May 13, 2021
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Kaifi, My Father

Shabana Azmi spoke to Nandini Lal on her father -- Kaifi Azmi the poet, the activist, and the man.

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Kaifi, My Father
Madhu Kapparath
Kaifi, My Father

Do Kaifi the father and Kaifi the poet mean very different things to you?
I take him completely for granted as a father. But I keep being astounded by his work as a poet. The strong imagery, the optimism, the careful choice of words.

When I was young, I was delightfully vague about what my father did. I used to think a poet is a euphemism for someone who does no work! I couldn’t understand what this man was all about. Other people’s fathers went to office. This one never wore a suit and tie. I used to call him Abba and not Daddy.

What is a poet? How can you take a man who stays at home in pajamas and sits at his desk all day seriously? Bhai, bahar jao, kuchh kaam-vaam karo, phir wapas aao. [Go out, do some work-shirk, then come back]. So I used to fib to my friends about what he was doing. My friends saw his name in the papers. It was only then that I preened and fluttered and said, my father has something none of you ever had, and IMMEDIATELY owned him!

But it was actually in school when I began reading Keats and Tennyson that I understood what a poet he truly was, and started relating to his poetry.

So who’s his best critic?
Both my mother and me. We are extremely vocal. My brother and father are the quiet ones.

My father and I have had this special relationship since I was nine. I would be the first person he would share his most difficult poem with, which in me created a tremendous sense of adulthood, a confidence that my opinion was valued. So if I questioned any word of his - never the meaning, only the sound - he’d always change it. This remains till today.

But surely you were too young then?
You know, Javed (Akhtar) has a very interesting observation. He says people who don’t know the language fully can in fact make the best critics, because they can respond to phonetics in a way that others can’t.

Which of his works have inspired you the most?
, about the construction worker who builds mansions and is homeless. Aurat, an alltime favourite, written 50 years ago. When women were supposed to sit at home, he dared to say, Uth meri jaan, mere saath chalnaa hai tujhey. Doosra Banwas on 6th December. Communalism is his biggest bete noire.

You’ve deliberately chosen from his activist material just now. You’re your father’s daughter, aren’t you?
Oh, totally! Everything I am is because of him. One’s involvement is so much a part of one’s upbringing. When I look at the three main issues I’m working on, I can see there’s a poem of Kaifi saab leading me on.

Kaifi has protested against the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas with as much vigour as he protested the VHP’s role in Ayodhya. Do you feel every artist must have a social conscience?
I think an artist is under threat. Any attack on pluralism and multiculturalism is an attack on him. These people are saying, only if you conform will you belong, otherwise you’re an outsider. This straitjacketing attacks his right to freedom of self-expression. So it is the artist who reacts to communalism the most. He is not willing to yield his space, his freedom to the dictates of a fascist way of thinking.

I think for Kaifi saab it is particularly painful because he has seen partition -- the pain, the horror. He was in the frontlines of the freedom struggle. As Faiz wrote, woh intezaar thaa jiskaa, yeh woh sahar to nahiiN . To deal with all that, and then settle down and suddenly see this attack all over again is deeply frightening.

He belonged to an era that believed that art should be used as an instrument of social change.

When your father won the Millennium awards, Dilip Kumar said, "Yeh bachcha yateem hai". He was speaking about Urdu being an orphan language.
Urdu has been deliberately removed as part of a conspiracy against Pakistan. There has been a systematic attempt to make Urdu a language of religion rather than of a region. Though it was being sidelined, interestingly, it was Hindi cinema that became a custodian of Urdu writers. Writers in Hindi cinema are all Urdu speaking people: whether Hindu or Muslim didn’t matter.

Zamaanaa badaltaa jaa raha hai. Zabaan badaltii jaa rahi hai. [The world is changing, the language is changing]. There is a united effort being made to compress identity into the narrow confines of the religion one was born into. Because it’s being done with the intention of political benefit, those from the world of culture must react unitedly against it. Aap rajniitii kii game khelo, hum artist ki baat kar rahe hain. [You play the game of politics, we are talking of the artist]. People are not so concerned with politics but they are with culture, because culture is something they are brought up in. Hindustan kii joh Ganga-Jamna tehzeeb hai, yeh isski sachchai hai. [The Ganga-Yamuna culture of India is its truth.]

And then there’s the Sanskritisation of the news in Hindi.
Yes, yes. DD uses completely artificial Hindi. Equally in Pakistan, the official Urdu is completely artificial one. Na woh Urdu koi bolta hai, naa yeh Hindi koi bolta hai. To joh Hindustaniyat hai usko barqaraar rakhnaa bahut zaroorii hai. [Nobody speaks that Urdu or this Hindi. That which is Indian is what is essential to sustain]. I’m somebody who grew up in a house valuing words. I cannot be careless about using words.

Of course there are special problems with our script. It is difficult in Roman. So use Devnagari, but use the dot under the "j". Say jahaaz and zindagii, don’t say jahaj and jindagii. Different things can be done with it, but the political will is required.

