When Cultural Medallion winner K.T.M. Iqbal's father was a young man living in Tamil Nadu's Kadayanallur, he was one of many Indians who admired the great poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, renowned for penning the famous Indian patriotic song, Sare Jahan Se Accha. So, when this young man was blessed with a son, he named him Iqbal in the poet's honour.
Eleven years later, the boy and his father moved to Singapore after tragedy struck the family. An epidemic had killed the boy's mother and three younger brothers. It was a testing time for father and son when they moved to Singapore in 1951. The young Iqbal, who had only two years of schooling till then, enrolled in the Umar Pulavar Tamil School but he lasted only a few months. He had to take up different kinds of jobs to keep himself going.
Recalling those early days, Mr Iqbal, now 74, told tabla! how hungry and sick he was before landing in Singapore. He did not even own a proper pair of footwear. He worked hard to build a career. Despite these adversities, what strikes one about Mr Iqbal is the cheerful way with which he recalls life's trials.
From working as an office boy to holding a clerk's job to, finally, retiring as a bank executive at Schroder Investment Management (Singapore), Mr Iqbal values every experience that shaped him into the person that he is today.
It was only after his marriage and the arrival of his firstborn in 1963 that he decided to pursue his studies again. His decision to study amused his family and friends alike and they teased him endlessly. He says with a laugh: "I never listened to anybody. I did what I had to do as I realised early on that only an education could help me progress and support my family in the long run."
In the same year, the People's Action Party (PAP) initiated the Adult Education Board. This gave him a chance to go back to school and finish his education. He attended evening classes after a regular day of work. He tried to motivate his peers to join him. Some tried but eventually dropped out due to circumstances.
His undying enthusiasm and ambition helped him get through those tough years.
His hard work paid off when he received his Senior Cambridge Certificate in 1968. He upgraded his skills by learning book-keeping and was offered a job in Schroder Investment Management (Singapore). He stayed there till he retired 25 years later as a bank executive. He still speaks fondly of his boss and colleagues who made his work life happy.
When the financial crisis happened in 1997, he was given a choice between working for a lower wage or leaving with a lump sum of money. He chose the latter as he felt he needed a slower pace of life and to relax, since his five sons were all grown up and settled.
Poetic pursuits and inspiration
His interest in poetry came about in his teens after reading the poems of Mathithasan, who used to contribute regularly in the Malaya Nanban, a Tamil daily of that time. Some years later he signed up for a poetry-writing workshop to learn the basics of classical Tamil poetry. The workshop was held by the Tamil Murasu newspaper in conjunction with a poetry contest that it ran regularly. Many of the poems he wrote were published in Tamil Murasu.
Writing came easily to him as he never had to think too hard for words to fill his page. Time was never an issue either. He recently told The Straits Times: "I would sit on the streets in the evening to write or an idea might come when I was on the bus."
He writes both in traditional and free verse. "It took me only 15 minutes to pen the Thaneer poem." When he first wrote the Thaneer poem, he approached his wife for her feedback. His wife Aisha Beevi liked the poem. But she did not always like the first draft of his poems.
He said proudly: "She was a good listener and was intelligent; she also gave neutral feedback. If she liked my poem, she would say it and if she did not like it, she would tell me openly as well. Sometimes, she wouldn't be able to appreciate the poem because of the words or language I used. So, every time I wrote a poem, I kept her in mind as the reader and simplified the language."
His wife died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 66.
His writings include seven collections of poetry and he has contributed essays and short stories to magazines and newspapers, as well as lyrics to more than 200 children's songs for Radio Singapore programmes in the 1970s and 1980s. His poems have appeared in MRT stations and trains as part of efforts to bring the arts closer to the community.
Some of his poems were translated into English and published in The Evening Numbers & Other Poems (2008). Mr Iqbal's poems are also in prescribed textbooks for Singapore students.
His literary output has won him numerous awards over the years. In 2001 he was awarded the Singapore Literature Prize. The same year he also won the S.E.A (South-east Asian) Write Award.
Mr Iqbal believes that social media can continue to sustain the interest of youngsters in the Tamil language. Said Mr Iqbal: "The first Tamil book of poetry was published 130 to 140 years ago." Even today, Tamil poetry is appreciated by the local community. According to him, in today's society, social media sites like Facebook are good avenues to showcase one's artistic talents as it reaches a wider audience.
