Kaifi Sahab, Laal Salaam

Translated by Ashish Jaiswal, PhD (Education), University of Oxford

Nazrana - Kaifi Azmi

The ground of Mastan Talaab was ablaze with gusty red flags. The night had travelled way past the midnight stroke. Dew had started falling and freezing the ground beneath yet, not a soul was ready to move an inch.

The windows and balconies of the buildings across the street were besieged with hundreds of headscarves and shawl covered heads, all staring in the same direction, looking as if, they were a slice of a frozen canvas. All roads leading to the ground were swarmed with people, so much so that no breathing space remained. In that era the rallies of communist party were a gala affair (those were the times!). The orators dealt with such roar and breeze that the words transformed themselves into magic spells. I sat on a dwarfed chair pasted right below the stage taking down notes of the sermon with my knackered pen. My Fingers moved with all the might they had. Suddenly, the gentleman, on the dias, fist punching the air, controlling the bustling audience, went quiet. The crowd also rustled with excitement. Many stood with their eyes pinned to the back of the stage in expectation. A head emerged first shadowing the wooden staircase pitched behind the stage. Then appeared the remaining figure – ruffled long hair, perspiring face, big eyes crimsoned with tiredness – draped in a loose white kurta and wide bottomed laknawi pyjama.

The crowd went berserk.

‘Kaifi sahab…Kaifi Azmi…I am Kaifi’s fan…!’

A group of lads shouted, ‘Laal salaam…laal salaam… Kaifi sahab, laal salaam. Inqalab Zindabad!’

Kaifi sahab waved in return with a smile and walked himself to a chair. The gentleman, who had taken a pause while addressing the audience in laurels of Kaifi, abruptly ended his plaudits – Kaifi sahab had to leave for yet another election meeting.

I had heard a lot about Kaifi and read his verses but never had the chance to see him in person. If seen with arithmetical eyes, he wasn’t a beautiful man. He was heavy bodied and doesn’t seem very tall. He may have been perhaps, around five feet nine/ten inches. But Kaifi had an undaunted charm, which – could be felt but not described. And, his voice…respected readers!…I am not sure whether Momin saw the flames splitting from the voice of gairat-e-hind but indeed I did, that day…in the voice of Kaifi.

The night in question was the one when I had journeyed to gather material on the rally for my newspaper but as soon as Kaifi sahab spoke, I forgot how to write. That night I reached office only to file a half-cooked report before the deadline. In those days, a good thing was that people neither listened to election addresses with attention nor read them with devotion. Hence, no one asked whether what I had filed under the name of Kaifi was actually his discourse, or mine. So, I was saved.

It was the time when I was attempting to understand socialism and in the process had bought several books on Marxism from Peoples Publishing House (PPH), which were translated in Urdu from Russian and English. But, hell, the books were written with such devilish complication that no matter how many times I read them, I failed to understand a single word: ‘Jadliyati maaddiyat estemaari fasạạr???’ Reading such frightful words made me tremble with horror. Whatever little I understood of Marxism was thanks to the progressive Urdu writers and poets – Faiz, Sardar Jafri, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Rajinder Bedi, Monto, Ismat Chughtai – what I understood of progressive movement through their writings, not a single book from PPH could do.

In this long-list, Kaifi sahab indeed comes right at the top – as, like many of his contemporaries, neither he draped dreamless windows with romanticized curtains nor he prickled the garbage heap so much so that one chokes with breathlessness.

I also like Kaifi because his verse could speak to the hearts of inexperienced and those of disillusioned ones, alike –

Brimming oceans someplace,
Someplace dried goblets
What passage of time, Saaqi; what division, Saaqi

The progressive movement was a gallant revolution – a revolution, which required neither to be understood nor to be explained. It entered our veins like pain, unannounced, and then refused to leave. I never liked the ones whose writings felt as if the progressive crusade was not a movement but a riddle from Shama magazine, which rewards people on correct answers.

Kaifi sahab was a full-time worker of the communist party and remained dedicated to activities of trade unions at the behest of the party. In these days, Madanpura, Momminpura, Saat Rasta, Baikulla, Laal Bagh and Parel were territories of mills and their workers. There were several cloth mills where thousands of hand weavers worked on machines and handlooms. These very areas were the heart of Kaifi sahab’s activities.

