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For Abba with Love – by Shabana Azmi

Shabana-and-Abba

shabana-kaifiHe was always different, a fact that didn’t sit too easily on my young shoulders. He didn’t go to ‘office’ or wear the normal trousers and shirt like other ‘respectable’ fathers but chose to wear a white cotton kurta-pyjama 24 hrs of the day. He did not speak English and worse still, I didn’t call him ‘Daddy’ like other children, but some strange sounding ‘Abba’! I learned very quickly to avoid referring to him in front of my school friends and lied that he did some vague ‘business!’ Imagine letting my school friends know that he was a poet. What on earth did that mean – a euphemism for someone who did no work?

Being my parent’s child was for me, unconventional in everyway. My school required that both parents speak English. Since neither Abba nor mummy did, I faked my entry into school. Sultana Jafri, Sardar Jafri’s wife, pretended to be my mother and Munish Narayan Saxena, a friend of Abba’s, pretended to be my father. Once in the 10th std, my vice principal called me and said that she’d heard my father at a recent mushaira and he looked quite different from the gentleman who had come in the morning for Parents’ Day! Understandably I went completely blue in the face and said: “Oh he’s been suffering from typhoid and has lost a lot of weight, you know… and made up some sort of story to save my skin!

It was no longer possible to keep Abba in the closet. He had started writing lyrics for films and one day a friend of mine said that her father had read my father’s name in the newspaper. That did it! I owned him up at once! Of all the 40 children in my class, only my father’s name had appeared in the newspaper! I perceived his being “different” as a virtue for the first time. I need no longer feel apologetic about his wearing a kurta-pyjama! In fact, I even brought out the black doll he had bought me. I didn’t want it when he first gave it to me. I wanted a blonde doll with blue eyes, like all the others had in my class. But he explained, in that quiet gentle way of his, that black was beautiful too and I must learn to be proud of my doll. It didn’t make sense to my 7 year old mind but I had accepted him as ‘weird’ in any case and so I quietly hid the doll. Three years later, I pulled it out as proof that I was a ‘different’ daughter of a ‘different’ father! In fact, I now displayed it with such new found confidence that instead of being sniggered at by my class-mates, I became an object of envy! That was the first lesson he taught me, of turning what is perceived as a disadvantage into a scoring point.

The atmosphere at home was completely bohemian. Till I was 9 years old we lived at Red Flat Hall of the communist party. Each comrade’s family had just one room, the bathroom and lavatory were common. Being party members had re-defined the husband-wife relationship of the whole group. Most wives were working and it became the responsibility of whichever parent was at home, to look after the child. My mother was touring quite a lot with Prithvi Theatres and in her absence Abba would feed, bath and look after both my brother Baba and me, as a matter of course. In the beginning mummy had to take up a job because all the money Abba earned was handed over to the communist party. He was allowed to keep only Rs. 40 per month which was hardly enough for a family of four. But later when we were monetarily better off and had moved to Janki Kutir, mummy continued to work, in the theatre because she loved being an actress. Once she was to participate in the Maharashtra State Competition in the title role of ‘Puglee’. She was completely consumed by the part and would suddenly without warning, launch into her lines in front of the dhobhi, cook etc. I was convinced she’d gone mad and started weeping with fright. Abba dropped his work and took me for a long walk on the beach. He explained that mummy had very little time to rehearse her part and that as family it was our duty to make it possible for her to rehearse her lines as many times as she needed to or else she wouldn’t win the competition– all this to a 9 year old child. It made me feel very adult and very included. To this day, whenever my mother is acting in a new play or new film, my father sits up with her and rehearses her cues.

