Shiv Kumar Batalvi: Poet of Constant Sorrow


Shiv Kumar Batalvi: Poet of Constant Sorrow

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Chandigarh’s Sector 22 market is a cluster of small booths hugging each other close. For some inexplicable reason, there’s a monopoly of opticians, but I’d come looking for Preetam Kanwal Watch Shop that I’d read about in an obscure blog. The blogger was writing about events that had taken place there during the 1970s, involving a poet I’ve been obsessed with. And here I was, decades later, fervently hoping the shop had survived the vagaries of modern commerce.

I squinted around in the blazing afternoon sun: Sandwiched between Arora Opticians and Khalsa Confectioners was a shop board dominated by a Fastrack logo. Below the board, in tiny lettering, was my destination, Pritam and Co.

My journey to Sector 22 had begun on YouTube, during one of those surfing sessions where you jump from one thumbnail to the next and spiral down the rabbit hole. In the midst of this binge, a grainy old thumbnail, featuring a handsome, smiling young man, jumped out at me. It was an interview, probably the only recorded one, of Shiv Kumar Batalvi, a Punjabi poet. I’d heard of him earlier (as have you, if you’ve watched Udta Punjab and heard the Swet Shop Boys album Cashmere).


Lyrics composed by Batalvi sung by Diljit Dosanjh in ‘Udta Punjab.’

IBTimes India

But I’d automatically dismissed him as one of the old farts. How could anyone with a name like Shiv Kumar Batalvi ever be interesting? But over the course of that sublime seven-minute segment of the interview, Batalvi went on to blow my mind.

He seemed to be the way all poets ought to be: vulnerable, mercurial, self destructive, and slightly tipsy. I was mesmerised by his mannerisms, his witticisms, his body language, the lilt of his voice, the tilt of his head. Around four minutes into the video, he told the interviewer, a man whose look summed up ’70s fashion, “This life is a slow suicide. We are all slowly and calmly dying. And this is the tragedy of every intellectual. To die slowly.”

Life is a slow suicide. I played these five words over and over in my mind and over the next few days, the processor of my laptop had to bear the weight of a million tabs, all of which were about Batalvi’s work. I researched translations; heard ghazal and qawwali maestros sing his poems; I read online Punjabi magazines. I even sent his son a friend request.

I learnt what lay at the core of Batalvi’s poetry, during this process of excavation. Any good poet should be able to touch your heart but Batalvi had the ability to rip it out of your chest, and then place it back there gently. His verse exploded with the intensity of supernovas. His sadness was a black hole that engulfed you.

I was attracted to Batalvi’s work partly because some years ago, I too had fancied myself a poet. I would smoke, drink Old Monk, and write about the cruelty of love. But my verse had the liveliness of a stillborn infant. My words barely rose from the page, while those of others soared like fearless eagles. Men and women who could perform the magic trick of writing poetry fascinated me. I looked for hints of alchemy which made their verse dance. But I soon realised there were no techniques to be learnt. You had to let the river of verse flow through you. And Shiv Kumar Sahab embodied this. His poems were pure feelings, unstained and unrestricted. His verse galloped wildly, and yet had the grace of a ballet dancer, as evidenced by the immortal and heart-stopping “Maaye ni maaye” where he sings of his hawk-like beloved.

Choori kuttan te oh khanda nahin,
Ve asin dil da maas khuaya!

(She did not want the food of love,

So I let her peck at the flesh of my heart)

Maybe because “Maaye”, along with “Ishtihar (Ik Kudi)”, remains one of his most enduring verses, there is a tendency to paint him merely as the bard of love. But in his ode to the monstrous metropolitan cities which fester all around us, he wrote:

Lohe de iss sheher wich

Pital de log rehnde
Sikke de bol bolan
Shishe de ves pounde

(In this city of iron
Live people of brass
They speak the language of money
And wear clothes made of glass)

And so I landed at Pritam and Co., following an apocryphal story on an unverified blog, that held that Batalvi frequented the shop every afternoon for a drink and to read aloud his eviscerating poems. I lingered for a while outside the shop, peering inside at the two Sikh gentlemen with prosperous waists, sitting behind the counter. Finally, I mustered a little courage and entered the shop.

“Sat Sri Akal ji,” I said to the man at the counter, my heart thudding out of control. “I am doing some research on Shiv Kumar Batalvi Sahab. I’ve heard he used to come to this shop. Is that true?”

“He was too good for them. Nobody could match his talent.”

“Yes, he used to. Bilkul,” replied one of the gentleman. Thrill and relief coursed through my veins. I learnt that their father, Preetam Singh Kanwal, was also a writer and friends with Batalvi. I asked the man if he had ever meet Batalvi in person. “Meet him in person? Assi ohna di ulti vi chakki hoyi hai! (We’ve even cleaned up his vomit),” he replied enthusiastically. Pointing to an old wooden plank, he told me that the legend was indeed true: Batalvi would come in the morning, order from the wine booth close by and start drinking, and then lie down on the bench.
“He loved drinking so much he called his son ‘whiskey.’”

The gentleman’s brother, whose name I later learnt was Saranjit Singh, was seated behind the repairs counter. He waved me in. There was a twinkle in his eye and he seemed eager to tell me the story. “All these people who say they were great friends of Batalvi Sahab,” he named some famous Punjabi writers and poets, “are all lying. He wouldn’t let anyone come near him. He was too good for them. Nobody could match his talent.”

Singh told me that people were scared of him and that he was as handsome as he seemed in the videos, which caused quite a flutter among “those college girls”. But did he actually read his poetry at the shop, the steady tick-tock of several clocks setting the beat? “Sometimes,” Singh said. “He wouldn’t read just in front of anybody.” Then, a wave of sadness crossed Singh’s face. The last time they saw Batalvi, his hair was cropped close and he looked severely ill. “All that drinking had finally gotten to him. While leaving, he told my father, ‘Pappa ji, je jynda raha te phir aavanga, nahi tan Sat Sri Akal (Pappa ji, we’ll meet again if I stay alive, otherwise Sat Sri Akal).’”

A few months later, Batalvi died. He was only 36.

I sat there in silence, and looked at the bench where he used to sleep. A poet with an extraordinary gift, surrounded by the utterly ordinary. One question haunted me as I drove back home. What had killed Shiv Kumar Batalvi? Was it a matter of the heart and the loss of both his great loves, Meena and later, Anusuya? Was it the criticism of writers like Paash, who thought his despair and longing were frivolous.

Maybe it was all of the above. Or maybe, Batalvi didn’t want his life to be a slow suicide. Maybe he wanted to go out on his own terms. And perhaps that’s why he wrote:

Asan tan joban rute marna
Joban rutte jo vi marda
Phull baney ya taara

(I am to die young

And whosoever dies young

Becomes a flower or a star)