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His mighty voice: Remembering Kaifi Azmi

Amit Baruah | Updated on July 05, 2019 Published on July 05, 2019

Vivid memories ‘I remember Kaifi Sa’ab in his white, starched kurta pyjama, smoking unfiltered Charminars’. Kaifi Azmi, seen here with wife, Shaukat. - Sameer Arya

Kaifi Azmi belonged to a generation of writers and lyricists who dreamed of an inclusive, post-Partition India wedded to justice and equality

It’s taken me a near-lifetime to understand why my father would ask Kaifi Azmi to recite the same nazm each time he visited our Pandara Road home in New Delhi.

UL Baruah’s favourite was Kaifi Sa’ab’s Inteshaar, which ended with the haunting Koi toh soodh chukaye, koi toh zimma le; us inquilaab ka jo aaj tak udhar sa hai (who will pay the interest, who will take responsibility for the debt of revolution).

At that time, in the early ’70s, Kaifi Sa’ab and his wife, Shaukat Aunty, were regular visitors to our house from what was then Bombay, as were noted writer Vishwamitra “Adil” and his wife, Zakia Aunty. SM Mehdi, or Mehdi Sa’ab, who lived in Delhi and worked at the House of Soviet Culture, was always present at our humble home when Kaifi Sa’ab came visiting. There were many, many others. My mother knew Kaifi Sa’ab since her Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) days in Bombay.

My father was a civil servant — he worked for All India Radio (AIR) — and spoke Axomia Hindi, with a lovely lilt. It was my mother, Sharda, whose family hailed from Dera Ghazi Khan, Quetta and Hyderabad, who knew both Urdu and Hindi.

Looking back, I would call my father a quintessential Nehruvian (knowing full well that this is now nearly a term of abuse) who seamlessly transferred to his immediate family his secular values, belief in social justice and equality, as well as the theory that differences would dim once there was social advancement.

As a boy, when I came to understand what the Inteshaar lines meant, I would argue with my father that he was a pessimist and had given up all hopes of social change. He wouldn’t respond to this criticism.

At that time, my favourite lines were from Kaifi Sa’ab’s Bangladesh:Main koi mulk nahin hoon ki jala doge mujhe, koi deewar nahin hoon ki gira doge mujhe; koi sarhad bhi nahin hoon ki mita doge mujhe; main ik armaan hoon deewanon ka (I am not a country to burn, nor a wall to destroy, neither am I a border to erase; I am longing for dreamers).

This was a nazm that Kaifi Sa’ab recited at AIR’s mushaira on Bangladesh, soon after the country’s liberation from Pakistan in 1971. It had just about everything and I had heard it in that mighty voice of Kaifi Sa’ab’s, before he suffered a stroke that paralysed his left arm and leg.

To me, his Bangladesh poem was inspiring and intoxicating all at once. It’s a nazm that’s been a part of my life ever since I heard it the first time. And it still gives me goose pimples.

I remember Kaifi Sa’ab in his white, starched kurta pyjama, smoking unfiltered Charminars. I remember lifting his not-so-good leg into a taxi or a car. I remember his snoring, and my father hoping that he would fall asleep before Kaifi Sa’ab did.

I remember him telling my oldest brother, Rajeev, that he would give him ₹10 if he kept quiet just for an hour. I remember him asking aloud what he should “do” with my older brother Sanjeev’s velvety voice that he loved so much. Above all, I remember his dignity and determination to go about life despite the health setback he suffered.

To me, as a kid, Kaifi Sa’ab was part of a larger group of progressive intellectuals; many of them, I understood later, were close to the Communist Party of India or its affiliated organisations.

“Adil” Uncle, who, like Kaifi Sa’ab, lived in Juhu in Mumbai, was a lyricist and writer in his own right, and became better known for his pioneering radio series called Inspector Eagle aired on Vividh Bharati. A close friend of our family, Adil Sa’ab had many stories to narrate and was always on the lookout for a new mystery for Inspector Eagle, voiced by the inimitable Sanjeev Kumar. He preferred Wills Kings (filtered) to Kaifi Sa’ab’s unfiltered Charminarand always left my mother fretting about her bedcovers and sheets, wondering if the ash he dropped had left holes in them...

Mehdi Uncle never liked to be called ‘Uncle’. Please call me chacha, he would insist, but the ‘Uncle’ always slipped out of our English-speaking tongues. His play Ghalib ke udenge purze (directed by Aziz Qureshi and in which my mother also acted) had a line that has stuck in my head: Kuchch din bhookhe nange aur raho, achhe din aane hee wale hain (Stay hungry and naked for a few more days, the good days are around the corner). The continuity in the slogan from the play — which I remember was performed at the open-air auditorium at the Triveni Kala Sangam — is not to be missed.

A whole generation of writers and lyricists gave voice to an inclusive, post-partition India, which they desired would be wedded to the ideas of justice and equality. Their talents were carried far and wide through film and song — their voices resonated in independent India.

However, as Kaifi Sa’ab and his fellow travellers would have understood only too well, the soodh and the udhar have mounted manifold.

Published on July 05, 2019
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