On page 74 of Shaukat Kaifi’s book, Kaifi & I, there’s a passage describing Shabana Azmi’s entry into the world. Shaukat had just lost her firstborn, Khayyam, and was distraught, but then she discovered that she was pregnant again. The news thrilled her, but not the Communist Party.
Her husband, Kaifi Azmi, a party comrade, had gone underground. Even Shaukat had no idea where he was. She’d sometimes be taken to a secret hideout in the dead of night, so that they could spend a few hours together. When the party was informed of her pregnancy, they suggested an abortion, pointing out that since Kaifi was a fugitive and there was little money, bringing up a baby was unthinkable. She responded with a firm,“This baby is mine, I’m not giving it up. If need be, I will bring it up myself.”
No birthday parties
In the face of her mother’s resolution, Shabana was born in her grandparents’ home. But as soon as Kaifi surfaced, it was back to the commune. Till the age of nine, she lived in a one-room chawl with a slip of a balcony that served as a kitchen, and a bathroom that was shared by eight families. And for a long time, neither she nor her brother Baba, celebrated their birthdays.
“Mum had lost her firstborn just before his first birthday. She had made elaborate plans for the day and never recovered from Khayyam’s loss. She was superstitious for a long long time ke mere bachchon ko nazar lag jayegi (my children might catch the evil eye),” reminisces Shabana who turns 62 on Tuesday.
The biggest thrill then was not having to wear a uniform to school. In party dress you stood out as the birthday girl and everyone was kind. “Including my maths teacher who otherwise disliked me. The feeling was mutual,” says Shabana with a laugh.
Her most memorable birthday was when she turned 50. Friends flew in from Delhi and London for the three-day celebrations. “It was like a shaadi, made special by Javed’s (husband Javed Akhtar) gesture,” she recalls. “I’d seen a sculpture called Time by Salvador Dali at the museum in London. The price was exorbitant and I let it pass.
Javed bought it quietly, hid it at a friend’s place for a month and smuggled it on the morning of my birthday into his study. It was standing on his desk with Javed’s handwritten poem, Waqt, beside it when he took me in. I do not measure gifts according to their monetary worth, abhor ads which proclaim, ‘Show her you care with diamonds.’ Ugh! A touch, a glance, a smile has more value.
And it was the thought, the planning, the thrill of secrecy about this gift that touched me deeply.”
A decade later, Shabana raised a toast to 60 after the premiere of her play, Seven, that wrapped up a three-day conference on women’s issues and rights. The day that followed was spent with family, friends, co-stars and classmates from the FTII. Did she feel 60? She retorted, “I do, I wouldn’t want to be 30 or 40. Life is marked by changes and my view of relationships and the world today is of a mature, mellow mind.”
The mature, mellow mind then confided that her resolution was to learn to cook, confessing that her mother, sister-in-law Tanvi and friends were all proficient in the kitchen, but she only had to stand near a pot, and whatever was simmering inside would turn to cinders.
She brought in 61 with another big bash at Sukoon, her Khandala home. This year, after two elaborate, back-to-back celebrations, she wants nothing more. “The past few months have been hectic, and I’m only looking for peace and quiet. I’ll miss Mona Kapoor; she was always the first to wish me. She was unwell last year but drove down to Khandala, I don’t think she travelled out of Mumbai again,” says Shabana pensively.She’ll be back tomorrow night. Who knows what surprise Javed has in store for her. But I’m sure 62 will not come along with nothing!