The public library in Momminpura got established only because of his efforts and for the longest time remained the dominating feature of all the discourses of intellectuals in central Mumbai. The public library still exists but is no different from a termite-eaten book lying in a corner, which everyone notices but no one reads. Well, my first detailed meeting with Kaifi sahab transpired in this very public library. A party meeting was about to begin; I got hold of him and almost interviewed him. It is hard to recollect what I asked him and what he answered but this I starkly remember that the man, who whenever spoke in rallies and gatherings spoke so fluently that he would awaken the entire forest, in his daily routine spoke with a lot of deliberation. Normally, people usually take pauses to make up stories but Kaifi sahab spoke even the truth with forethought.

From then onwards, I had several opportunities to meet Kaifi sahab and in the process got to know him a little more. I discovered that it wasn’t only the politics and poetry where his flag hoisted high, but the good and sensible theatre of Mumbai was also alive and kicking because of Kaifi sahab’s patronage.

He was the driving soul of Indian People’s Theatre Association. It wasn’t because IPTA was a face of progressive movement or because it had a deep imprint of communist ideology – in truth, Kaifi sahab had personal interest in drama. He used to say, a couplet or verse impresses only those who can read but a drama reaches even those who can neither read nor write. The effects are also far reaching and long lasting.

Similar to current times, that era too had a handful of good theatre halls and even fewer had decent facilities to host a play. But then the cause for which IPTA came into existence, no obstacle could be big enough to halt its path. In fact, IPTA people were never confined to the four walls of a theatre hall. Whether it was an open ground, a mill compound or a narrow cul-de-sac, the IPTA performed unabashedly.

IPTA people were neither affluent nor did the party provide any monetary support. Hence, it has always been a drama company run by the poor, of the poor and for the poor.  The humble souls never managed to book a theatre without any drama. But then whatever place they managed to arrange, they transformed it into a spectacle. The stage of Sunderbai Hall, Bhartiya Vidhya Bhawan, Chabil Das High School, Jaihind College and Bandra Rang Mandir bore witness to a lot of IPTA plays. Among all the places, Tejpal Hall was perhaps the best. It was air-conditioned; the stage was also quite big but most importantly it was situated in Central Mumbai where the party had a sizeable influence.

Tejpal Hall still stands tall but with the providence that in its heydays it had witnessed magnificent drama and great artists performed on its stage. As Tejpal was near my office, I frequented it often. In fact, sometimes I used to reach before time and watched rehearsals or got talking to the IPTA people.

Madan Shetty, who was the then IPTA secretary, told me once, ‘you review our plays in your daily; it would be great if you were to announce their arrivals too.’ To provide a four-six inch space to IPTA in a fortnight or so wasn’t a big deal for me. Henceforth, announcements of all plays started getting published religiously in my newspaper – Urdu Reporter. When Madan Shetty inquired to pay the cost involved, I politely turned him down citing him to consider this gesture as donation to IPTA. Consequently, whenever I visited, I got special treatment.  In these times, no one among the IPTA people had any idea of their stature or vantage…Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Balraj Sahani, Kaifi Azmi, Shaukat Azmi, A.K. Hangal, Dina Pathak, Manmohan Krishna, Vishva Mittal Adil, Sagar Sarhadi and so on…they all used to meet me as if there was no difference – neither of age, nor of knowledge and least of all, reputation. As I sat on the cold cantilevers of white stone across Tejpal, I observed and listened to these legends going in and coming out – the ones, which the others could only see in magazines and books.

It was on one such evening when Kaifi sahab asked me,

‘You are from Rampur, right?’

‘Yes, I am,’ I replied.

He continued, ‘Mumbai has a lot many people from Rampur. Do you know all of them?’

I answered, ‘Not all of them, but I do know many.’

‘Please, take me to these people.’

I almost stumbled when I heard his request, ‘You will meet people from Rampur…why?’

He smiled, ‘So many people do so much for IPTA. I too should do something…I will go to them and asked for a donation for IPTA. If you will accompany me I am sure we will not return empty-handed.’

I had hundreds of fellow Rampurians residing from Nal Bazaar to Dongri and from Mohammad Ali Road to Mahim. Many of them were serving professionals and many had businesses of their own. A lot of them were involved in furniture business and a few businesses they alone knew of. In the Rampurian native tongue these people were addressed as ‘khufia farosh’.

When the smalltime workshop owners saw Kaifi sahab in their place of business it was a treat to watch their surprise and delight. Most surprising was that I never had to say, ‘Here is a man named Kaifi.’

Whosoever saw him, already knew who the legend was. He was an introduction in himself.

It was a sight to behold, when Kaifi sahab explained the significance of these dramas and importance of IPTA and the poor carpenter standing amidst sawdust listened to him with all his attention – it was similar to a novice swimmer trying his best to stick his neck out of deep waters.

