Mohammed Fakhruddin came to the world of words through a friendship that has dreamy adolescence written all over it. Years later, at the traffic mayhem that is central Bangalore, we meet at a coffee shop, and he looks back on the decades. A glass door shuts out the noise and chaos. We slide into our seats and absorb the vista like viewers watching a horror film with the mute button on.
“So what happened?” I ask.
“I used to have a penfriend in America while in college,” the 65-year-old says. This was in the late 1960s. “I never met her. Once she sent me her picture and I wrote a poem about it.” I want to nod my head (“Yeah, me too Saar”) in agreement. “I wrote her a poem just looking at the picture without ever having met her face-to-face,” he says. “She asked me, ‘Are you a poet?’ I wrote back saying, ‘No. But when I think of you I become one,’” he laughs.
As the years went by, Fakhruddin worked in various forms of media, from print to film. A bulk of his life was spent as a journalist for local publications in Urdu and English, but his fondest, perhaps most enduring, achievement is the institution of Poets International—a poetry group and publication in Bangalore that he launched in 1983. “The British Library which used to be just here,” he says, “is where I apprenticed in words. Read every poetry book or anthology that I could lay my hands on…that was the charm of Bangalore then. But there was no forum for me to write in,” he mutters.
In 1983, he published the first edition of Poets International as a quarterly publication with 1,000 copies. Not many of them sold. “I did not want ads,” he says. “It has always been subscription- based and was placed in many of Bangalore’s well-known book stores.” Circulation varied but the number of contributors inched up. In most cases, contributors found a platform for their wares of sentences, rhymes and images, and became the publication’s first subscribers. A monthly since 1995, it is now a booklet. It has drawn out versifiers from among businessmen, government clerks, journalists, bankers, teachers, scientists and others from Bangalore, India and beyond. The forms of verse deployed are not restricted. Sonnets, triplets, sestets, free verse, haikus, quatrains, villanelles, nonsense verse, prose poems, across rhymes and metres are entertained.
By 1995, Fakhruddin had some other ideas too. “I wanted contributors to gain appreciation of the many classical verse forms through which they can express themselves. And I wanted to share what all I learnt,” he says. He began poetry workshops and meetings which would take place on the second Saturday of each month in typical central Bangalore settings—coffee shops such as Koshy’s, or St Joseph’s College or the Press Club of India. At these events, participants would get an understanding of rhyme and metre, a haiku or sonnet. There has been a lull, says Fakhruddin, but the workshops and meetings will resume from August.
Associated with the group since 1994, Prakash F. Madhwani, 49, a businessman who came out with his verse collection in 2005 (with a foreword by Ruskin Bond), revivifies the experience of those workshops. “Doctor saheb (Fakhruddin) would make the learning experience participatory. It was a lot of fun. He would explain to us what an ode was, how distinct it was with respect to other forms. And then he would compose one line. One person had to come up with the second, another with the third, and another with the fourth, and so on. So in the end we had a poem composed by four or more different people. The same type of instruction came in for other longer forms. We learnt about iambic pentameter, tetrameters and so on.”
This exposure to literature had such an impact on Madhwani that he decided to do his MA in English (correspondence) from Bangalore University. He recently got his degree.
In 1995, Poets International organized a day-long poetry festival in Bangalore. The India Poetry Festival has been a regular event on the Bangalore calendar since, with around a hundred poets from all over the country gathering to read out poems and discuss them threadbare in August or September every year. In 1997, Fakhruddin even organized a haiku festival, with some 300 participants.
These gatherings were attended by people across age groups, and seminars on verse forms followed recitations and readings. The haiku festival had well-known Japanese haiku poet Kazuyoshi Ikeda helming it.
The workshops and fests were intense affairs, recalls Madhwani—and not always pleasant. “Not many people like to be criticized,” he recalls, “so some participants stopped coming.”
Does the current generation have any interest in words such as “versification”? I ask. “I’m not sure. Poetry isn’t even taught in the colleges and universities very seriously,” Fakhruddin says. “Till the late 1990s, I had quite a few college and engineering students coming for the workshops.
“But after that, organizing it became difficult. People complain about the location, and the traffic, had to come from far-off places, etc. Also, I think many people, young and old, are interested in something for the money and fame in it. With what we do, there is very little scope of that.”
Fakhruddin even approached senior Karnataka government officials for a permanent chair for poetry at Bangalore University—without much success.
But the interest in poetry continues. For all the poetry journal’s range of rhymed and non-rhymed poetry and nonsense verse across themes such as time, nature, money, worry, love, heartbreak, hate, harmony, God, inspiration, exasperation, old age and youth, a few writers do still see Bangalore itself as a theme.
Tasneem, who has a master’s in computer applications and is a teacher by profession, is one of the younger contributors to the monthly. “I found the shift from my native Mysore to Bangalore itself as a jolt. I ended up even writing about Bangalore’s traffic,” she says. “I’m usually someone who writes a fair amount on nature. Bangalore city is a theme, yes, but it affects me because of my shift to a new, big place,” she says.
Madhwani talks of the many different voices that have been published. “We may not be writing directly about Bangalore as such, but one looks at the issues which affect one by living in the city. For instance, the Bombay poet would write about the beach, seashore, crowds and local trains. Here, we write about trees, forests and how they have been cut, and the traffic! These are the issues which affect us.”
Fakhruddin underlines the importance of encouragement. He recalls the good wishes of an old friend, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Science, who encouraged him to write. “That’s what I do, when any new contributor brings in a poem for publishing. They need confidence to be given, regardless of how good or bad their effort is,” he says.
Fakhruddin disregards some of the big names in the poetry world (read: Seamus Heaney) as too complex. “It’s about simple expression but condensed thought,” he insists.
He takes out his cellphone. And as we prepare to leave, he reads out a haiku, scrolling down line by line, “Words have wings/They fly all over the world/ Touch hearts, create ecstasy.”