Main Zinda Hoon: In Conversation With a Poet Once Declared Dead


Main Zinda Hoon: In Conversation With a Poet Once Declared Dead

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The taxi driver sighed and hissed alternately as we wove through the narrow lanes of Batla House. The area, in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar, earned the dubious moniker of “Aatankvaadi Colony” after the 2008 “encounter” killing of two suspected Indian Mujahideen terrorists. For me though, Batla House will forever remain linked with another death… that of a man not quite dead.

I was on my way to meet satirist and poet Asrar Jamayee, a leading light of Dilli’s poetic past, who was declared dead in 2013. The only catch? He is still alive.

For years, the 80-year-old Asrar saheb has been visiting mushairas and mehfils across north India, reciting his incendiary kattas (couplets) for eminent politicians and general public alike. He has also published several volumes of poetry, including Tanzparey, Shair-e-Zam, Delhi Darshan, and Ram Darshan.

Over the last few years, Asrar saheb had been surviving on the ₹1,500 pension that he receives from the Social Welfare Department of South Delhi. Four years ago, even that paltry sum halted, when the department declared him dead. It’s a situation even Asrar saheb finds difficult to write satire about.

On that stuffy morning, I made my way past carts and shops spilling out into the streets, dodging burqa-clad women and teenagers in white prayer caps vrooming around on motorcycles. My destination was 161/52, a ghostly white apartment building three floors tall, where Asrar saheb lives. I’d grown fascinated with him after watching videos of his poems on the website Rekhta. One in particular had caught my fancy, where he had compared love to an AC-DC current.

Aye dosto’n haseeno’n se love kabhi na karna
Bardasht kar na paoge tum inke latke jhatke
Hain un mein AC-DC dono’n current jaari
Marta hai koyi hatt ke marta hai koi satt ke

(My friends, do not love pretty girls
You won’t be able to stand their moves
In them reside both AC and DC currents
Some are flung afar, some die in an embrace.)

Asrar Jamayee, satirist extraordinaire and dead man walking, opened the door. He was dressed in a well-worn full-sleeved faded blue shirt and grey trousers. “Bahut der intezaar karaya aapne,” he complained, leaving me mumbling an apology about the traffic and maze-like lanes of Batla House.

Asrar saheb was alerted to the news of his death when his pension stopped. What followed, could well be the subject of a black comedy

Asrar saheb moved into his current dwellings, the house of a friend, a couple of years ago. His living room looked like a museum of unwanted objects — a huge steel pot here, an empty tray of eggs there, amid stacks and stacks of dusty, old files — as if mirroring his internal agitation. “For four years, I have been running from pillar to post,” he told me. “People have been saying you are dead. I am in a really bad shape. Now, I have stopped pursuing this matter. If this pension has to resume, it will.” He shows me a folder with multiple newspaper clippings of his case. “Still, people ask for this photostat or the other. Isn’t my body and breath proof enough?”

Asrar saheb was alerted to the news of his death when his pension stopped. What followed, could well be the subject of a black comedy. Everywhere he went, with his Aadhar card or other proofs of his identity, Asrar saheb was told, “Aap toh mar gaye hain!” Earlier, he would get by with his earnings from mushairas and his published nazms. As news of his death spread, even those dried up. He is now reduced to living in the house of a friend. “Did you see Sadiq Apartments on the way?” he asked me. “I used to own the building. Then someone torched it. We used to have a lot of property in Bihar.” I later learned that he lost his property due to some family disputes.

All that Asrar saheb has now, are memories of his glory days — of being taught by Zakir Hussain Khan, the third president of India and reciting a couplet to Jawaharlal Nehru as a young college student. Asrar saheb had started writing these kattas while he was at Jamia, couplets that were “always anti” and provocative. His satire drew patrons like former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit, and former President Giani Zail Singh. “Sheila Dixit used to invite me for a lot of mushairas,” he told me. “I recited a few couplets for her. Wait… I will just read out one.”