There anyway wasn’t any trend of staging and viewing plays in Urdu or Hindi and then the name of IPTA – a majority of people thought that drama may be a front for the propaganda of Communist Party. However, the plays that were staged during these times did not only serve the party line but in fact were corner stones of Hindustani theatre scene.

Interestingly, some of the people had an altogether different take on these dramas.  For instance, Yaamin Bhai, who was known to carve wooden chairs of the highest quality, once asked me with bemusement, ‘Arre bhai Javed Miyan, I cant understand why at this ripe age Kaifi sahab has decided to plunge into the world of acting.’

‘He not only acts but playwrights the scenes too.’ I replied.

My reply was enough to reaffirm Yaamin bhai’s conclusions. He philosophised, ‘but of course. There must be a shortage of money….after all, poetry cant feed a family.’

In spite of this and many similar ideas, a lot of money was collected and IPTA loss was narrowed.

On these lines, an anecdote is worth sharing  –

Lt. Hamid Khan who had a workshop in Dongri had promised Kaifi sahab that he would surely visit Tejpal and watch a play. A few days later he called me and pulled out a hundred rupee note as a donation to IPTA with the following words of praise,

‘What a play it was! I almost died laughing.’

I was surprised – which play of IPTA could make someone laugh so much? It was soon revealed that Hamid bhai went to Tejpal and ended up seeing some cheap slapstick. Kaifi sahab grinned when he got to know of the comedy of errors, ‘Tell Hamid Khan, he may see whatever he wants to see but should keep donating to IPTA.’

This scouting of funds lasted for months. Whenever we found time we both would promptly embark on our door-to-door hunt. IPTA was sometimes benefited and sometimes not but I was being a continuous gainer – I had all the opportunity to have a ringside view of Kaifi sahab’s demeanor.

Amidst all this loitering and toiling around Mumbai, we both became quite informal. Without ignoring the respect and regard that he rightly merited I felt as if we became close friends. But one day he surprised me completely. ‘Bhai Javed, you seem nice and also a resourceful man. I think I must strike friendship with you. I laughed and stated, ‘what are you saying, Kaifi sahab. Are we not friends?’

Kaifi sahab looked deep into my eyes while nodding his head in negative and declared in all earnestness, ‘For friendship, it is important that we sit together, dine together and drink together.’

‘It is my honour to accompany you on a dinner table but drinking…?’

‘That you must…alcohol is an amazing thing. All curtains drawn nicely over a personality go up and that is when one decides whether the person is worthy of friendship or not.’

I wasn’t a regular. A beer here and there or a gin and tonic cocktail in a tavern once in a while but Kaifi sahab was one of those people who, without fail, addressed the drinking pot every evening:

Why let today sink in dry land in the hope of tomorrow’s watery shores

The prerequisite was tough but the reward was bigger.

I agreed.

Far away from the urban cacophony, near the sleepy coastline, in a village-like neighborhood stood that house where Kaifi sahab lived. I stayed at the door for a while observing in admiration. With unpainted wooden walls and clay-tiled old roof, the cottage wasn’t as sparkling as a verse or a couplet but its humble identity was draped with a strange esteem and charm, almost similar to the personality of Kaifi sahab.

The cottage had a small lawn lined with flowerpots that merged into a small veranda covered with bamboo façade. With a couple of cane chairs and a low wall of bricks on which futon was placed to make up for more sitting, the veranda doubled as a place to assemble. In this veranda was also a coconut tree which had pierced the cladded roof and was staring at the sky…fewer are those kinds who do not behead any living for their existence even if it is a humble tree.

Shaukat Aapa had toiled with earnestness. The spread was brimming with all my favourite dishes.  Biryani, Baghare Baingan, Dahi bade, washed lentils – every item was ‘hal min mazeed’ (is there anymore) but God damn the whisky that was poured onto me with such love that all the draperies of my personality fell bare and hence, eating wasn’t as much fun as it should have been otherwise. However, I did come to know that I do carry some qualities of a good drunkard. For instance, when intoxicated, I do not become a ruble rouser or a backbiter in fact I go quiet…neither I debate on religion nor politics which are indeed the favourite topics of alcoholics.

When now I think, I realize that actually that feast was organized by Kaifi sahab to pick a funny bone in disguise of my test. It is also possible that he may have been serious…it wasn’t easy to unwrap the layers of Kaifi’s own personality.