But during the same Millennium awards ceremony a couple of years ago, didn’t Sheila Dixit reiterate that Urdu is the second official language?
But it’s not just one single thing. Job opportunities have to be there for Urdu teachers. Itni khubsurat zabaan hai. Hamaari hai! [Such a beautiful language it is! It is ours!]

I find it strange, these contradictions: on the one side, you try to finish it off, yet ghazals are becoming more popular. Javed’s two-hour recitations enthrall audiences. So there is curiosity about it. We have to nurture each regional tongue because it is ours.

Isn’t making a language more accessible the best way to nurture it? When Kaifi Azmi turned 85 last year, Penguin brought out his Urdu poems in English. Davidar said you were the spirit behind the book.
It was a big responsibility. Kaifi saab is arguably one of the best Urdu poets. I only took the initiative in looking for a translator. And now look! The response to the book was so overwhelming the moment it came out, we had to go for another edition right away. So there’s always an interest in the language. It does not die.

Yes, but at the same time translation dilutes the essence of the very thing one is attempting to preserve. Do you see any irony there?
It is said that rendering one language into another is like pouring perfume from one bottle into another. However hard you try, some fragrance is bound to escape. So what then is the choice? You attempt as close a translation as possible, and hope it won’t stop at one, that there will be others. All translation’s a loss. But if it weren’t for it, precious books wouldn’t have been accessible to us today. It builds bridges.

Of course, the myths that inform the English reader are not the same as ours. How do you explain sur-e-israfil? [Israfil is the name of an angel who, it is said, will sound the last trumpet at the resurrection; a seraph. So, "the sound of Israfil". -- Ed] But Noah’s ark, Manu ki macchlii, these are acceptable. In this book, there is Devnagari on one side and English on the other.

Kaifi the activist poet. Kaifi the romantic poet. Is the division an untenable one?
You know, I only see my father as the activist poet. I wouldn’t have chosen his film songs in this translation. But the translator insisted it was part of his memory of who Kaifi is. He selected a lot of romantic poetry that hadn’t seeped into my psyche. And I said for the first time, my God, my father is a master of romantic poetry!

But why now? It was his moving Hindi film lyrics, after all, that captured an entire nation’s imagination for all these decades.
Hum log
cinema ko itnaa darzaa hi nahiin dete hain. [We do not give so much importance to Cinema]. You don’t have the freedom, you have to compose around situations. Of course, Javed always says about Abba’s lyrics that even his average in film songs is absolutely extraordinary. The simplicity of the song he wrote for Mahesh’s Arth absolutely kills me.

How old were you when you realized the extent of his success in films? Was it in the 50s, from his early Chaalis Din days, or was it later, when Waheeda sang his "Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam" in Pyaasaa?
Uh-uh. Kagaz Ke Phool. I was nine.

Any favourites among his poems?
Allah, itney saarey hain! Ek taraf sholay ki baat kartaa hai, ek turuf parbat, dusri taraf itni mulayamiyat: [Allah, there are so many of them! He talks of sparks on the one hand and mountains on the other, then again he can be so incredibly soft:]"

"Pyaasii hirnii ban ban dole/ koii shikarii aae re, chorii chorii phandaa daale, baandh pakaR le jaaye re." Kitnaa feminine, meetha, kitna surrender [How feminine, how much of surrender...].

Was he a romantic in real life? Is it true that he wrote letters dipped in blood when he was courting your mother?
Yes. And her father would say, these poets are such frauds, he must have slung a goat across a tree and cut it and then sent its blood to impress you! But my father is a very romantic man. I’m sure that was what attracted my mother to him in the first place.

How did his early communism percolate into his day-to-day life?
I remember living in a commune till I was nine. The money that my father would earn would go to the Communist Party. In fact, my mother had been a radio announcer because he used to get only Rs 50 in his hands. All the rest would go to the Communist party. The Red Flag party hall was our drawing room! Every comrade had just one room each. A little balcony was converted into the kitchen.

When we shifted to Janki Kutir where my mother now lives, we had people like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Firakh Gorakhpuri, Josh Malihabadi as house guests! I had to give up my room. They could have stayed with any industrialists, in hotels, but they didn’t. It taught me that money is not everything. We absorbed the liberal atmosphere by osmosis. We were consulted when decisions were taken.

Is he too old now to do any more social work for his home town? Is he spending these days writing?
He’s a man in a hurry. He lives all alone in his village in Mijwan, Azamgarh where he was born. In the past 15 years, he has brought roads, electricity, three schools and a computer training centre. Now he’s dreaming of building a degree college there. That is all he can think of day and night.

He manages to distance himself from everything else. You saw him at the launch -- it was so important, but still he was an observer. I’ve been to important seminars where scholars discuss his work, but he never basks in it.

Javed Akhtar and Kaifi Azmi are both poets. They say women turn to men who remind them of their fathers!
Ditto, ditto, ditto! Both are feminists, have respect for women, for human rights, they are informed with the same culture. They share the same myths because of the place they came from. Both are also dialogue and lyric writers. It’s amazing, the similarities. It would be impossible for me to marry anyone other than Javed! Of course, there was this big hawwa of Kaifi saab in my life.

