Book Review: ‘Kaifi and I’, by Shaukat Kaifi

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‘Kaifi, I love you boundlessly, No power in the world can stop me coming to you; no mountain, no river, no sea, no people, no sky, no angel, no God; and God alone knows what else.”

Yours and only yours,
Shaukat.

In this world of splintering relationships and emotional cacophony, ‘Kaifi and I’ comes as a puff of fresh air. Authored by Nasreen Rehman, ‘Kaifi and I’ is a translated memoir that was originally penned by Shaukat Kaifi, in 2001, just before her husband and noted poet Kaifi Azmi’s demise. The original memoir ‘Yaad ki Rehguzar’ was written in Urdu. With an endearing cover image of Shaukat and Kaifi, this book welcomes you with a wonderful introduction by Ralph Russell, followed by a heartwarming foreword by Priyamvada Gopal. ‘Kaifi and I’ is an enchanting read, because it in many ways portray the triumphs and tribulations of love and marriage wrapped in laughs, crises, compromises and joys over five decades. Let’s delve a little more into this saga that is peppered with emotional, scholarly and poetic sketches from the glorifying lives of two individuals who loved and lived their life to the hilt.

‘Kaifi and I’ opens in Shaukat sahiba’s childhood at Hyderabad. And, then she ornately proceeds to narrate the love story that is bewitching beautiful and worth of warmest admiration. Shaukat Kaifi reminiscences her first meeting with Kaifi sahab and how hopelessly and desperately she feel in love with the man, whom she described as “ slim and charismatic young man, whose voice, God help me, had a timber like the ruble of storm.” Subsequently, with choicest brush-strokes, she goes on to sketch her life with Kaifi sahab that was unfolding on the backdrops of India’s struggle for independence. While life wasn’t easy on one hand, but how Kaifi Azmi’s progressive thoughts and Sahaukat Kaifi’s conscientious outlook paved away for a life that was perfectly imperfect, yet enormously satisfying, is a story that touches the deepest realms of the heart. ‘Kaifi and I’ in short is an assortment of two souls, who were moving in and around cities, villages, Indian Independence, Communism, Prithvi theaters, Progressive Writers’ Association, Free Speech, Poetry, Cinema, Acting and various other snippets. The Memoir recites aloud a tale about love and commitment, throwing adequate light on the existence of progressive middle class Muslim horde during that era, quite convincingly.

‘Kaifi and I’ has a powerful narrative. Oodles of emotions oozes out from every word that has been written. Shaukat Kaifi is crystal clear in her thoughts and reminiscences, and poured her heart out in the narrative. She is spontaneous and never tries to enrich her words out of the context. She is also an excellent example of detailing. Whether it is her love for Kaifi or her life at her father’s house, the commune, the fight for India’s independence, Shabana and Baba Azmi or the mushaira’s that were embellished by stalwart poets, she has vividly described finer details, producing a picture to relish. Through the narrative you also get a glimpse of the personality that Shaukat Kaifi was. Strong willed, much ahead of her time, diligent and most importantly a committed woman who could do anything for the man she loved earnestly. Similarly, Kaifi Azmi, a poet par excellence, too was much of a progressive Muslim, contrary to the usual conservative clichés of the society. And together, they lived a life that was a product of love, warmth, respect and empathy.

You cannot talk about ‘Kaifi and I’ without dedicating few words to their love story. Love stories are primordial, we have stories of love all around us. But, what makes this an invigorating saga is the people and the era that formed the backdrop. This love story is one among those rare ones which stood firm on testing waters. As a reader, you get a glimpse of the two souls in love when Shaukat Kaifi describes her deep and personal feelings lyrically, touching every rim of emotion with poise and dignity. She drenched her words in emotions with such profoundness that you cannot help but ship yourself in the magical world of their instinctive love that these words catapults you into. She writes,
“ ….Kaifi walked upto me and said, “ I am very thirsty’. I filled the water and offered it to him.
He said, ‘ More’.
I refilled the bowl. He said ‘More’.
I poured some more.
‘More’, said Kaifi
I looked at him questioningly.
He said, “ My thirst is unquenched.’
Flushed, I hurried away. My world was transformed into a kaleidoscope of colours”.

The beauty of any translation lies on the unspoken words and emotions. Nasreen Rehman has bought out elements of implicit and intimate emotion with aplomb in this translation. When you read in between the lines, you don’t lose the emotional quotient, which is the soul of this awe inspiring memoir. She has stuck hard to the original, and produced a literature that is much akin to the one written in Urdu. The choice of words in English and at the same time, retaining some original diction, has lent an effortless structure to the narrative. Shaukat Kaifi sounds real here, and you may actually obliterate the fact that this is a translated piece of work, and not spoken by Shaukat Kaifi. Hugely commendable effort by Nasreen Rehman here.

However, there are two aspects that would have made the memoir a shade more perfect.

1. Retaining the original Urdu poems along with the translations: No matter how good the translation is, there is a chasm when it is about those heart wrenching poems. You cannot possibly translate the lyrical depth and tremor of the words spoken out of sheer love. Adding the original poems along side would have given the narrative more refined and arresting brilliance, on the whole.

2. Little more of Kaifi: As the narrative progresses, in some ways the memoir becomes more of Shaukat Azmi than Kaifi. While there are portions that reveal a lot about how Shaukat sahiba constructed her life with Prithvi Theaters, acting and cinema, we don’t hear much about Kaifi other than his sporadic stints as a poet. Also, we get to know Kaifi as a person much less than we know about Shaukat. Only towards the end, Kaifi comes alive, and is displayed vividly.

‘Kaifi and I’ is a delight. It is a textbook of love, life, commitment and contentment. Laden with beautiful pictures of Azmi family, you cannot help but gush over that era, the people and how within limited means they have been able to construct their lives prodigiously. There is a lot love, hope and unremitting memories that makes what this touching memoir is. Leaving you with a small excerpt from the poem ‘Aurat’ (Woman), that Kaifi Azmi dedicated to his beloved wife Sahukat on their wedding day :

                                                                   Woman

                                  “Patience will not help you struggle through life,
                                   Blood, not tears, sustain the pulse of life,
                                   You will fly when you’re free, and not ensnared by love
                                   Heaven is not just in the arms of a man
                                   Walk unfettered in the path of freedom with me
                                   Arise, my love, for now you must march with me”.

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