Seemingly, Kaifi sahab was a man of few words. Majority of the times, his eyes spoke more than his words. This was exactly how he would socialize with people. When he met, he obviously met with lot of warmth and a big smile but to go beyond this smile was not everybody’s cup of tea. Inside him, there was an enigmatic person whose doors not only opened late but also with great difficulty. Yet, there was hardly any dearth of people loving Kaifi sahab. There were many kinds of people with many kinds of relationship. Someone was a devotee of his poetry; another one, an admirer of his thoughts. Someone was enthralled by his knowledge and wisdom and someone was in awe of his personality.

In all these were scores of people like me to whom Kaifi sahab appeared charismatic in every respect.

There was a time when writers were seen in this respectable light, which emitted through the spark of their pen. But times changed and people started probing and as a result faces started emerging between the cracks. We got to know that many poets and writers who sat on lofty stages only talked lofty – there was difference between what they said and what they meant. Somewhere the difference was so much that it was na guftani. With my personal experience I can say with certainty that there was not an iota of difference between what Kaifi sahab said and meant. He was what he appeared.

The socialism he got introduced to during the days of Lucknow’s sultanul madaris, he kept the same one near his heart, unto his last breaths. Kaifi sahab considered humanity as the religion and remained the symbol of human friendship through out his life.  Hindu extremists took out rallies against him; Muslim radicals issued fatwas but neither did Kaifi sahab deter nor his thoughts. His heart never shut itself on anyone. In his house every festival was celebrated in such a manner as if it wasn’t mere festival but a reflection of the great philosophy, which encompassed each and all.  It was a treat to watch the festivities of New Year, Holi, Diwali or Eid – whether he played with colours, lit diyas during Diwali or distributed sewaiyan, his face brimmed with such bliss that it seemed that revolution has already arrived and the world is a different place – may be not outside but at least inside the Janki Kutir.

His style of living also stayed the same. I never saw him wearing anything other than the white kurta-payjama or rarely a sherwani on days of importance or just a shawl on days of chill.

He relished good food but for him good food was the one in which colour, fragrance, taste, courtesy maintained balance and remained authentically native.

Kaifi sahab spent his entire life in a maximum city like Mumbai but the village boy in him never turned urban. The tiny village, Mizwaa, which dotted one corner of district Azamgarh and could never be spotted on a map, the one where no tar road dared to reach and the dwellers of which told stories of glittering lampposts of big towns in the frail light of their lanterns, never left his heart. The boy named Akhtar Hussein Rizvi or simply Akhtarwa- the one who was sent to Lucknow at the tender age of fourteen – never matured. The paddy fields, the mango orchids, the clay stoves or the dripping roofs never left his imagination.

My childhood also came along holding hands,
Whenever someone happened to arrive from the village

The fragrance of food cooked by Shaukat aapa voyaged long and far. But on the nourished dining tables, Kaifi sahab’s eyes regularly searched for something else. My wife Farida often got calls with Kaifi sahab’s baritone voice speaking from the other side, ‘Arre bhai Farida, life is full of uncertainties, do prepare Bajre ki roti and Lahsun ki chutney just one more time.’

The matter of Lahsun ki chutney and Bajre ki roti continued up to the end. I remember, he was quite ill and was finding it even hard to move but as soon as he saw me, he spoke, ‘Arre bhai Javed, do remind Farida that it has been many days…’

As he too frail to travel to our house, we ourselves reached Janki Kutir with food.

‘What all have you brought?’ He inquired and became happy when Farida told that apart from roti and chutney there was Dalcha too.

‘Are rotis warm enough?’ He asked.

‘Ji, they are but let me warm them up a little more.’

His foggy eyes sparkled seeing the warm rotis and dalcha placed before him.

He gazed at the dish with love and slowly brought a piece of roti towards his mouth. For a longtime he suckled on the small slice as children would a piece of chocolate. As a couple of minutes passed, he slowly brought a handkerchief near his lips and took the roti-piece out. His teeth were not strong anymore and it wasn’t easy to chew on the hard bajra (millet bread). I understand that Bajre ki roti and Lahsun ki chutney wasn’t a matter of delicacy anymore, it was a relation – that of a farmer to his land – which Kaifi sahab never severed.