But temperamentally, Kaifi saab is shy, Javed loves the limelight.
(Giggles) One thing you have to understand is, the UP male is a very unique being. When the wives of Kaifi, Ali Sardar Jaffri and Javed get together, they discuss the UP male as a species apart!

A deep sense of propriety. Intihaii takalluf-pasand. Zabaan mein bahut tehzeeb. Magar marenge tiir ek sarcasm kaa! [Excessively fond of decorum, ultra refined diction, but wait till their barbs of sarcasm pierce you!] My mother keeps saying, "You UP men! Why can’t you just be angry!"

And what does Kaifi saab have to say to that?
My mother says, why do you UP men have to lace everything with sarcasm? Hamare yahaan isii ko tehzeeb kehte hain, [This is what we call culture in our part of the world] Abba replies. (Laughs)

Their superiority is unbearable. They think that gourmet cuisine begins and ends with UP. My mother is from Hyderabad, that is where I was born. We both love Hyderabadi food. But if the arhar dal ka chammach falls into the khatti dal, Kaifi saab won’t touch the dal till today, after 57 years of marriage!

And Javed is so horrid, he says that if you take UP food and shut it in the cupboard for three days, it gets sour, and then it becomes what you call Hyderabadi food!

Do you recall any instances of Kaifi’s famed Lucknavi wryness? Or of public concerns leaking into the personal?
Let me think. (Pauses.) Three years ago, he had a big operation. He was in deep pain. He was shallow breathing. The doctors and I kept telling him to breathe through his nose and shut his mouth. He opened one small eye and said, "Meraa muNh kyuuN band karwaa rahe ho? MuNh band karwaanaa hai to Bal Thackeray kaa karwaao!" [Why are you shutting my mouth up? If you have to shut someone up, do it to Bal Thackeray] (Laughs till tears come out of her eyes.)

What are your strongest early memories of him?
If my mother was travelling, then we couldn’t be left alone at night. So Baba (my brother) and I used to be taken to mushaayraas when we were little. How long can little children stay awake? He was usually the last to be called on stage. We would always, always wake up to thunderous applause and know -- it’s time now, Abba is reciting.

He used to be at his desk, the radio blaring, everybody screaming. We were never shushed up when he was writing. Nobody said khamosh, khamosh [Silence! Silence!] to our badtamiziyaaN [Bad manners]. When his songs came out, he never brought them home. There was no great celebration of his being a lyricist at all. But I just grew up knowing my father was special.

Any specific childhood images?
A recurring image I have of my parents is of him giving her cues over their morning tea. My mother was rehearsing for Paglii, where she had to play a mad woman. She was given only 10 days to prepare. She was doing her hisaab [accounts] with her dhobi and she started shouting her lines and startled the poor man. He ran away muttering that she was a mad woman. Then in the kitchen, hundi bhunte bhunte [while cooking], she was off again, screaming: Utho girey ho bum key goli! The cook leapt out of the window in fright.

I started weeping. I was nine. I thought I had a mad mother. My father was busy writing but he got up and took me for a walk. He said, "Bete dekho, she’s not gone mad. She’s rehearsing very hard. You are adult enough to accept this. Be proud of her. We have to provide all the support she needs." It was as if a cloud had lifted.

Then when she won the Maharashtra state award, I was hundred percent confident that it was because of MY nine-year-old support that she had won it! I fully participated in her glory. All because of Abba.

You never had problems with his artistic eccentricities the way you had with your mother’s?
I used to go to a convent school. He gave me a black doll. At the age of seven, kiskey samajh mein aataa hai ki black is beautiful! I was miserable. I wanted one with blond hair and blue eyes like everybody else in my class. Only when his name began to spread, I removed the doll I had in my cupboard, and said, see, black is beautiful too!

You’ve never thought of writing the way your father did?
Articles, yes. Poems, no.

So when it came to your vocation, you chose to follow your mother Shaukat Azmi’s footsteps...
See, I was always acting. When I was three, I was taken on stage, Prithviraj Kapoor got my costumes done. I used to accompany my mother to her outdoor shoots. I remember going to sleep with the smell of greasepaint in my nostrils.

What is his response to you as an actress? No qualms at all about your abandoning both theatre and verse for the glamour of celluloid?
My father always said: "If you want to be a cobbler, that’s fine by me. But make the best shoes you possibly can".

When I was going to college, Abba said, "Why are you taking literature, you can read it yourself. If you want to act, then take psychology." Because of our theatre background, I did not think I would be in Hindi cinema. I thought of joining the Berliner Ensemble, NSD. Then the roles came and I drifted into films.

Which of your films does he talk about?
He liked Ek Doctor ki Maut, Khandahar, Arth best.

Is there any moment in his life that you feel sums up all that he stands for?
(Pauses.) Years before, when he had his stroke, he was a handsome man of 51. His face had become crooked. It’s an image that rests with me. He dictated his poem to Shama Zaidi like this (makes her mouth collapse and talks painstakingly through it). It was his famous poem called Zindagii.

[This interview was conducted before Kaifi saab's passing away]

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