I want to find poets. Not the famous ones, not the ones who grace NRI “Kavi Sammelans”  in New Jersey and Chicago, not the ones who get fat envelopes after reciting in big, organised conclaves, but the ones who live next door.

Is that quiet man, with a regular job, a serious poet? What does he write and who does he recite to? Will he ever get published?  So one, cold day I left Delhi, with my photographer friend Harikirshna Katragadda in tow, to find the next-door poet. It’s a journey that takes me to a small town in UP, where people have jobs and businesses, but only one vocation—poetry.

It takes me to a small room inside a narrow lane in Lucknow where regular—known and unknown—poets gather and compose. It takes to me to Faridabad. I find a goldsmith, a carpenter, and engineers and professors. I find my poets.

At 1 p.m. on a winter afternoon it’s all quiet at Sainthal. In this small town of 13,000, there’s hardly a flutter. The streets are empty, and people are busy with their day jobs. By the night, or in this case later in the afternoon, most of them will return to their real calling—shaiyari or Urdu poetry.

Sainthal, 30 km from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh and 280 km from Delhi, is a town of many poets; some are well known, most are unrecognised; some have a remarkable oeuvre, the work of others is barely passable.

Other towns have carpenters and farmers, teachers and conductors, painters and writers, but Sainthal has its poets. And tomatoes. The local lore says that bad poetry is greeted by a barrage of tomatoes, and because Sainthal has so many poets, it is fitting that there is no shortage of tomatoes either.

The road from Bareilley is wide enough for a tractor but not more. Sarfaraz, a journalist, greets us at the entry of the town and directs us to a narrow, concrete lane. The 500-yard-walk leads to a clearing that opens into the house of Aamir Zaidi. The Zaidis are Sainthal’s royalty; their family has for generations headed the local body. Aamir is the president of the association of chairpersons of town councils of UP. In Sainthal right now, though, it’s his mother who heads the town area council. He’s the host of today’s gathering.

There’s a chill in the air, and the sun shines grudgingly.  Many poets and their listeners are waiting in the open area of Aamir’s house. Now and then, children pop out from the long, narrow minaret-like windows. At the Zaidi house, at the baithak, there is a long table with a white cloth over it. On it lie four bottles of Bisleri.  A big chair with extravagant cushioning lies at the centre.

It’s the seat of power in Sainthal, the throne from which Aamir solves disputes and does politics. As a gracious host, he insists that I sit on his chair, and finally succeeds in installing me as the new seat of power in the town. Let the mushaira (public poetry recital) begin.

The recitation begins with the invocation of Allah by a young poet Haider “Nazar”. It is appreciated by the graybeards, who then tell him to go and get tea and snacks for everyone. In this all-male gathering, it is not deemed fit for women to present themselves.

Meanwhile, a man, who has got word of the melee, comes running. Just a while ago, Tanzeem Hussain Zaidi “Talib” was busy at his furniture shop. The next moment he is at the mushaira, leaving behind customers. His preference for poetry over money is much appreciated by the gathering and he is instantly invited to recite. His four-line-poem is aimed at the present political situation of the country, and talks about the uneasy silence of the people over the rather deplorable state of affairs. Loosely translated, he says:

Who has gone and left the house silent,

A mother is waiting, her eyes silent,

Let blood be no more spilled,

say the silent people of Hindustan.

Talib’s verse is welcomed with thunderous applause, and he goes back to waiting customers and silent tools.

Shaiyari and Sainthal share an old bond. The area is known as “Gehwara-e-adab” , the region of poetry. The renowned poet Wasim Barelvi is said to have learnt the tricks of the trade here. The list of poets, some dead and forgotten, some still remembered, is long: Asghar Hussain “samar”, Khalil Hussain Nail, Mir Mohammad Hussain, Jahid Ali, Syed Wasfe Ali “Wasfe” are the better known of these.

Over the generations they have left behind a town where poetry is never far away from the lips, where the answer to a simple question like “What’s the time” can be a verse on the finer points of both history and horology.

