How do you describe a book that tugs at your heart strings and brings back memories you thought had long since trickled down the memory's sieve? Or relate to a tale of romance of the kind they used to have in times more leisurely: over poetic soirees, of a man who refused to take ‘no' for an answer, and even wrote in blood, and a lady who circumvented tradition? And, pray, how do you relate to Kaifi Azmi as a handsome young man? It is a privilege of those born before Independence, and a luxury to those who came into this world sometime after the Progressive Writers' Movement had begun to peter out. And how do you react to the marriage of a girl from an upwardly mobile family of Hyderabad, one of 12 brothers and sisters, to a man who had just words, powerful and passionate, to recommend himself? Well, Kaifi and I — A Memoir makes it not just possible but also delightfully plausible.
A social scientist
It is a book that could have been written only by a raconteur with the skills of a social scientist. Shaukat, much loved, and greatly respected, reveals the eye of a social scientist and the heart of a poet, as she talks of her early years in Hyderabad, those years when the rich and the aristocratic ruled.
She paints a vivid picture of the time when the commoners were to disappear from the sight of the royal cavalcade. Many decades after those impressionable years, some of the horrific incidents refuse to fade from her memory. For instance, she recalls, an old man who refused to work was forced to stand through the night with a stone-slab tied to his back.
And without making much fuss about it, she lets the reader know that back in the first half of the 20th century, only one principle governed life: ‘show me the man, I will show you the rule.' Once, a young girl was kidnapped and criminally assaulted by some licentious youth and the Nizam ordered that the guilty be put in shackles made of flowers!
Shaukat, a girl who knew her mind and felt the throb of her heart, grew up in such an age. Little wonder, she describes Kaifi as a man whose voice “had a timbre like the rumble of storm clouds.” They met at a mushaira. It was love at first sight, progressing through usual stopovers ordained for those young and fearless: parental disapproval, a helpful sister, a brother who kept a hawk's eye on the girl, the boy moving to another city, lovelorn letters, et al.
By narrating the delectable exchanges between them, Shaukat takes us through a lifetime — from the privileged surroundings she grew up in Hyderabad, which was later to be peopled by poets, who took pride in their Spartan existence and carried their Communist pledges like a lifetime achievement. Kaifi too had just a small jute charpoy and a little mat to welcome his bride home!
Amazingly, Shaukat, for all her fiery defiance of custom, did not even know Kaifi's real name, Athar Hussain Rizvi, until her nikaah! With insightful anecdotes and delectable powers of narration, Shaukat is quietly able to comment on mid-20th century India, the days when the progressive writers had dreams in their eyes and selflessness in their ideals, the years when good girls meant easy prey for the rich and the villainous — the two often went hand in hand. Of course, she gives us such gems as Balraj Sahni's initial reluctance to do M.S. Sathyu's “Garm Hava”. Not to forget the convent schools' requirement that both parents should know English for their child to get admission.
It is with such easy candour, without a trace of affectation that Kaifi and I holds you in thrall. Nasreen Rehman's translation of the Urdu original is right on the money. As Priyamvad Gopal says in the foreword, “there is nothing passive or wilting about Shaukat Azmi. Or her writing.”