On a sunny afternoon, across the bustling Batla House – a Muslim ghetto, ostensibly infamous for a police encounter in 2008 – a juice vendor irritably tried to whisk away a frail, old man who insisted on having a glass of juice. A passerby, on seeing this, rebuked the vendor: “Don’t you know who you are talking to?”
“I don't want to know anything; all I know is he owes me money and his debt is increasing,” the vendor replied in exasperation. The wizened old man, indifferent to their altercation, moved away from the scene.
He was none other than Asrar Jamayee. Once a renowned Urdu poet, famous for his satire, wit and humour, Asrar is now bankrupt, surviving on a meagre pension, without any formal recognition for his art.
Living a life in which pain has been a constant companion, Asrar, an alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia University, was born in Patna and later moved to Delhi to study. He studied under the tutelage of Zakir Hussain, who went on to become India's first Muslim president.
Struggling against the tides of time, 80-year-old Asrar can often be seen roaming aimlessly on the streets of Jamia Nagar.
A month ago, while searching for him, we found Asrar hobbling towards the Old Jamia library. When we approached him and told him our purpose, he greeted us, albeit in a slightly resigned fashion. He began to talk in a feeble voice, making his words difficult to comprehend.
He then took out some bits of paper from his pocket to show us his latest poems. A few minutes later, a young man, perhaps in early 20's, interrupted us, greeting Asrar, who greeted him back. We were caught unawares when suddenly, Asrar took away the bits of paper from us and handed them to the young man.
It was after some asking around, running from pillar to post, that we came to know the young man’s identity: He is Mohammad Arsalan, an undergraduate at Jamia, who voluntarily preserves Asrar’s work and compiles his poems.
The once renowned Urdu poet made headlines in 2013 when the Social Welfare Department declared him dead, depriving him of his exiguous monthly pension. Many people, especially academics and alumni of Jamia Millia Islamia, stood by him, resulting in the renewal of his pension in December 2015.
Firoz Khan, the personal assistant to the MLA of Jamia Nagar, claimed that due to his efforts and the aid of the state government, Asrar’s pension was renewed. The pension amounted to a meagre Rs 1,000, before it was raised to Rs 2,500 in February 2017, still highly inadequate to make ends meet in a place like Delhi.
In his heyday, Asrar used to don gaudy sherwanis and Kohlapuri caps, enthralling people with his witty couplets in packed mushairas, both in India and abroad. Now, the President's Medal awardee’s existence is limited to the narrow, stinky alleys of Jamia Nagar, and a dingy room on rent provided by a friend's son.
His tiny room is tight-necked, packed with dozens of books lying in clouds of dust, clothes lying haphazardly on a bed, and some homeopathic medicines littered the floor.
Few people in Asrar’s neighbourhood are aware that he was once a celebrated poet. A 23-year-old architecture student who lives in the same lane described Asrar as “a mad old lunatic who keeps on enquiring about smartphones, and a new room to store his books”.
“The poet is struggling with old age and mental illness,” says the librarian at a local library in Batla House. Asrar used to frequent the library a few years ago, but hasn't visited it in two years.
“The poet has no relatives in the city and is unmarried. He owned a house in Jogabai Extension in Jamia Nagar, which some goons eventually took over, leaving Asrar with nothing but a meager pension for survival... his money was occasionally stolen, which further worsened his situation,” says Arsalan.
Asrar’s old age doesn’t allow him to participate regularly in mushairas, which had been the poet’s primary source of income.
In the past, acquaintances and friends had tried to raise funds to improve his condition. Tauheed Mohd Khan, an alumnus of Jamia, had raised around Rs 80,000 for Asrar in 2017. But with no long term measures being taken by either literary societies or the government, the poet has been finding it difficult to keep body and soul together.
“Wazn kitna hai kisi fankar ka
yeh pata chalta hai kaise aur kab.
Jamayee Asrar bola jaan lein
jab uthate hai ise kandhon par tab”
(“How does one realise
the true worth of an artist?
Jamayee Asrar says:
When he is being shouldered, only then.”)
(Majid Alam and Hanan Zaffar are currently pursuing a Masters in Convergent Journalism at Jamia Millia Islamia. Hanan tweets @HananZaffar.)
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