Syed Shaheen Raza Zaidi is one of the senior poets of Sainthal. He is the reader in the History department of Bareilly College, and has studied the past of his home town. He has even encouraged his students to take up research on the place and its heritage.

“I want to bring out an anthology of the work of the poets of Sainthal. We’ve had fine poets here, but unfortunately their work has not got the acclaim it deserves,” he says adding, “I want to write about their history, so that their poetry is not lost.”

That people care about their poetry here is apparent. It is what makes most of them try their hand in it, makes them value it, and provides a kind of release from the daily grind. The poetry may not always be high literature, it may not always be thought provoking enough, but in its spontaneity, in it’s articulation of everyday concerns it is the voice of the people.

It is what makes Dr Iraq Raza Zaidi, a professor of Persian at Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia University, speak fondly and proudly of his hometown at national and international conferences that he is invited to. He does it because “no matters what he achieves, a man should never forget his roots.”

It is what makes Mohammad Ahmed “Farogi”, a goldsmith by profession, stay at the mushaira, and ignore frantic phone calls from the craftsmen who require him in the shop. He wants to start a literary magazine from Sainthal, and wants, as is mandatory, a title verified by the Registrar of Newspapers, New Delhi. His multiple attempts to accomplish this have failed; his application has been red-taped and forgotten.

Perhaps this is why his poetry speaks of anger, and sounds desperate. Farogi says that the world has forced a sword in the hands of men who would have been better off wielding the pen. As if he’s said enough, he makes his way to his shop but his fellow poets exhort him to stay and listen to others. He finally puts his mobile phone on silent mode and resigns with a thud on a chair.

While poetry here is a predominantly male activity, some women too have tried wordplay. Tamanna Zaidi is the foremost woman poet of Sainthal, and this keeps her away from the all-male soirees. I meet her inside the courtyard of a big, old house. The young woman, who teaches in a school in the town, is shy to recite her poetry. Instead, she pens down a verse and passes the piece of paper. The poem talks of love and yearning, of romantic love and universal brotherhood at the same time.

No journey in search of shayars can be complete without a stop at Lucknow. There are at least a dozen small organisations in this city that aim to promote Urdu poetry. My search for poets leads me to Aminabad, a part of the old city where the narrow lanes are forever crowded. My destination is the Maulana Mohammad Ali Johar Foundation, a not-for-profit that aims to promote poetry and communal harmony. There’s also a Nadeem Akhtar Academy in the memory of the famous poet, and it strives to build a bridge between Hindi and Urdu.

When I reach Jagat Cinema, a landmark from where the Johar Foudation is a stone’s throw away, I am lost. Under the giant poster the decade-old movie Diljale which is currently playing here, there’s no sign of lane that will lead me to the Foundation. Blank faces answer the pleas of help. On a hunch I take a lane that branches off from the cinema.  There’s a man standing at the end of the lane, and I ask him: “Is Johar Foundation here?” “I don’t know.”

But someone does hear us. A window opens and a voice says, “Get inside the next gate and come in.”  Just then, a motorcycle stops, and rider takes off his helmet. He identifies himself as Makhbur Kakorvi and takes us in. In the library, it is time for the evening namaz and some poets were praying. Mohammaed Wasi Siddqui is the founder member of the Johar Foundation. He is not a poet himself, but loves poetry and his office is always open for mushairas.

This evening, to make things interesting, the poets have decided that they will speak on a zadeed, or a word with which their lines should end. Today it’s “Ma”. The poets get ready to recite in the library. They are in good company here; the steel almirahs that surround the walls of the room contain collections of the finest Urdu poetry.

Over the next hour, they spar with words, in a good-natured way as they continue to recite poems, many composed on the spot. It was in this time that I decoded their secret language. Whenever someone slipped up on grammar or meter, the mandatory “wah” wah” at the end of the recital would be just a little out of tune. The poet would catch on, and know that his peers have noticed the mistake. Most listeners miss it.  When they are on stage, every poet stands with his fellow practitioner in trade. In private recitals, closed-door poet meetings there’re different: There’s a lot of jostling , jokes and slip-ups seldom go unnoticed.

