had written around 130 songs in a span of five years. Unmoved by the glamour and lucre of show business, Neeraj went back to reciting poems at gatherings across India.

Likhe Jo Khat Tujhe, Kanyadaan (1968).

Most people think that poem and film song lyrics are the same, but that is a “complete fallacy”, Neeraj pointed out. “Firstly, the lyrics of a film song are not read before the public but are recited by characters on the screen. Secondly, film lyrics are often written to take the story of the film further. Thirdly, film lyrics are written for mass appeal rather than for the intelligentsia. And finally, film lyrics are written to fit into a ready-made musical tune. Many poets tried their hand at writing lyrics for films but few have succeeded.”

As I bade Neeraj goodbye, I saw him proposing a game of cards to one of his acquaintances. Neeraj was addicted to playing cards every day. Isn’t it a waste of time, I couldn’t help asking him. “A game of cards keeps me in a state of suspense,” Neeraj replied. “For some time I forget the world and its pressing problems. It’s important to disassociate yourself from worries as often as you can.”

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Poet and lyricist Neeraj: ‘Poetry has kept me intoxicated throughout my life’