She participates in his life equally; at a price of course! She fell in love with him because he was a poet. However, she learned soon enough that a poet is essentially a man of the people and she would have to share him with his countless admirers (a large number of them female!) and friends. When I was about 9 yrs old, I remember an evening at a big industrialist’s home. His wife, a typical socialite, announced in a rather flirtatious manner “Kaifi Saheb my usual farmaish – The Do Nigahon Ka something something – You know folks Kaifi Saheb has written this ‘nazm’ in praise of me”….. And Abba, without batting an eyelid, started reciting this poem which was in fact written for my mother. I got completely hysterical and started screaming that the poem was written for my mother and not for this stupid woman. A deathly silence prevailed and my mother said “hush child, hush” but I am sure unke, dil mein laddoo photo rahe the’!. Mummy took me into a corner and said that I wasn’t to take such things to heart – after all ‘Abba’ was a poet and such were his ways – he didn’t seriously mean that the poem was written for this lady etc. I would hear nothing of it. Needless to say, that was a poem Kaifi Azmi could never use again and that woman still hates me!

Amongst his female friends BEGUM AKHTAR was my favourite. She would sometimes stay with us as a houseguest. In fact JOSH MALIHABADI, FIRAQ GORAKHPURI and FAIZ AHMED FAIZ would stay with us too despite there being no separate guest room, not even an attached bathroom. Luxury was never the central concern of these artists; they preferred the warmth of our tiny home to the 5-star comforts available to them. I was fascinated by these mehfils at home. I would sit up in rapt attention, not even half understanding what they recited, but excited nevertheless. Their beautiful words fell like music on my young ears. I found the atmosphere fascinating – the steady flow of conversation, the tinkering of glasses, the smoke-filled room. I was never rushed off to bed; in fact I was encouraged to hang around, provided I took the responsibility for getting up in time for school the next day. It made me feel very grown up and included. Soon I started attending mushairas – Sahir Ludhianvi was popular, Ali Sardar Jafri greatly respected, but Kaifi Azmi had a different magic. He was always amongst the last to recite – his deeply resonant voice pulsating with vigour, drama and power. Baba and I used to be fast asleep on the stage, behind the gao-takiyas and would invariably wake up to the thunderous applause that resonated each time his name was announced. I never saw him either surprised or flattered by the applause. In fact, to my mother’s despair, he would never come home and tell her how the mushaira went. A non-commital ‘Theek tha’ was all she could extract from him. Years later when I was about eighteen, I remember prodding him to tell me which ‘nazm’ he had recited and what the audience response was like. My mother said briefly “Don’t even try; he’s not going to tell you. Over the years I have trained myself to bury my curiosity in a newspaper when Kaifi comes back from a mushaira” I would have none of that- I sat across Abba’s chest and tickled him pink till he said,

“CHICHORE LOG APNI TAREEF KARTE HAIN
JIS DIN BURA PADHOONGA, AAKE BATA DOONGA”

He has never treated his work as special. Even when he came back from a song recording, he never brought the cassette back home. A far cry from young lyricists today, who subject all their guests to their latest song, goading them to say ‘Wah-Wah’! He never actually puts pen to paper till the night of the deadline – then there is a furious cleaning of drawers, numerous letters that get replied to, a number of inconsequential things that get attended to – I’m sure the creative process is occurring simultaneously over the radio blaring, children laughing, children’s friends over, ‘taash’ going on in the house; The family is never made to hush up because he is writing-infact the door of his study is always open so he can keep in touch with the outside world as well. I once changed the position of his desk away from the door because I felt he needed greater privacy. Mummy protested he would hate it. Came evening time and predictably Abba had made her change it back to the original position. He writes only with a MONTBLANC pen and has a huge collection of them. Every now and again, he takes them all out, looks at them lovingly and then puts them back under lock and key. When a friend of mine presented me one. Abba pinched it although he possessed 3 identical ones and wrote my friend a ‘cute’ letter giving reasons for why the pen was safer with him than with me!

For long years now, Abba has managed to make an ass of me on April fool’s day. He thinks up new and inventive pranks and invariably I get fooled. I start planning from the middle of March that this year I’m not going to be had, but for some strange reason, come 1st of April and I get a thought block. I’m waiting for the day when the joke will be on him! Few people know that he has a tremendous sense of humour and can be a first rate mimic. He can laugh repeatedly at the family jokes and makes mummy act out incidents he finds funny again and again. He laughs till tears spill out of his eyes. Looking at his serious face, could anyone believe that!

