To Abba With Love: Remembering Kaifi Azmi’s Magic & Magnanimity
Remembering Kaifi Azmi, one of the last pillars of progressive Urdu thinking. (Photo: www.azmikaifi.com)
Remembering Kaifi Azmi, one of the last pillars of progressive Urdu thinking. (Photo: www.azmikaifi.com)

To Abba With Love: Remembering Kaifi Azmi’s Magic & Magnanimity

Kaifi Azmi wrote his first ghazal at the age of 11, joined the Communist Party at 19 and turned columnist for Qaumi Jung when he shifted from Azamgarh to Mumbai. On May 10th, 2002 he passed away after a prolonged illness. Though it has been 16 years since he’s been gone, but I have vivid memories of the remarkable man I met over many occasions.

His first film as a lyricist in Hindi cinema was Buzdil followed by Kaagaz Ke Phool, Anupama, Hanste Zakhm and Arth. Azmi is remembered for his screenplay - dialogues in M S Sathyu’s Garam Hawa and Chetan Anand’s Heer Ranjha in verse.

Shabana Azmi with her beloved father Kaifi Azmi (Photo:www.azmikaifi.com)
Shabana Azmi with her beloved father Kaifi Azmi (Photo:www.azmikaifi.com)

“Abba, ye hamari achchi dost hain...,” Shabana Azmi said introducing me to her father Kaifi Azmi seated on a cane chair, surrounded by the unique ambience of their home in Janki Kutir. His left hand characteristically resting on the arm of the chair and his right pressing it gently, the poet smiled and said, “Agar dost hai toh achchi hi hogi.” That was in the summer of 1980.

Over the years, due to my close proximity with the Azmi family, I got used to his towering personality and extraordinary talent.

The beauty about affection is that it makes no cerebral discriminations, and Kaifi saab generously included in stimulating mehfils frequently held at the Azmi household, even though I understood very little of Urdu. That was his magnanimity.

He never craved for reassurance and remained detached from flattery till the very end. One day, I asked him what triggered him to write the achingly romantic verse, ‘Dil ki nazuk ragen tutti hain, yaad itna bhi koi na aaye...’ from Hanste Zakhm. He looked at me with blank eyes for a long time and then looked away. It was his ability to hold back always, that made his rare display of intimacy so precious to all those who loved him.

Kaifi Azmi never craved for reassurance and remained detached from flattery till the very end (Photo: www.azmikaifi.com)
Kaifi Azmi never craved for reassurance and remained detached from flattery till the very end (Photo: www.azmikaifi.com)

My favorite memory of him is my walking into his room one afternoon to find Abba (as I later came to address him) watching over his man-Friday unsuccessfully struggling to pull out the naada from his pyjama. As soon as he saw me enter, he beamed “Aa jao beta, humein iss waqt yahan ek aurat ki sakht zaroorat thi,” he said, signaling his attendant to pass me the pyjama to complete the task.

Several such magical moments come to my mind as I pen memories about Kaifi saab… I remember us watching a murder mystery over chai and khari biscuit…Of me visiting him at Bombay Hospital soon after his back surgery. He was in extreme discomfort but his humour was intact. He said almost like a mourning beloved, “Aaj Sheeba ki bahut yaad aati hai…”. Sheeba was their temperamental dog who never left Abba’s side for a moment.

Over the years, Abba visited Jaslok Hospital several times, shifting floors, rooms and doctors and we helplessly watched him shrink from a robust man, whose presence filled the room, to a frail, permanently laid up figure on a high bed wrapped up in tubes and closely monitored by gadgets. He was in discomfort, but not once did he complain even though his suffering was apparent to all.

In his last days, he became detached from everybody including poetry. When his daughter Shabana plugged in the ear-phones to play him his vintage film numbers, his eyes went blank. The only time he perked up was when informed about progress in his village Phulpur, Mijwan. His anguish was always for larger issues, never himself.

On the morning he passed away, his new dog Gauri paced restlessly from one room to another. Sensing her master, but confused over not finding him at his regular place, she whined periodically. It was an unusually hot afternoon and a never-ending night for the family. Lines from his poem Makaan reverberated in my mind:

Aaj ki raat bahut garm hawa chalti hai, Aaj ki raat na footpath pe neend aayegi, Sab utho, main bhi uthun, tum bhi utho, tum bhi utho, Koi khidki isi deewar mein khul jaayegi.....
Kaifi Azmi, the poet at work (Photo: www.azmikaifi.com)
Kaifi Azmi, the poet at work (Photo: www.azmikaifi.com)

No window opened up to soothe our pain. On the contrary, as the hours passed, the heartache soared. Grief flowed and ebbed as different members of the family displayed strength and vulnerability at different moments and come dusk, a pall of gloom loomed large!

When music directors Jatin-Lalit dropped by to offer condolences, it was late evening and for the first time in the long, hot day, there was a nip in the air. After the formalities, in a spontaneous gesture, Jatin began humming Kaifi Azmi’s ‘Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam...’ and as if on cue brother Lalit joined him to sing, ‘Jaane kya dhundti rehti hain aankhen mujh mein...’ then Javed Akhtar sang ‘Zara si aahat hoti hai...’and other family friends remembered ‘Sara mora kajra churaya tune...’and ‘Itne bazu itne sarr…’

Suddenly it seemed as if Kaifi Azmi had not gone away, because even Gauri lay languid in the doorway as if she had made peace. So had the swaying palm trees in the 25 Janki Kutir garden. And maybe so have we Abba, in your immortal poems and songs.

(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 13 books. Twitter: @bhawanasomaaya)

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 10 May 2016. It is now being republished to mark Kaifi Azmi’s death anniversary.)

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