Kaifi Azmi: The End of an Era

Meera Kabir

It was 1998. A time when Mr. Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sainiks decided the fate of every individual who lived in Mumbai. Photographs of respectable people touching Bala Sahib’s feet adorned every publication, journalists who wrote against him could suddenly find their offices vandalized, artistes could have their art destroyed, and even sports clubs were not exempt.

It was, as I said, 1998 and we were marching to protest against another one of those unreasonable acts. Several speakers spoke but one in particular stood out. An old, frail man, wrapped in a shawl, who had to be carried to the dais, who should have been in bed resting after a long, weary struggle but who chose instead to join our protest. He looked wan and weak but when he spoke, his voice rose strong and clear and fearless. A lifetime of living by his convictions giving him the strength to challenge the might of Mr. Thackeray and his gang. That was the last time I saw Kaifi.

It was not, however, the first. I had seen him countless times earlier, at ‘mushairas’, sharing the dais with my grandfather. He would beam with childlike glee when his ‘nazms’ were appreciated, throw a twinkling repartee at a heckler, accept criticism with grace and poise but never, ever change his stance.

Born Akhtar Hussain Rizvi, in an obscure hamlet near Azamgarh, U.P., his family had intended him to become a shia theologian. But Kaifi had other plans and soon proved to be too much of a handful for the seminary he had been sent.

It was a period of intense political turmoil in the history of this country. On one hand was the Mahatma with his philosophy of non-violence, on the other was the rising spectre of communal hatred and violence. And caught in the midst of all this were several brave and idealistic young men and women.

Kaifi, coming from a family of some literary traditions, was naturally drawn to the Progressive Writers’ Movement pioneered by Sajjad Zaheer. Romance and the beauty of a hard-hearted beloved were no longer the only subjects that interested the young poet. He wanted to talk about social justice, about oppression and about the beautiful dream of freedom. He joined the Communist Party and was sent to Bombay to take care of the ‘Qaumi Jung’, an Urdu newspaper taken out by the party. Then came the partition the breaking of a nation that Kaifi and his contemporaries had fought for, made sacrifices for, and tried to build with their blood and sweat. It was a happening so unprecedented, so momentous, so soul-destroying that no one who was caught in the tumult of that moment could escape unscathed. Everyone who could write wrote about human beings turned animals, about the vitriolic hatred which surrounded them and most of all, to lament the breaking of the dream they had all cherished.

The destruction of an ideal is a difficult fact to live with and several of the Progressive Writers gave in to cynicism and despair. But there were still the stalwarts Kaifi, Sardar, Faiz and my own grandfather Ghulam Rabbani Taban, who refused lay down their banner of protest. These people, the hopelessly hopeful, the doggedly determined, turned away from the lure of a soft life and continued in the path they had chosen. It was clear that their fight was still not over and all that they had to guide them was their hope and the burning beacon of their faith. Kaifi wrote :

Ek diya naam ka yakjehti ke,
Roshni is ki jahan tak pahunchi,
Qaum ko ladte-jhigadte dekha,
Maan ke aanchal mein hain jitne paiwand,
Sab ko ek saath ujhadte dekha.

(The lamp which I lit in the name of unity, Wherever its light did fall, it saw people fighting, as if all the mending in a mother’s breast-cloth had come undone at once).

Bujh gaye saare diye,
Haan magar ek diya,
Naam hai jiska ummeed,
Jhilmilaata hi chala jaata hai.

(All the lamps died out, but there was just one lamp, which I had named Hope, which keeps burning on).

But their courage and hope were to be tested again and again. Wars, scandals, the break-up of the Communist Party, affected them deeply but still they carried on. Kaifi, especially was extremely active. As a poet, in Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association and as a whole-timer of the Communist Party, he played many roles with finesse and never faltered once – not in his definition of an ideal India and not in the vigorous style of his poetry. He continued writing, for publication as well as for films. He went so far as to write the entire script of ‘Heer Ranjha’ in verse. He even acted in ‘Naseem’, another film. He wrote beautiful lyrics and he continued to be heard, in every possible forum.

In 1993, when Mumbai was torn by riots in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Kaifi refused to vacate his home in Janki Kutir, Juhu. Even when he received threats. Even when a concerned daughter tried to persuade him to do so. He only said that he had full faith in the people of this country nothing would happen to him. And nothing did.

When Gujarat burned while its protectors stood by and watched, Kaifi was ailing and hospitalised. From his deathbed, the old soldier issued a last, anguished battlecry: Suno Jaanbaaz Suno, Meri Awaaz Suno, Pyaar ka Raag Suno.

(Listen O brave-hearted, listen to my voice, listen to the song of Love)

Now, Kaifi is no more. He closed his eyes on the 10th of May, still dreaming of a better India. But his legacy lives on - through his daughter and through anyone who has ever read or been inspired by his words. In his own words :

Kar chale hum fida jaano-tan saathiyon; Ab tumhaare hawaale watan saathiyon.

(We bid adieu having sacrified our lives for this country comrades, This nation we leave in your safekeeping).

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