I was once trying to put his eye drops for him. He has the tiniest little eyes in the world and would blink furiously, every time I touched them. Inevitably the drops would spill over to his nose or ear. Suddenly, he held my hand and started narrating a tale. “There was a young prince once who was the despair of his father’s life because he could do nothing well. The king finally found a marksman who swore he would turn the young prince into a skilled archer. After about six months the prince decided to display his skill-swish, swosh went his arrows all over the room, and felled everything within sight except the marked target. Finally the king and the teacher decided the only way they could be safe was to stand right in the centre of the target – because that was the only place the prince’s arrow would never reach!” When I looked at Abba quizzically to figure out what the story meant, he said with a straight face, “Apni taraf se tum eye drops mere kaan mein dalo, aankh mein khud-ba-khud pahunch jayenge!”

He is very fond of good food and cannot eat a meal without ‘gosht’. He’s hugely ‘superior’ about being an UPite and will not condescend to eat Hyderabadi food, even though mummy has tried to cajole him over the 52 years they’ve been married! Each time we eat Khatti dal, a separate ‘arhar ki dal’ is cooked for him and woe betide the person who unmindfully picks up the khatti dal ka spoon to serve him his arhar ki dal! He never serves himself and you are never to ask him what he would like to eat. Mummy’s trained eye knows almost by a process of osmosis, what he should be served and in what quantity. When I protest that this is dadagiri mummy says she was warned by her mother in law that unless she served him, he would get up from the table hungry rather than open his mouth and say yeh cheez aur chahiye! The only time he does ask for more is when I cook something. Unfortunately, cooking is not one of my talents and the family runs for miles if they’re made to suffer the or -deal of my cooking. But Abba behaves as though he is tasting the best of Avadh’s culinary delicacy! He fools nobody but I get touched nevertheless.

There is much that he and Javed have in common – both have a strong sense of propriety, are extremely takkaluf-pasand and cannot brook mediocrity – Both are hugely political animals. I used to deliberately stay away from politics and pride myself on not reading the newspaper as a reaction against all the politics that were discussed constantly in the house. But when I got involved with Javed and heard him and Abba have their discussions, ( I used to listen from a distance ) I gradually started taking a deeper interest – In discovering Javed I was rediscovering Abba, getting in touch once again with Urdu poetry and passionate politics realizing how deep into my father’s ways, my roots were.

I got involved with Javed a married man – my mother was very unhappy about it. All my well-wishers also predicted disaster for the two of us. All around me there was tremendous pressure to break up with Javed – with my heart pounding I turned to Abba “Do you think Javed is the wrong man for me?” “He is not wrong, his circumstances are” came the reply.” But what if he can change the circumstances?” Trust me, the marriage was over long before I came into the scene” I said quietly. There were no further questions asked, he didn’t probe, didn’t want to know the details of what that meant. He trusted me enough to take me for my word and gave me his blessings. That was one of the most momentous decisions of my life – had Abba truly said no, wonder if I would have had the courage to defy him – not because I’m frightened of him but because in the most personal of matters he can be relied upon to make the most objective judgment.

When I opened my eyes in the world, the first colour I saw was red. My parents were living at the Red Flag Hall and – A huge red flag used to greet visitors at the entrance. It was only later that I realized Red was the colour of the worker, of revolution. My childhood was spent traveling with my mother’s Prithvi theatre on one hand, and mazdoor kisan meetings in Madanpura with my father – there used to be Red banners everywhere, a lot of nare-bazi and a lot of protest poetry. As a child I was only interested in these rallies because the mazdoors pampered me. Imperceptibly however, my roots were catching soil. Today when I’m at a demonstration, participating in a padyatra or in a hunger strike, it is merely an extension of what I saw happening as a child. On the 4th day of the hunger strike my blood pressure started falling and my mother was besides herself with fear – Abba, who was in Patna, sent me a telegram saying BEST OF LUCK COMRADE!