My understanding of Kaifi sahab’s poetry is that he always wrote what he observed around him and felt deeply about. There was no place for fabrication or pontification in his poetry because of which, many gatekeepers objected to his style and some even said that he didn’t attempt couplets but translated newspaper headlines into verses. But no one could ever say what was wrong with that? A couplet is nothing but an expression of emotion, which is very much possible through a newspaper too. Whether it is seen or read, a poet or a writer has every right to express his opinion on it because –

It cannot reach anywhere else but only there, friends,
wheresoever the conversation originates

‘It is not obligatory that a writer has to create a piece, which should influence fate of generations, he can boldly attempt to inspire even a tiny stroke of time, if this stroke of time is deciding the fate of humankind.’ – Kaifi Azmi, Pesh Lafjh, Akhiri Shab

Kaifi’s poetry was the poetry of the common man of our times, his dreams were the dreams of a deprived human and his pain was the pain of poor clan. No matter how piercing was his eloquence, his oration of poetry was solemn and at times drowned in melancholy. Exactly similar to the recital, which is read during the ending of sham-e-gariba.

Time bestowed every such thing on Kaifi sahab in the desire and search of which people spend their lifetime. He received scholarly fame, immeasurable reception, divine blessing to remain alive in the lap of history. It is not less if anyone accomplishes all this in his one lifetime. Even Kaifi sahab did not know what his real age was. The date 14 January 1919 was merely imagined to get a passport. But hearing his childhood memories and anecdotes one could guess that he must have been born after the advent of First World War (1914). The total age of Kaifi’s poetry must be sixty years in approximation. It was a surprise that in the total span of the sixty years he only penned hundred and fifty nazms, a dozen gazals, a few navil nazms and a few filmy songs. Whereas in the same period Amir Khusro had seven and Mir Taki Mir had penned six diwans each containing several hundred gazals. By this calculation I have to say that Kaifi sahab wrote less while for him to transform words into couplets was a child’s play. If one were to read him carefully, the reason for his brevity becomes clear.  Kaifi sahab only picked his pen when his heart felt the pain. Whether pain was personal or that of strangers when it hit the strings of senses like a mazraab, only then jhankar happened.  It is quite a possibility that in the midst of one of such thoughts he must have kept the name of his first mazmuya as ‘jhankar’.

The poetry of jhankar is a poet’s kalaam coming towards realty from romantic dreams in which along with the hair-locks of beloved one could also see the red flag flying high. In the backdrop one could also hear the reverberation of Inqalab zindabad. But as one nears the ‘Awara Sazde’ and ‘Akhir Shab’, one could witness the bizarre stillness.  Of course, this was to happen. As the Ganges, which emerges from Gaumukh fuming and roaring and turns tranquil as it reaches Prayag, we too find our true self when the giant rocks inside us breaks and turn into malleable sand grains. The burning flame which seared inside the chest of Kaifi sahab against the atrocities and exploitation and which every justice loving human being keeps alive inside, never gets doused but only transforms. Fire is also sometimes termed as radiance.

As I wrote somewhere earlier, Kaifi sahab’s smile did not emerge from his lips but his eyes. A lot of people, among whom there were a few of his contemporaries failed to see this playful spark, which ebbed for sure but every time receded like a falling star. Such people’s inference, actually, more so a propaganda, was that Kaifi sahab was a dry person who let alone laugh hardly even smiled. Whereas the truth was that he not only knew how to laugh but also made others laugh. Shabana is quite a good mimic. If she happens to come across a character with idiosyncrasies, she would impersonate it to such perfection that one may confuse it for real. Kaifi sahab often requested Shabana to perform these imitations and laughed unabashedly. He himself was no less. Many a times when he would return from a mushayra he would sketch the scaffold of bogus and hackneyed poets with such wit that entire gathering would turn pink.

His one-liners were remarkable and whenever he got the opportunity to strike he would do so with such precision and timing that there would be no room to escape. Shaukat aapa wrote in her memoir ‘Yaad ki Rahagwar’:

“He had his stomach operated. When he was brought to the room after the operation he started perspiring and breathing from the mouth. Doctors were repeating, ‘Kaifi, breathe from nose and keep your mouth closed.’ Shabana leaned on half-unconscious Kaifi and whispered into his ears, ‘Abba, please keep your mouth closed.’ Kaifi replied subtly, ‘not mine, if you have to, get Bal Thackeray to shut his mouth.”

I too recall another anecdote of his panache. This was when Kaifi sahab had grave trouble in breathing smoothly. Ventilator tubes remain thrusted inside his nose and mouth. That day, his nurse was going on a leave and was being instructed by Shaukat aapa that the replacement nurse should be experienced and alert. Suddenly, the silence of the room was sounded with a coarse voice,

‘She should also be fair skinned.’

The nurse couldn’t get the pun but we kept laughing for a long time.


