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The joys of co-existence

For Kaifi Azmi, the cause of the exploited masses was not only a theoretical paradigm, but also an emotional identification with the suffering of the dispossessed—Photo: Special arrangement  

The pages are all yellow, emitting that familiar, musty smell of books mocking the vagaries of time and space. Some of the pages embrace each other so passionately that I separate them with a feeling of guilt. That wonderful crackling sound I hear every time two pages part keeps me going. Indeed, opening Pavan Varma’s translation of Kaifi Azmi’s Selected Poems many years after the bureaucrat-author-translator released the book in New Delhi is an exercise replete with familiar joys, and even more familiar questions. A few pages into the book, and I find myself asking the questions which have no easy answers.

Was Kaifi Azmi, a Community Party member, essentially a revolutionary whom I accidentally discovered through his romantic ghazals in Hindustani cinema? Indeed, was he a romantic at all? Was he better at penning ghazals of pain and separation than of qurbat (proximity) and vasl (union)? Did his association with the Progressive Writers’ Movement cast a shadow even over his romantic works? And if he was deeply anguished by the plight of the have-nots, how did he find the little reservoir of hope for ‘Kar chale hum fida’ ? By the way, wasn’t Azmi ultimately a believer, a man who referred to Surah Kahf, the Prophet Noah and penned words around Ibn-e-Maryam ? But then wasn’t he a communist? Ah! Questions, and more questions.

Varma seeks to find the answers in his note at the beginning of the book. “Very early in his life Azmi became a member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. He was also a member of the Communist Party of India. For him, the cause of the exploited masses is not only a theoretical paradigm, but also an emotional identification with the suffering of the dispossessed…. Azmi, the romantic poet, appears almost incongruent when juxtaposed to the proletarian ardour of Comrade Azmi, the spokesman of the downtrodden.”

But the supposed distance between these two just does not exist for Azmi. He refuses to be stereotyped. He is unwilling to yield the space of the romantic to the cause of the revolutionary. According to him, “both co-exist and revel in the sheer joy of living”.

With this lucid explanation as a guide, I set out to discover the many joys of reading Azmi. Here, Varma has put together most of the poems from Azmi’s award-winning Awara Sajde . Here the wordsmith, the unabashed romantic, gives us ‘Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam’ . This is love at its most beautiful, life in the moment, the rest being unseen.

Azmi then expresses the angst of love and parting with ‘Koi Ye Kaise Bataye Ke Woh Tanha Kyun Hai’ , the ghazal having been used in Mahesh Bhatt’s much-talked about film Arth . Is it merely about love and the indescribable bliss of union? No. Is it about separation and a heart that yearns for union? Could be. Is it about lost love? Or maybe, a hope that still burns, low and gentle? Take your pick. The fact is Azmi is at his inimitable best here.

Then he lays bare the feeling of loss in ‘Pashemani’ . The lyrics “Main Yeh Sochkar Uske Dar Se Uthha Thha ke Woh Rok Legi, Mana Legi Mujhko” again talk of a man defeated in love, yet hoping against hope. Aptly, it ends with “Yahan Tak ki Usse Juda Ho Gaya Main”. Here Varma’s translation adds a nice nuance. He writes, “Ever so slowly I kept walking away, so far that we are separated today”.

Azmi, the revolutionary then gets into the zone with ‘Aaj ki Raat Bahut Garm Hawa Chalti Hai / Aaj ki Raat Na Footpath Pe Neend Ayegi’ . This sums up his Communist principles; this brings to life his Progressive Writers’ blood and sweat. It is here that his pen burns bright. Add to that “Utth Meri Jaan, Mere Saath Chalna Hai Tujhe” where he tells us that the greatest of fights is fought with a companion. Whether he talks of the loneliness of a warrior or the plight of the man on the street, his words cut through to the bone.

So Azmi was essentially a revolutionary whose romantic oeuvre was no less? Could be. But the picture shall remain incomplete without a reading of ‘Ibn-e-Maryam’ or Son of Maryam, as Jesus is referred to again and again in the Qur’an. Here, he manages a fine balance between the perspectives of Christianity and Islam with the opening lines, “Are you God / The son of God / Or only a messenger of peace?” Then the poet in him takes over as he writes, “Or someone’s beautiful creation / Whoever you are, I like you / You seem like the truth to me”.

Understanding ‘Ibn-e-Maryam’ is easier. Discovering the genius of Kaifi Azmi is another thing. But full credit to Pavan Varma here. It is one of his early works of translation, and remains among the better ones. I am sure Syed Athar Hussain Rizvi would have agreed. Syed Athar? Yes, that is Kaifi Azmi the original.

The author is a seasoned literary critic

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 11:56:18 AM |

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