On the eve of leaving for the padyatra for commral harmony from Delhi to Meerut, I went to say good bye to the family. I was nervous and uncertain. I had been amply warned that it was very dangerous for an actress to be roaming the streets of U.P – my clothes would be ripped off, stones would be thrown etc. The whole family was reflecting the tension. Mummy, Baba, his wife Tanvi and Javed were all hovering around me but not saying a word-I walked into Abba’s room and hugged him from behind. He pulled me up in front of him and said “ARRE MERI BAHADUR BETI, DAR RAHI HAI? JAO, TUMHE KUCHCH NAHIN HOGA” His eyes were completely fearless. It was as though a fresh burst of oxygen had been pumped into my blood-stream. Needless to add, the padyatra was a big success. It was yet another instance of my having relied on his judgement and passing the test with flying colours.

As a father, I have always taken Abba for granted, but as a poet I continue to be overwhelmed by his work. I cannot claim to know or even understand all his work but I find his poetry striking for its strong imagery, its sheer power and its broadness of vision. His most personal problem transcends itself in a much larger vision so that his struggle no longer remains his own, but becomes the struggle of all human beings. Whether it’s my work with slum dwellers or women or against communalism, there’s always a nazm of Abba’s to guide me, to inspire me to carry on the struggle. Thus “Makaan”, “Aurat” and “Bahroopni” have become the pillars on which rests my work.

He is one of the few who has practiced what he preaches. There is no dichotomy between word action. I have grown up believing that merely good intentions are not enough – you have to translate them into action.

It is impossible to arrive at any understanding of Kaifi Azmi, unless you include his work for MIJWAN, the tiny village in AZAMGARH where he was born and has now decided to spend the rest of his life.

Abba, who had left MIJWAN in his teens, returned briefly to it when he married mummy and had his first child (a son who died at the age of one) Soon after partition, his family migrated to Pakistan one by one and he felt his roots in MIJWAN had been severed forever. However, in 1973, upon partially recovering from his brain haemmorage, his left side still severely damaged, he started chanting the name ‘MIJWAN’with such persistence that my mother was forced to take him there. It turned out to be an amazing trip for him. He realized that MIJWAN was and would always remain the place where he belonged. The house he was born in was occupied by various distant cousins and it would have been unfair to throw them out (the communist theory of the tiller owning the land) As I said earlier, there has been no dichotomy in his life. The poet who 45 years ago had challenged women in his nazm ‘Aurat’.

“ZINDAGI JEHAD MEIN HAI, SABR KE QABU MEIN NAHIN
NABZE-E-HASTI KA LAHU KANPTE AANSOO MEIN NAHIN
UDNE KHULNE MEIN HAI NAKKHAT, KHAM-E-GESU MEIN NAHIN
JANNAT IK AUR HAI JO MARD KE PEHLU MEIN NAHIN
USKI AZAD RAVISH PAR BHI MACHALNA HAI TUJHE
UTH MERI JAAN MERE SAATH HI CHALNA HAI TUJHE “

Had in life, encouraged both his wife and daughter to become self-reliant and seek self fulfillment. The poet who pointed out the irony of the construction worker being turned out of the very building he had built in ‘MAKAAN’……

“BAN GAYA QASR TO PEHRE PE KO BAITH GAYA
SO RAHE KHAQ PE HUM SHORISH-E-TAMEER LIYE
APNI NAS NAS MEIN LIYE MEHNAT E PEHAM KI THAKAN
BAND ANKHON MEIN ISI QASR KI TASVEER LIYE
DIN PIGHALTA HAI IS TARAH SARON PAR AB TAK
RAAT ANKHON MEIN KHATAKTI HAI SIYAH TEER LIYE
AAJ KI RAAT BAUHAT GARM HAWA CHALTI HAI
AAJ KI RAAT NA FOOTPATH PE NEEND AAYEGA
SAB UTHO, MAIN BHI UTHOON, TUM BHI UTHO, TUM BHI UTHO
KOI KHIDKI ISEE DEEWAR MEIN KHUL JAYEGA “

…has continued to live in a rented house in Bombay. The poet who wrote ‘BAHROOPNI’ a frightening poem on communalism, was out there marching on the streets in Ayodhya, during the height of the Babri Masjid – Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, while others were content to condemn the upsurge of communalism at cocktail parties or 5 star seminars!

