Narayan Gangaram Surve belonged to an era in which Mumbai woke up to the sirens of textile mills, agitations were not the norm, and mill workers were striving to make ends meet. He was a contemporary of Mangesh Padgaonkar and heir to two other greats of Marathi poetry, Kusumagraj and B.S. Mardhekar.
While Padgaonkar occasionally wrote about the cause of the depressed, Kusumagraj and Mardhekar were primarily seen as torchbearers of poetry for the masses. But Surve, who was an unskilled labourer, became the original spokesperson of a city whose sub-culture revolved around mills and its workers. While others sympathised, Surve empathised.
Abandoned in a garbage dump as a baby, Surve was brought up by Gangaram Surve, a mill worker who took care of him until he was 10 and gave him his name. Surve educated himself with the money he earned doing odd jobs.
He got introduced to the workers’ struggle as a little boy when he was assigned the job of pasting posters of workers’ movements on walls across the city. He became a teacher in the same school he worked in as a peon. He passed his matriculation at 32, and his poetry blossomed along the way.
Surve’s awareness of his creative genius, and, at the same time, his disdain for his working-class life (he was not one of those who glorified it), are amply expressed in his poems. “Aisa ga mi Brahma, vishwacha adhaar, kholis lachar hakkachiya, (I am like Brahma, the creator of the universe, but deprived of a home of my own),” he wrote. He described his struggle, saying, “Bhakricha chandra shodhnyatach zindagi geli (I spent my life looking for bread).”
The poet, who never went to college, is best remembered for his book, Majhe Vidyapeeth (My University). Mumbai’s underbelly was his classroom.
The stark ironies of life hit Surve at various junctures. A sex worker once came to his school, asking him to admit her son and give him his name —something Gangaram Surve had done for the poet years ago. This became the plot for one of Surve’s most widely read poems, Master tumchach nav liva (Sir, please give him your name).
The women in his poetry were strong and independent, with a spirit to nurture. The ‘aai’ (mother) in his writings is a mill worker who works hard but ensures her children are taken to the Dussehra fair. Surve always missed his mother. His famous poem, Aai, ends with the line: ‘Aadhich navhte kaahi, aata aai dekhil nahi’ (I was already empty-handed, now I don’t even have a mother)’.
Surve gave a definitive turn to Marathi poetry, which was largely romantic, Brahminical and withdrawn from reality. He brought in the mill workers’ lingo. “Kamgar ahey mi talapti talwar ahey, Saraswatano thoda gunha karnar ahey, (I am a worker, a shining sword, Oh gentry, I’m going to commit a few sins),” he wrote. He described his way of life saying: “Jasa mi jinyaat ahey tasach mi shabdaat ahey (My words reflect the way I live).”
Surve spent his last years in Nashik, with images of a Mumbai where mills had still not given way to malls.
(Ketan Vaidya is a Marathi poet)