Hai sati ki rasm kyonki dharmik ye doston
Isliye Bharat mein isko aam karna chahiye,
Farq sirf itna karein ki biwiyan mar jaye toh
Shauharon ko unke saath unke jal jaana chahiye

(Because the ritual of Sati is a part of our culture, my friends
It should be more prevalent in India
The only difference is, should the wives die
Let husbands burn with them on the pyre.)

We went over some of his old books, and Asrar saheb gave me one that he can find a Hindi version of. It’s a copy of Ram Darshan, a booklet is full of surprises and tongue-in-cheek remarks. Its disclaimer is rather apt for the times we live in: “Strictly prohibited for serious readers who can’t digest criticism.” I asked him if poetry should be political, hoping he’d recite his “bhaichara” couplet.

Asrar saheb said that he likes taking contrarian positions no matter who is in power. “I was in Patna when I read this.”

Kya pate ki baat keh di Jamayee Asrar ne,
Kyun samajhte aa rahein hain log bechara hamein
Bhaichare ka ye matlab ab na hona chahiye
Hum unhe bhai samjhe aur woh chaara hamein

(What a thing you have said Jamayee Asrar
Why do people consider us helpless
Brotherhood shouldn’t mean that we consider them brothers
And they think of us as fodder.)

Asrar saheb told me that people loved it because they could relate with it. “One girl came up to me and said that there had been instances in the past when her so called ‘brothers’ had treated her as ‘fodder,’” he said. “I was amazed at her interpretation.”

In the past, Asrar saheb has taken politicians head on. He recalls a mushaira in Moradabad, where Ashok Singhal, the former president of VHP was present, and the couplet he read out was:

Cheekh kar keh rahi hai madr-e-hindustan
Mere beton ko muey aapas mein ladwata hai tu
Dekh le Ashok Singhal mere aanson dekh le
Naam jab Ashok hai toh kyun shok failata hai tu?

(Mother India is screaming
Why do you make my children fight among themselves?
Look at my tears Ashok Singhal
When your name is Ashok, why do you insist on spreading grief?)

Those days are all in the past and Asrar saheb is merely a shadow of the man he used to be. “Some radio people had come a few days ago to invite me. But they also disappeared. And have you heard of the Urdu council? You know what I call them? Urdu cancel.”

All that Asrar saheb has now, are memories of his glory days

Asrar saheb now spends his days visiting friends and going to Jamia to meet younger patrons like me. He makes the trek every few days even though he finds it difficult to walk, and distributes his “purzas” among them. A purza is a small, flimsy piece of paper, about the size of a visiting card, on which Asrar saheb prints his couplets. It’s a cost-effective way of ensuring that people can still have his poems, even if they consider him dead. He carries stacks of these scraps around in his pocket.

One of them is his visiting card, imprinted with the couplet.

Zindagi naam hai mar mar ke jiye jaane ka
Koi kehta hai ki ye khwaab hai deewane ka
Asrar ka yeh kehna hai sun lo logon
Zindagi naam hai padh padh ke piye jaane ka

(Life is all about living while dying
Some say it is the dream of a madman
Hear what Asrar has to say friends
Life is about reading and drinking.)

To Asrar saheb, the hope that his pension will resume some day must also appear like the dream of a madman. His only hope now, is that he will be able to get his books published.

I knew it was time to leave, when Asrar saheb began to look distressed. I bid him goodbye and good health. As I descended the stairs, he cleared his throat and said, “Ek last sun lijiye.”

Asrar Jamayee tu ab tak mara nahi
Poocha ye kaise samjhe kya ho gaye ho sanki
Bole ye isliye ilmi-muzakrhon mein
Taarif kar rahe hain tere fikr-o-fan ki

(Asrar Jamayee, are you still not dead?
How dare you ask this, have you lost your head?
Because in gatherings and soirees all over,
They are singing elegies to you and your talent.)

This is a story from our 2017 archives. In the days after the story was published, the Delhi government took note of his case and necessary steps. Today, with the help of a small fund-raising campaign, Asrar Jamayee has succeeded in getting published again.