May 31, 2020
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Verses That Change

The lives of Shaukat and Kaifi Azmi frame a broader cultural ferment, a shared vision for a better world

Verses That Change
Verses That Change
Kaifi And I: A Memoir
By Shaukat Azmi Translated By Nasreen Rehman
Zubaan | 176 pages | Rs 295

It was all alone that I’d started towards the goal/People kept pouring in and it swelled into a caravan.

She has lived though turbulent times. She has seen the country fight for and secure Independence. She was associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement (founded in 1936) and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (set up in 1942). She acted in scores of IPTA productions and in films like Umrao Jaan (1981) and Bazaar (1982). In short, she is a ‘career woman’ who is able not only to equal  men but even to outstrip them in fields considered male preserves. She is the Hyderabad-born Shaukat Kaifi.

Charlotte and Emily Bronte represented women in novels which are more emotionally mature than any written by contemporary men. When it comes to acting in theatre and films, one can say the same about Shaukat. Highly versatile, she had the ability to weld instruction and entertainment and the skill required for the production of a first-rate play.

This book is much more than the life of a hugely talented woman. It is family history, with the figure of Kaifi Azmi looming large. He was a leading Urdu poet, bold and outspoken. He sang of the joys and pains of the peasant and the mill worker. Without false modesty, he was realistic about his work and himself. With his head held high and his voice commanding respect and attention, he doggedly fought for many causes. A quintessential Communist, he exposed pretences, weighed everything anew and voiced human sufferings and aspirations. He not only hated oppression but also convention; hence, he bequeathed to his family a radical and eclectic inheritance.

Kar chale ham fida  jan-o-tan sathiyon
Ab tumhare havale watan sathiyon

(We have sacrificed our lives and our souls, comrades,
Now the country is in your custody, comrades.)

In his poems, he presented with fervour a variety of opinions other than his own. The brutal religious hypocrisy of the Hindutva brigade was the most disgusting and deadly in Kaifi’s eyes.

Other than a memoir of a talented woman, Kaifi and I contains family history and paints an idealistic age with a broad brush.

Profiles of Shabana, the daughter, and Javed Akhtar, the son-in-law, enhance the value of this book. Imagine Javed ‘jumping and climbing all over the chairs’ at the Progressive Writers’ Conference in Bhiwandi! He may have some difficulty repeating his performance. Think of Shabana on hunger-strike in May 1986 as an expression of solidarity with slum-dwellers in Colaba, Mumbai. Read Javed Akhtar’s moving and emotionally dignified poem on his father-in-law. This book reveals the intellectual affinities of these two with utmost clarity.

There is much more than that. The atmosphere and social interrelations are painted with a broad brush. Zohra Sehgal, Habib Tanvir, Majaz and A.K. Hangal are all striking and highly accomplished personalities, who represented at a historical moment the realisation of the socialist ideal. Although theatre in Mumbai had already acquired legitimacy, they opened the doors of the stage and let life in. With changes in verbal, emotional and intellectual contents, playwrights were much less concerned with making the theatre a refuge from reality. They flourished under the benign shadow of the Prithvi Theatre.

The Progressive Writers’ Movement stirred the indignation of many intellectuals. They began the series of assaults on social abuses, to be aimed at the brutalities of officialdom, bogus education, law courts, and government departments. This book profiles how they soldiered on, sharing Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s hope: ‘The hour of the deliverance of eye and heart has not arrived/Come, come on, for that goal has still not arrived.’

Kaifi and I mirrors the joy and expectancy of an era—boisterous, buoyant, full of optimism—and its creative expression in poetry, films and theatre. Yet, the best passages are those for which the author’s emotional experiences with Kaifi provided the basic material.

With its calm and evocative prose, this is an astonishingly well-constructed autobiography. It will make its way by the force of its honesty and conviction.

Our hands moulded new forms and we did not tire
When we embellished our creations
We built the walls higher and higher
As we decorated doorways and arches.

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