08 June 2010

Kaifi & I - Review

Author: Shaukat Azmi (translated by Nasreen Rehman)
Pages: 158
Publishers: Zubaan
Price: Rs 295

Kaifi & I is a memoir by Shaukat Azmi that brings alive the momentous times and life of illustrious poet and lyricist, Kaifi Azmi, the man with whom she spent over half a century.

While her own personal journey makes for a compelling read, the book's greater achievement is that it nimbly blends together the personal with the political. So even though it is a love story at the core, it is also a wonderful documentation of many other things; like the communist movement which Kaifi was an active part of; the glorious legacy of the still thriving Prithvi theatre; the Progressive Writers Association, which believed that artistes could bring about change in society with the power of their art.

Shaukat's description of her early childhood life is delightful. These parts offer a rich and colourful portrait of Hyderabadi affluence in pre-Independence times, where the elites and upper middle class families revelled in their lavish lifestyles. The girls - always careful to be decorous and immaculately turned out - pampered themselves with beauty treatments all day. Again, the cuisine was elaborate, with the choicest of lip-smacking delicacies laid out. Shaukat pens down these portions with great nostalgic gusto. Nasreen Rehman, who translated the book into English, has retained many of the original Urdu words in the text, so that one gets a perfect sense of the elegance and exquisiteness that permeated this world.

"Surrounded by the fragrance of kevra, khas and agar, and radiant in their colourful khara dupattas, Hyderabadi girls were like creatures from a fairytale world - and I delighted in being one of them."

While one part of Hyderabad were wealthy and comfortable, the majority was poor and oppressed. Shaukat notes that this could be the first seeds sown towards the Telangana movement.

Vivacious and graceful, it is love at first sight for young Shukat when she meets Kaifi Azmi, an emerging poet and member of the communist movement, at a mushaira (poetry session). The fact that Kaifi is bold enough to recite a poem about monarchy and injustice in the Nizam land impresses Shaukat no end. She's also utterly charmed by his handsome looks. Kaifi too reciprocates to Shaukat's alluring good-looks, and soon they are headlong in love. The family objects, and is not keep to allow her to marry a struggling artist. But seeing her despondent state, Shaukat's father takes her to Kaifi's home in Bombay to judge for herself whether she wants a life of hardship without regular income. Shaukat takes the plunge and what follows is a bitter-sweet journey of little joys, hopes and disappointments.

The couple is always short of money, as per Shaukat, and it is not until Kaifi's last few years before he died in 2002 that they lived in relative style in his native village in UP. Earlier, to suppliment the family income, Shaukat joined the Prithvi theatre, run by the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor, referred as 'Papaji', who she describes as a great man, wonderfully accommodating and generous.
She also recounts with vididness and warmth the years she spend at the Commune (where Kaifi and all the comrades stayed) in Bombay, a humble but picturesque residence.

It's rather amusing how Shaukat introduces her elder celebrity daughter in the book. "At a quarter to three, on the morning of 18 September, Madam Shabana arrived" She describes Shabana as a bright girl, very hyper-sensitive. It seems Shabana was convinced her mother loved her younger brother Baba more and tried to poison herself as a kid!
The final chapters where Shaukat and Kaifi go back to the latter's native village, Mijwan is another high-point in the book.

There's a certain provincial naivete to all of Shaukat's descriptions. All through the book Kaifi comes across as a soft-spoken and compassionate person, and Shaukat treats her artist-husband with tender affection referring to him as 'the poor darling' etc Yet, as a reader, you don't get a definite sense of the relationship they shared nor does Shaukat go into too many details of their marital life. Apart from their financial troubles, she stresses that they had a very satisfying conjugal union.
One sore point is that all of Kaifi's poems recounted in the book have been translated in English. It would have been nice to see some of the original Urdu verses, along with the meanings in English.

Yet, for its various anecdotes and rich period details, Kaifi & I is a highly readable book. Moreover, it is evocative of a time of artistic excellence, and conscientious commitment to society.

- Sandhya Iyer

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