Writing Tamil poetry on the bus

His affection for poetry is clear from the way he speaks about the literary art form.

Tamil poet KTM Iqbal (left), 74, says: "My first love is poetry. We have been together for 60 years. I never imagined this would bring me the Cultural Medallion award."

The comment leaves his eyes pink and moist. He purses his lips for seconds to compose himself.

The father of five sons turns poignant again at the mention of his wife of 48 years, Aisha Beevi. She was the first person he recited his poems to after he penned them.

She died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 66.

He says: "She is very neutral in her feedback. Sometimes she will tell me, 'You better don't send this out' and sometimes she will say, 'Nobody can write like this', which is an over-statement, but it comes from her heart."

The mostly self-taught poet received little formal education until his early 20s.

The eldest of four children, he lost his mother and three brothers at a young age to cholera in his birthplace, Kadayanallur, in South India. In 1951, at the age of 11, he emigrated to Singapore with his labourer father.

He had two years of elementary education before starting work as an office boy in an audit firm. He knew enough Tamil to read and write in the language and eager to learn, turned to books and newspapers at Indian community libraries.

It was the now- defunct Tamil newspaper Malaya Nanban that introduced him to the simple but evocative compositions of Tamil poet Mathithasan. The poet's vivid depiction of people and values in society inspired the young Iqbal to start penning poems.

He signed up for a poetry-writing workshop to learn the basics of Venpa, a form of classical Tamil poetry. The class was held by the Tamil Murasu newspaper in conjunction with a poetry contest that it ran regularly. His submissions to the contest were frequently published.

He says: "I would sit on the streets in the evening to write or an idea might come when I was on the bus."

He wrote through marriage and fatherhood, through night classes for his Senior Cambridge exam and his work as a bank executive for share registration.

His prolific writing covers everything from social issues to everyday experiences and includes seven collections of poetry, contributions of poems, essays and short stories to magazines and newspapers, as well as the lyrics to more than 200 children's songs for Radio Singapore programmes in the 1970s and 1980s.

His Tamil poems are studied in schools here and some of them have appeared in MRT stations and trains as part of efforts to bring the arts closer to the community.

While the retired bank executive continues to pen poems, he hopes to dedicate his energy, as well as the grant from the Cultural Medallion award, to put together an edited collection of his best Tamil poems and an English translation of it.

He says of the award: "The money once spent is gone. But to have the nation recognise your contribution is great and it will encourage people to keep writing poetry."

This article was first published on October 16, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.