Jo.. Ansari was incredibly proud of his know how and scholarly aptitude. If he got off on something he would not budge. Kaifi was also no different, the only variance was that like Jo.. Ansari he would not dash or fist fight. One fateful evening, both got into an argument over a couplet. Jo.. Ansari claimed that the couplet was that of Hafiz whereas Kaifi sahab insisted it to be of Urfi. Jo.. was not someone who would retreat, he asserted, ‘I cannot be wrong no matter what. I have not read Hafiz but sucked it with mother’s milk.’ Kaifi sahab got up promptly and fetched Urfi’s diwaan. He pointed to the couplet and spoke tenderly, ‘Urfi desires that you drink this regularly along with a cup of tea.’

He never interfered with anyone’s private affairs nor liked ones who would involve him into their’s. Late Ishaan Arya once narrated to me that an elderly poet who had lost his wife was telling stories of his loneliness and drab life for so long that Kaifi sahab couldn’t bear it anymore. He questioned in all seriousness,

‘So whose stopping you to marry again?’

The senior poet took a long breath and spoke with a tinge of sadness,

‘What should I say Kaifi sahab, I tried a lot but could not find an eligible lady who is not only well-read but also acceptably beautiful and on the right side of the age.’

Kaifi sahab answered pointing towards the lawn,

‘Well, three are sitting right there.’

The senior poet leaned up in a jiffy and probed the lawn where Shaukat aapa along with her two friends Zakia Aadil and Razia Sachdev were playing rummy. He fumbled as soon as his eyes fell on Shaukat Aapa,

‘Arre, Kaifi sahab! Even your respectful wife is sitting there.’

Kaifi sahab responded while gazing towards the lawn keeping the deadpan look,

‘Just say yes. I will divorce her instantly.’

One could only guess what the senior poet must have gone through.

Kaifi sahab was a self-sufficient and self-made man. Neither he desired a windfall from the creator nor did he seek from the creation. He was one of those kinds who would become happy even with rose buds even when the garden was overflowing with flowers. His world was complete with a handful of things. And if it were to be arranged meticulously, the list would be such – Socialism, Shyari, Shaukat, Shabana, Sharab, Sharir Bacche and the times when moon descends onto the cool terrace and the Sun pours from the hands of saaqi. The list of things he would loath was also not very long. He never liked Bure sher (bad couplet), bad bole shyar (self praising poets), bad-libas auraten (poorly dressed women) and baghare baingan (fried aborigines).

Kaifi sahab wasn’t a man of only one field. The age of his political, social and cultural service was as ripe as his poetry. The accomplishments in serving people spread over such a grand canvas of sixty years that a whole book can be written on it. And I am convinced that one day someone would definitely pen it down.

Kaifi sahab wrote newspaper columns, authored tanz-o-mizah, scripted filmy dialogues and composed songs. He wrote plays for children and adults alike. Amongst which there was this acclaimed and famous drama, Akhiri Shama, in which the blind disciple Hafiz Viraan tells his master Ustad Jokh,

‘Ustaad! You are certainly not one dimensional like the other ones.’

Kaifi sahab too was nowhere one-dimensional. Poetry was not his only source of respect.

I have already recounted that he had a special place for IPTA in his heart. Today, no less than six hundred branches of IPTA operate throughout India in varied languages. Such a non-governmental organization, which has so many offshoots, is, perhaps, one of its kinds in the entire world. Kaifi sahab played a leading role in encouraging Hindustani theatre and bringing IPTA to this stature.

When dramas are being discussed again, let me share another little incident. Once I asked,  ‘Kaifi sahab everyone insists on staging a better drama but what exactly is a better drama?’

He said, ‘A better drama is the one after watching which this world starts looking better.’

Kaifi sahab is also credited of founding IPTA’s junior theatre wing, in which, for the first time, underprivileged children and the ones with advantaged background stood side-by-side and performed. The children were constantly taught that no human should ever be discriminated as only circumstances make him affluent or deprived – a human by himself is never rich or poor. I wish this simple lesson on human equality could again be taught during these times.

Kaifi sahab firmly believed that it is in fact our responsibility to teach the ones who would eventually be responsible for carrying the baton of humankind’s fate and be conscious of the seriousness of this responsibility. Hence, he had assigned the duty of running this junior theatre wing to the children themselves and for this he had elected my daughter Leena as the secretary of the junior wing, who at that time was only twelve years old.