This is the story of a man who has lived his life fully and at 82 is raring to go! When he had his paralytic stroke on that fateful day of February 8th 1973, we thought his work would have to take a back seat. 5 days after coming out of his coma, barely able to speak, he dictated the poem ‘DHAMAKA’ to Shama Zaidi, describing the explosion of his brain haemmorage. A month later he had written, whilst still in hospital, the poem ZINDAGI. It starts with a man lying on his death-bed.

“AAJ ANDHERA MERI NAS NAS MEIN UTAR JAYEGA
ANKHEN BUJH JAYENGI BUJH JAYENGE EHSAS-O-SHAOOR
AUR YE SADIYON SE JALTA SA SULAGTA SA WAJOOD
ISSE PEHLE KE MERI BETI KE WHO PHOOL SE HAATH
GARM RUKSHAR KO THANDAK BAQSHEIN
ISSE PEHLE KE MERE BETE KA MAZBOOT BADAN
JAN-E-MAFLOOJ MEIN SHAKTI BHAR DE
ISSE PEHLE KI MERI BIWI KE HONTH
MERE HONTON KI TAPISH PI JAYEN
RAAKH HO JAYEGA JALTE JALTE
AUR PHIR RAAKH BIKHAR JAYEGI “

The poem, however does not end on a note of despair – it traces man’s struggle over the years to conquer death analyses how religion became a means to conquer his man’s fear of the unknown.

“MAUT LEHRATI THI SAU SHAKLON MEIN
MAINE GHABRAKE HAR SHAKL KO KHUDA MAAN LIYA “

Finally he comes back to the man on the hospital bed, revitalized and invigorated, ready to face life anew.

You find again and again in Kaifi’s poetry, the ability to rise above the personal and encompasses a much larger vision, so that his struggle is not his alone but becomes the struggle of all humanity.

…and grief

(JUNE 10, 2002 )

I look out of the window from Abba’s room — The sky is blue, the grass green , flowers in bloom. I turn back to look inside the room. Books lined neatly on the shelves, his spectacles, writing pad, Mont Blanc Pen lie in wait for pen to be put to paper and new verse to flow —- everything is the way it was — but Abba is not there ——-

Anees Jung, in a letter of condolence to me writes “I know what; the loss of a parent means Shabana. I also know one never loses a parent. In a strange mystical way they become closer in death, for their spirit, no longer trapped in a frail frame becomes all pervasive and surrounds us like the air we breathe. Comforting words no doubt but all I feel is insurmountable grief.

Abba was not only my father, he was my friend, my mentor, my guru. In the last few months of his illiness, as he lay in the ICU with tubes down his stomach, throat and neck, he could not speak and yet we managed to communicate. He would raise his eyebrow, squeeze my hand, indicate with his eyes and I would understand. In the same way that I understand what our grand daughter Shakya wants, although she is not yet able to speak. Abba, in any case was given to long silences. He spoke both through his words and through his silences ……….

He feel silent much before the tubes were physically put into him. The Gujarat carnage shattered him. I would watch him as he looked at the television coverage, face frozen pain. With tears streaming down my eyes I asked ” Don’t you feel frustrated and defeated as you see the mindless killing, the hateful revenge, man killing man in the name of religion? He wiped my tears and said quietly ” when one is working for change, one should bring into that expectation the possibility that change may not occur in one’s life time and yet one must carry on working towards it “

It was his faith, his belief in the innate goodness of man that kept him going through the darkest of times.I am trying hard to keep my faith in his faith

“PYAR KA JASHN NAYEE TARAH MANANA HOGA
GAM KISI DIL MEIN SAHI GAM KO MITANA HOGA “

In the effort of wiping the tears of the victims of the Gujarat carnage and thousands of others who have fallen pray to communal riots, in wiping the tears of slum dwellers constantly displaced by mindless government policies, in wiping the tears of all marginalised sections of society particularly women, can I pay tribute to my father, a giant amongst men?

“KOI TO SOOD CHUKAYE KOI TO ZIMMA LE
US INQUILAB KA JO AAJ TAK UDHAR SA HAI “

You envelope me like the air I breathe Abba. I promise to turn my personal loss into an armour like you had always done, and carry on with the work you left behind. You are watching over us, aren’t you?

… Shabana Azmi