Tête-à-tête with Shabana Azmi and mom
‘To write a book like this you can’t compromise on honesty, there can be no pretence’
Shaukat Kaifi’s, Yaad ki Rahguzar, returns in a new English avatar, packaged as Kaifi & I. Amazed that the book she almost left incomplete, is being read across the world in five languages, the actress-writer shares memories, with daughter Shabana Azmi urging her along and offering her own take on a life that she was also a part of.
Originally written in Urdu as Yaad ki Rahguzar, your book has been translated earlier in Hindi, Marathi and Japanese, and is now coming out in English. When you were writing it, did you ever imagine that it would become so popular?
Shaukat Kaifi: Would you believe it, my husband, Kaifi, died when I was half-way through the book and I lost interest in it. Shabana set up a meeting in Delhi and read out excerpts from it.
I was amazed when two journalists present at the reading wanted to translate the book in English, and a Hindi publisher wanted the rights to it. He kept urging me to complete it. My son-in-law, Javed Akhtar, also insisted that I pick up the pen again. And I did.
(Smiles) When Yaad ki Rahguzar finally released, I had no idea that I’d come this far with it. I’m filled with a strange kind of amazed delight when I think that Japan ke log bhi mere kitab pad rahen hain (even the Japanese are reading my book).
Shabana Azmi: It’s not just another book, but has been selected by 14 American universities for referential reading in the South Asian Department. It’s not just a story of a man and a marriage. It also talks about India’s freedom struggle, the dawn of Independence, the formation and break-up of the Communist Party.
It encompasses a period in our country’s history and talks of a relationship that smiles at the textbook notions of equality and space that young people negotiate when entering into marriage today. For my parents, marriage was never an adjustment or a compromise even though it took them into different worlds.
Shaukatji, you belonged to a rich family in Hyderabad. How did your parents agree to a match with an impoverished poet with no source of income?
SK: For that I have to thank my father who was a very progressive man and put his daughter’s happiness before social opprobrium. We had a big house, a car and even a telephone, which was rare in those days. Even Kaifi was a zamindar’s son but his patriotic fervour took us to a Communist commune, and we started our life together in one room.
SA: Years later, when Farhan (Akhtar) came to us saying he wanted to marry Adhuna, before he had launched his career, it was mummy who insisted that since they loved each other, we should give our consent to the marriage. She pointed out that marriage would make him more responsible, having a child would turn him from a boy into a man. And she was right.
But surely, life must have been difficult?
SK: (Smiles) It wasn’t that bad!
SA: It was, but not once did a frown cross my mother’s face despite life being a constant struggle. Even after we shifted to Juhu, it didn’t get any better.
I remember mummy always wore one gold kada (bangle) and it would disappear every time guests dropped by. Without any kind of fuss, my always hospitable mother would pawn it, buying it back when she raised the money again.
SK: Kaifi was a wonderful husband and that compensated for the lack of material comforts. He always addressed me as ‘aap’ and never stopped me from doing anything, whether it was working on stage or in movies.
Only once, when I was shooting for Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay in the red-light area of Kamathipura, playing the madam of a brothel, brushing shoulders with women the kind I had never met before all day for weeks together, he told me quietly, “Shaukat, before doing this film, agar aap ne hum se ek baar puchh liya hota… (I wish you’d asked me once before agreeing to do this film).”
And what was your answer to that?
SK: (Laughs) I told him that he should be happy his wife was such a bold actress.
SA: My father had once dedicated a poem to mummy called, Aurat, that urged her to stand up and walk by his side, matching him step for step. (Laughs) Baba (brother Baba Azmi) and Javed often moan that the women in our family — my mother, my sister-in-law Tanvi (Azmi) and I— have taken my father’s words literally.
Shabanaji, Yaad ki Rahguzar has been adapted into a successful play, Kaifi Aur Main, with Javed and you playing Kaifi and Shaukat. What was the experience like?