He had an amazing ability to win over the hearts of children. Just consider the case of Leena. She was only six years old when she got included into IPTA activities.  Her first play was ‘Hori’, which was the drama version of Premchand’s iconic novel Godaan. After watching the play, Kaifi sahab called Leena and praised her effort. When Leena replied with ‘thank you, uncle’, he called her closer and touched her head and whispered in her ear in fatherly love, ‘ Don’t call me uncle. Call me Abba.’ There must have been several children who called him lovely so and Kaifi sahab adored them like his own children and almost became child-like in their company.

This is from 1973. It was the 10th February and also my marriage anniversary. It was so decided that we would not go anywhere out but would celebrate fervently at our home, in the august company of our closest friends. Preparations were underway when suddenly the ominous news arrived, ‘Kaifi sahab is in hospital as one of the arteries of his brain has got ruptured.’ I rushed to Breach Candy hospital situated on Warden Road only to find its compound full of drenched faces. All gloomy, all quiet. Kaifi sahab was in the ICU. No one had permission to see let alone meet. Everyone stared at the door to his room in anticipation. When Sardar Zafri emerged, people gathered around in hope.

‘Right now nothing can be said with certainity…’

He said and went back. Soon I spotted Sultana aapa. She stood near the reception. Her lips were pale and dried and eyes reddened. She answered before I could ask, ‘It is paralysis. The next 48 hours are quite critical…’

During such times, our heart becomes like a child ridden with fear that cannot decide whether it should cry, scream or call out for someone’s help. Perhaps, everyone present in that compound was in the same state. Everyone was scared. Everyone was silent.

When the night grew a little darker I decided to leave. Near the hospital gate my eyes sighted the familiar old man whom I often saw selling plastic utensils on the pavement near the Madanpura big mosque. With tattered lungi and worn out headgear, he looked totally misfit in the shadow of the five-star hospital.

‘Chacha, what are you doing here?’ I asked.

He tried to recognize me and replied, ‘Arre, don’t you know….hamare kaipee sahab hain yeha…auki tabiyata nasaaz huyee gayee hai (our dear Kaifi sahab is here…his health has deteriorated)…’

So this was Kaifi’s magic, which had engulfed everyone from Sardar Zafri to a hawker of Madanpura.

Kaifi sahab survived but his entire left side became paralytic. From then, his left hand like a broken branch lay dead in his lap. The times when he picked and moved the lifeless hand with the help of his other hand I so wished to shut my eyes. The left leg had started moving a bit and he also could walk albeit with a limp. But Kaifi did not want to live such dependent and deficient life.

All salute to Shaukat aapa who truly proved to be the inseparable half. When did she translate herself into Kaifi’s immobile hand and leg, no one noticed. She served him religiously to that time when the dying torch inside Kaifi started flickering again. The kind of feat Kaifi sahab achieved with his half-body is an example in itself. Sardar Zafri had held, ‘the kind of treatment Kaifi has meted out to paralysis, this ailment would not dare to even touch any poet or a writer.’

I too am witness to his zealous determination. He neither conceded defeat nor allowed anyone to do so. When my eyes got struck with glaucoma and the doctors declared that the process of fainting vision is now irreversible, it suddenly seemed that all lamps of my life fused at once. When I almost stopped seeing I assumed that perhaps that time has come when a writer keeps his pen aside and closes all his books. This was a horrifying reality. The ones with whom I had spent my whole life would now be separated. Thinking so, my fingers would tremble with fear. But there was no way out hence I slowly started gathering myself. It was my childhood habit to read a book before going to sleep. That could happen no more. Scripting plays and articles also stopped. Even writing film scripts nearly terminated. How a helpless explorer feels trapped on a desolate island staring at the infinite sea, I too started feeling the same way.

Kaifi sahab got the news. His help Gopal telephoned and told that I was being remembered. I reached. He prompted me to sit and kept looking into my eyes for long before clearing his throat and said, ‘Carrying this half-body I have been travelling all over the world and performing all the duties exactly how a whole bodied and perfectly capable person would and the reason for this is that I never accepted defeat from paralysis nor I will in the future. I have called for you to tell you that never surrender and keep fighting up to the time when there is even a tinge of spark in the eyes and even slightest of life remain left in the hands. I should never get this news again that Javed Siddiqui has retired and has locked himself inside a room. Now tell me what will you drink…as I am having whisky.’

I kept staring at this man through my foggy eyes for a long time. The man whose half body was lifeless was not at all a fractional man. I came home and picked up all those books, which I had thrown aside. I started trying to read with the magnifying glass. Next day I got a lot of highlighters and started inscribing a letter a page. I too had refused to accept defeat. Today I am as busy as I was in my heydays. I often think that if Kaifi sahab hadn’t said those four sentences, the helpless explorer on that desolate island would have drowned in the surrounding melancholic sea, long back.