From the city of polite refrains we go to Faridabad, the city where cuss words are never too far from the lips. While in Lucknow, even children are addressed with the respectful “aap”, in this and other Haryana towns, even fathers are addressed with the more egalitarian “tu”. But poets and poetry connect the two places. There are organisations and collectives based here that regularly organise recitals, of both Hindi and Urdu poetry. Our search for everyday poets takes us to an address every old and young poet in Faridabad knows well.

It is Dr. Ved Vyatith's house in Sector 3, not far from the Tagore Academy. A well-know poet, Vyatith’s  doors have been open for fellow wordsmiths for decades now. There is a small “Kavya Gosthi” or poet’s conclave at his house today. The smell of kachori being fried wafts through his living room, and after a high tea, the poets get to business.

Ramashankar “Raj” is a maths teacher and a poet. He starts the evening with a new poem which ends with the line “Baantata  kare mohabbat daria dili ke saath.” (Share love with a big heart).

People are not willing to listen and read serious literature. They want literature to be like fast food—dunk it, eat it.

The sentiment is appreciated by his fellow poets, and one of them, Mohanlal Sharma, takes the opportunity to explain to me why their craft finds few takers these days.

“If poetry has become confined to a particular class, then the reason behind it is ‘economic pollution’. People are not willing to listen and read serious literature. They want literature to be like fast food—dunk it, eat it.”

Part of the reason for this lack of readers lies with the poets themselves. Old timers speak fondly of a time, when poets young and old would gather around tea shops, and recite and discuss their work—always with a willing audience in tow. Times changed, the tea shops didn’t, but a new thing called market entered the equation. If Tulsidas wrote the Ramcharitmanas and said he did it for “Sawant Sukhai”—his own pleasure—and if it did cause good in the society then so be it, then today’s poets write often for what the market demands. Today poet’s are known by the number of recitations they have done abroad—preferably in rich NRI gatherings—and have “bio-data” which speaks of the countries they have visited .

Suresh Chandra Sharma, an assistant engineer with National Petroleum Construction Corporation, and a song writer, says “Today there is social stress in society because people have cut their connection with literature. If you read Premchand’s stories, somewhere you are sure to find a character that will be like you. But today people don’t have the time to engage in literature.”

Prabhdayal Kashyap, better known by his pen name “Pravasi”, comes forward, perhaps to lighten the mood in the room. Aptly, he tells a romantic number, which can be translated as:

In this rosy twilight,

When she met me again,

a tide surged in my heart,

my emotions ran like the Indus in spate,

On its banks I’ll reunite with her,

on its banks I’ll find love for her.

Pravasi’s song makes the poets in the room smile from the corner of their eyes. He started writing poetry in 1954—when half our population was unborn, and is known for songs laced with “Sringar ras”.

It’s retired university professor Mohanlal Sharma's turn next and he digs into the past and comes up with a poem of his that a magazine published in 1960. Sharma is a well-known critic and says, “The so-called humour poems are greatly damaging literature. People have started writing downright vulgar lines in the name of laughter. You can’t hear it together with your family. Satire is not to be confused with obscenity.”

Vyatith, the host, is the last to recite. For years now, he has been finding new talent and  promoting them through the organisation he runs. He gives me a copy of the published poems called “Nayaya Yaachana”. He says literature is getting out of reach for a many people, and the publishers are partly to blame.

“They price the book so high that the common reader can no longer afford it. They take money from the writer to publish and then overprice it for the reader.” What he says is true. His book of poetry has 56 pages and is priced at Rs 175.

The verse that he recited for the younger generation of poets, says:  

You write the story of the Temple of Justice,

Through the story of my way to the gallows,

Use my blood as your ink,

My bones are your pen.

This ends the proceedings in Vyatith’s house, and everyone attends to the more serious business in hand—eating. In a time when poetry can’t pay for your meals, good food should be respected.

 (Translated from Hindi by Saurav Kumar.)