SA: It was a strange feeling to have my mother sitting there watching me enact her life with abba. Though Kaifi Aur Mainm, was based on mummy’s book, Javed went through several interviews and knitted them together. For me, it wasn’t just a play or a performance. It was a life lived and I feel privileged that Baba and I had been born to this couple, for the kind of upbringing we’ve had.
Does the book lose some of its flavour in translation?
SA: It was translated verbatim in Marathi. Nasreen Rehman tried to do the same with the English translation and almost tore her hair out over certain phrases like ‘Meri Eid ho gayi.” Eventually, she had to take some liberties. Translation is like pouring perfume from one bottle to another. In the process, some fragrance may get lost. But I must say Nasreen has done a good job with abba’s poems.
Do you think you will write a book like this some day about life with Javed Akhtar?
SA: I don’t think our life has been quite as eventful. And I don’t know if I can as guileless as my mother. To write a book like this, you can’t compromise on honesty. There can be no pretence.
‘A beautiful couple who could give their life for each other Kaifi Azmi loved his wife passionately. He wrote her many romantic shers, even sent her letters written in blood that she still treasures. But a burning desire to free India from the British rule had turned the zamindar’s son into a card-holding communist who was entitled to just Rs 45 a month from the party kitty which meant that there was often little money for necessities, forget gifts.
Urged on by senior comrades, Shaukat who had a good voice and had acted in plays when in school, joined Indian People’s Theatre Association and started doing plays.
Once she was on her way out of town for a play, and asked her husband if he had some money to give her. His silence told her there was none. Grumbling to herself that she had to travel wearing torn chappals, she left the house.
To her surprise, Kaifi turned up at the station minutes before she was to leave and handed her a Rs 50 note for expenses. “He then asked for my torn chappal and hiding it in the wide sleeve of his kurta, went and got it stitched, before waving me goodbye. I was telling myself what a wonderful shauhar (husband) I had till I went to Sajjan after the play and asked for the Rs 50 I had been promised. And learnt that Kaifi saab had taken my money in advance,” Shaukat laughs at the memory.
Shabana remembers her parents as a beautiful couple who could give their life for each other. She recalls him saying something romantic to her mother one day, and Shaukat rushing into the room, picking up a bottle of Evening in Paris, dashing out, spraying the perfume on him, then, running away. “That was the height of romance for them,” laughs their daughter.
Madam Shabana arrives…
On page 74 of Kaifi & I, there is a passage that describes Shabana Azmi’s entry into the world. Point it out to Shaukat and she says, that had the Communist Party had its way, her daughter might never have been born.
“My first born, Khayyam, died at the age of one and I was distraught till I discovered that I was pregnant again. Those were the days when Kaifi had gone underground. Even I didn’t know where he was, a comrade would sometimes take me to a secret hideout in the dark of the night, so we could spend a few hours together,” she recalls. When the party was informed of her condition, they suggested an abortion. It was pointed out to her that her husband was a fugitive and there was little money. In the circumstances, bringing up a baby was unthinkable.
Diging her heels in, the beautiful, young wife of Kaifi Azmi told the assembled comrades, “This baby is mine, I’m not giving it up. If need be, I will bring it up myself. I’ll do anything to ensure that it has a good life.”
In the face of her mother’s resolution, Shabana was born in her grandparent’s home. But as soon as her dad returned, it was back to a life of abject poverty in the commune. Till the age of nine, Shabana grew up 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.
When she was three months old, every morning, Shaukat would bundle her up and travel with her from Madanpura to Opera House where, from 9 am to 2 pm, she would work for Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre for a princely salary of Rs 100 a month.
When Shabana was old enough to go to school, her mother, with the help of Sardar Jaffri’s wife, got her enrolled in a municipal school in Dongri. “Shabana hated the school. She would cry and refuse to get on to the bus. When her first report card came, we were shocked to see that she had zeroes in every subject,” Shaukat reminisces. “But I was convinced that my daughter was no duffer. I pointed out to my husband that this was her way of protesting for being sent to a school she didn’t like. Soon after, we shifted her to Queen Mary High School and almost immediately her grades improved.”