Kaifi sahab was truly a fearless and valiant man. He not only confronted the fatal paralysis gallantly but even in daily life there are many stories of his valiance and forthrightness. I once wrote a piece on Kaifi sahab titled ‘Kaifi ki zindagi ke saat manzar’. I am presenting one of the leaves from the piece here, which rightly proves the kind of mettle he carried in his heart.

Mahesh Bhatt unbolted one of the windows of his apartment and observed the outward. Dusk was settling in and the otherwise bustling streets were completely desolated. A strange silence was present all around, which, the voice of television news and crashing of sea waves were trying their best to drown out. The second harvest of riots was now being reaped in Mumbai. Amidst all the panic, Mahesh Bhatt had started thinking of his Muslim friends. God knows where would all be and in what condition. Suddenly, he remembered that Kaifi sahab lived in the vicinity and incidentally lived all alone. Mahesh couldn’t resist. It was necessary to inquire about Kaifi sahab’s wellbeing. Mahesh peeked inside Kaifi sahab house and spotted him in the lawn sitting unaccompanied with a tea tray placed on a stool in front. Kaifi’s eyes gleamed looking at Mahesh.

A smile, which had been tired since a long time, came on his lips.

‘Come, Mahesh. What brings you here?’

‘Kaifi sahab,’ Mahesh replied while wiping the sweat of his bald head, ‘Situation is now getting worse day by day. Rumour has it that rioters have got hold of the voter list and are now targeting selectively. A lot of people have even plucked out their nameplates from their residential doors. If you consider it appropriate there is a safe place….’ Mahesh could not continue further.  Kaifi sahab kept staring at the steam emitting out of the teacup as Mahesh moved his eyes and examined the dilapidated house. Low heighted boundary that anyone could leap across, wooden walls, thatched roof for which even a small spark was enough. Mahesh Bhatt broke the silence and stated,

‘Kaifi sahab, it will be better if you move out from here…’

For a long time Kaifi sahab looked into the eyes of Mahesh Bhatt with fearless expressions and then in a voice, which had no shred of weakness and tremble, declared,

‘This is my house, this is my city, this is my nation. No one can dare move me out of this place.’

Mahesh Bhatt lowered his gaze and thought in his heart, ‘no hatred can ever survive in front of such conviction.’ And this conviction was exactly what synonymizes Kaifi’s life. Till the time he lived, he considered his nation his existence.

One day All India IPTA’s general secretary late Aabid Rizwi mentioned, ‘Bhai Javed sahab, all the stars which twinkled on the sky of IPTA are falling off one by one. The ones that are left are IPTA’s pride. We must make documentaries on these luminaries.

It was quite an idea but when the budget was made it was clear that with whatever was left in All India IPTA’s treasure was sufficient only for one documentary film.  Hence, the intents were curtailed and it was decided that I should interview all the respectable elderlies of IPTA. The first interview was that of Kaifi sahab’s.

I reached Janki Kutir and started preparing for the shoot. While I got busy fixing the camera, Gopal assisted sahab to the room. He lowered himself slowly on a chair and tried restoring his breaths for a long time. He wiped the sweat that had appeared around his lips due to the effort he made to reach the chair. The white handkerchief quivered trapped amidst his fragile fingers. The wavy curls, the moves of which pulsated heartbeats of many were now grey and scruffy. The wide deep eyes were now submerged and dim. The lips, coming through which each word transformed into a shiny pearl, now appeared open as an empty oyster.

He cleared his throat, took a deep breath and spoke in a rugged but soaring voice.

‘Listen, if you may please…mine is a single point agenda. I have spent my life in an enslaved Hindustan but want to die in a socialist Hindustan.’

The realization of a socialist Hindustan was a beautiful dream that millions of eyes had seen along with those of Kaifi sahab’s. A majority of these eyes are around no more. The dream is still a dream. But I am absolutely certain that Kaifi sahab even right now must be sitting somewhere, in some world, safeguarding the flickering lamp-flame of hope enveloped amidst both his palms:

Don’t say a word today
Today, I won’t say a word too
Be as it is you are, still,
Holding hands we two
With the bequest of melancholy
With the warmth of passion
Who knows if in this very drop of time
The snow finally starts to melt far on a mountain peak,
May be

Translated by
Ashish Jaiswal
PhD (Education), University of Oxford

Kaifi Sahab, Laal Salaam