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Posted at: Jan 13, 2019, 6:41 AM; last updated: Jan 13, 2019, 6:41 AM (IST)

‘Social justice and fair play were in his DNA’

In an exclusive interview, Shabana Azmi remembers her father who was much more than a sum of his parts
‘Social justice and fair play were in his DNA’
Shabana and Kaifi

How was Kaifi Azmi, the father?

I often read accounts of public personalities who are large hearted in public but are difficult in their private lives. But not my father. He was always available to us. I would often barge into his room with some banal question. He would put his pen down and answer patiently without a trace of annoyance at being disturbed. He would patiently sit with mummy, giving her cues for a play she was rehearsing. He got Baba, my brother, a job as an intern with Chetan saheb — normal things that most fathers do but are given the benefit of exemption when they are committed to ‘the greater common good’ and are celebrities. I always took Abba for granted but I continue to be overwhelmed by his work both as a poet and as an activist. Once he set his mind to something, nothing could deter him till he achieved his goal. He never exulted in praise and would be on to the next task the minute he completed one. 

For a poet who wrote Aurat in 1940s, he clearly believed in equality between genders. As a daughter what is the most progressive thing you think he did as a father?

There was no dichotomy between his words and action. His relationship with his wife, his daughter and daughter-in-law was special. I marvel at how a boy from a patriarchal zamindar family turned out the way he did. My grandmother used to say that at the age of seven he would refuse to wear new clothes on Eid because the farmers’ children could not afford new ones. Social justice and fair play were in his DNA.

You are all set to celebrate his centenary, how do you see his relevance in today’s times? 

In celebrating Kaifi we celebrate the times in which he lived, we celebrate Sajjad Zaheer, Sardar Jafri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ismat Chughtai, Shailendra and many such stalwarts. They were tuned to the sound of a different drummer. They believed art should be used as an instrument for social change. They were deeply invested in the society around them and knew that an artist’s best resource base is life itself. Kaifi’s centenary celebrations carry the message that art has the possibility to create a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur. In Kaifi’s words: “Honton ko seeke dekhiye pachtaiyega aap, Hungaamein jaag uthte hain aksar ghutan ke baad” ( Seal your lips and see, you will regret the act, If a lull is enforced, the storm will attack).

He envisioned a new world and wanted to bring in change....do you think he succeeded in his mission?

He was realistic enough to know that transformation of mind set takes time. In Mijwan, the village of his birth, he set up an NGO, Mijwan Welfare Society that works for the empowerment of women and the girl-child through education and skill development. But he was aware that in a patriarchal society like ours the real challenge is to bring a change in the mindset. He would tell me, “Bete, when you are working for change you should build into that expectation the possibility that it might not occur within your lifetime. But you must have the conviction that if you carry on working with dedication and sincerity then change will come even if it does so after you are gone.” Today, when I see the confident girls of Mijwan negotiating more space for themselves in their families and in their community, I realise how prophetic his words were.

Can you recall something unique that you haven’t shared till now? 

My brother Baba and I firmly believe that had it not been for mummy’s robust support, Kaifi would not have been the person he was. When I asked Abba how he would best describe mummy, he said, “Woh bahut achchi saathi hain.” But what is interesting about their relationship is that it would vary and the roles could be reversed seamlessly, without any fuss. Abba was in hospital for a carbuncle operation. Two days after the surgery, while he was still in hospital, mummy accompanied me to an outdoor schedule because she had spent herself as his primary caregiver and needed a break. There was no admonition from his side. Another time, she was having a bypass surgery. Abba was with her till the previous night. But on the day of the surgery he left for Patna because he had a commitment that he didn’t want to break. And she was okay with it! Today, when young men and women measure love almost by legislation, I wonder if there is any place for such empathy and understanding!

Do you feel his life automatically lends itself to a biopic? Who would be most suitable to play the part?

Yash Chopra had evinced an interest in making a film on the play, Kaifi Aur Main, based on Shaukat Kaifi’s memoirs Yaad ki Rahguzar. Sadly, he passed away. I believe it would make a beautiful film and Farhan Akhtar would be the best choice for Kaifi.

One quality of your father’s that you truly loved and one that annoyed you? 

I loved his compassion, his humour and his approachability. His indifference to his health used to exasperate me .

Who do you think among today’s poets would be his equivalent? Or was he unparalleled? 

He was a product of his times. The Progressive Writers Movement had Sajjad Zaheer, Sardar Jafri, Faiz, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sahir, Majrooh, Kaifi all of whom shared a common world view. They were all good poets and I do not have the qualification to rate them. Kaifi used to regard Javed Akhtar as the best among his generation. He shares a worldview with the Progressives but his expression is different. — NS

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