"Previously," he shared, "20 to 30 of us used to e-mail our poems to each other and comment on them. The Internet has helped as my friends in New Zealand, Canada, India and Malaysia can read my poems. It definitely gives one more opportunity to share one's work."
Surprisingly, Mr Iqbal never exposed his sons to the literary arena in their younger days nor did he discuss his poems with them. He strongly believed that an education was crucially important, and he wanted them to focus on that alone. He confessed: "Poetry and imagination are only a part of life."
Nevertheless, today all his family members are proud of his achievements. His grandson, who is currently studying in Primary 2, saw him on television and told him: "I am proud of you, Grandpa." In fact, his grandson wrote a little poem to congratulate his grandfather.
When he spoke about how Singapore shaped his identity, he recounted the strenuous journey he and his father undertook to escape the life they had in India. He reminisced on the day they landed in Singapore. With a twinkle in his eyes, he said: "We were happy. We got good food to eat and good clothes. Back in India, due to the sickness I had, I was limping. But, once I landed in Singapore, the limp magically vanished."
From then on, there was no turning back for young Iqbal and his father as Singapore became their home. You can sense his pride and happiness when he talks about how Singapore changed his life. "All my sons are here. I love Singapore and feel so rooted here." His love for Singapore is reflected in his words and poems that paint different perspectives of the place he now calls "home".
Mr Iqbal lives with his two sons. In his spare time, he meets his old friends during the evenings, goes on the Internet, writes poems and reads the newspapers.
Remembering Iqbal the poet, philosopher and politician
He gave himself a year to produce a piece of work on the life of Allama Muhammad Iqbal which, according to the author Zafar Anjum, was a fraction of the time taken by his favourite non-fiction writers like William Dalrymple and Patrick French.
Mr Anjum, a journalist, writer, publisher and film-maker from India who currently works as an online editor and lives in Singapore, recently published the book, Iqbal - The Life Of A Poet, Philosopher And Politician. Launched on Nov 15 by the Institute of South Asian Studies, the book focuses on the lesser-known facts of Allama Muhammad Iqbal's life.
Speaking to tabla!, Mr Anjum revealed when the germ of an idea took root in his mind. He said: "Two years ago when I read Pankaj Mishra's book, From The Ruins Of The Empire, I saw that he had treated Iqbal on a par with Tagore in playing a seminal role in the anti-colonial movement of Asia. That gave me the impetus to write a biography of this neglected poet-philosopher. Iqbal is a shared heritage of South Asia and, in fact, for the whole of mankind. He was a universal poet and he speaks to all of us."
This further strengthened his resolve to pen a book about the lesser-known poet-philosopher. He says: "My aim was to narrate Iqbal's life like a novel so that the common man, who might be curious about the poet who wrote Sare Jahan Se Accha, gets to have a glimpse into Iqbal's life."
He also revealed: "I was always curious to know how a patriotic poet like Iqbal, a votary of Hindu-Muslim unity, turned into the spiritual father of Pakistan. What caused this change in him?"
Looking back at the challenges he faced in researching and writing the book, Mr Anjum confessed: "One, I did not have access to a lot of research material because of my location in Singapore; two, I did not have enough funds to travel and do first-hand research that is required for a project like Iqbal. I didn't even know where to turn to for such help. And three, I didn't have enough time for the project. I wish I had had four to five years to devote to Iqbal!"
While doing research, what fascinated the writer most about Iqbal's life was his personal life - his intellectual friendships with two young women, Atiya Begum in Cambridge University and Emma Wegenast, his German tutor in Heidelberg.
Said Mr Anjum: "He had three wives and he faced myriad issues living a double life as a poet and lawyer/politician."
The writer was instantly drawn to Iqbal's human side as his poems were a mere reflection of this sensibility, especially the noteworthy poem he wrote in memory of his mother that reiterated that Iqbal was not afraid of revealing his emotional self in his work.
In today's fast-paced globalised economy, Mr Anjum felt there was a dire necessity for youngsters to know about Iqbal and his universal message for the world. Mr Anjum said: "Iqbal was a universal poet. His message for everyone is the message of action. Like Tagore, Iqbal believed in the synthesis of the East and the West. He rejected excessive materialism which is destroying our global ecosystem."
Iqbal - The Life Of A Poet, Philosopher And Politician is available on Amazon.com for $34.19.
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