Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms New & Selected Translations
Selected and co-translated by
Kaifi Azmi, like love, is a many splendoured thing, and he is being discovered in a hundred ways in his centenary year.
This book is, perhaps, the hundred and first way. It is a charming scrap-book, with special photos, old book covers and images of inscriptions. There is a personal touch, too — a tribute from a contemporary poet who, while never having met him, established a unique rapport with him. Though it is somewhat marred by the ode to Mont Blanc pens — Azmi’s fascination for the pens is well-known — one will let that pass for the moment.
This collection is also a tribute to translations that keep Azmi alive 18 years after his death in the minds and hearts of those who don’t know Urdu. A bridge-engineer, an academic, a poet, a cinematographer and a former MP-cum-poet throw their weight behind translating and rendering Kaifi in their own specific frames and simultaneously enlivening different facets of the extraordinary Azmi.
Pritish Nandy, when he speaks of Azmi’s unique contribution — “the virile diction, the simplicity and sensitivity of a language that has been shorn of all the traditional trappings of its literary heritage and fashioned to meet the demands of a new contemporary consciousness” — does special service to the poet by putting across succinctly all the dimensions that make Azmi special. Nandy’s reference to the “people’s poet”, with his enthralling recitation skills, bringing “social consciousness to Indian poetry at a time when nightingales, roses and paeans to Ganga maiyya reigned supreme”, leaves very little room to add much more.
Except, when Azmi is invoked, room must be made to accommodate the various kinds of poems he wrote — from the revolutionary fire of Telangana, celebrating social change and revolution, to the sensuousness of Ek Bosa or One Kiss. His lesser known but supremely romantic Tum, strikes a deep chord: Jise na boojh saka ishq woh paheli ho tum/ Jise samajh na saka pyaar bhi woh pyaar ho tum/ Khuda kare kisi daaman mein jazb ho na sake/ Yeh mere ashq-e-haseen jinse aashkaar ho tum (You are a riddle that love is yet to solve/ You are the love that confounds all loving/ Let these tears of sorrow find no absolution/ For what these tears reveal is you).
Azmi’s collections do not just represent manifestos that are a nod to action, though he left nothing unsaid when he joined the Communist Party in the prime of his youth, staying in communes and helping win followers through his pen. However, there was much more that he brought to the world with the passion he displayed for all aspects of life. There is something for every mood or rasa of life in this collection. This volume definitely does justice to being a signature set that captures his many sides.
A Padmashree, Azmi was also popular and feted in his lifetime, enjoying all the markers of “success”. His years of struggle on the footpaths of Bombay were rewarded, eventually, by recognition and acclaim in the world of glamour. His dedicated children, Shabana and Baba Azmi, and his son-in-law, the very well-known writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar, indefatigably celebrate Azmi’s life, ensuring he is never forgotten. Commercial success often leads to a charge that things have been simplified at the altar of popularity, but Azmi manages to evade that charge: his work is so well-crafted and honed, that it is almost a textbook case for why, to be profound, you don’t need to be obscure.
Azmi died in May 2002, well before his desire to “die in a socialist India” could come true (he said at the end of his life that he was “born in a slave nation, grew up in independent India and hoped to die in a socialist India”).
The last page of this collection does well to quote from one of the most powerful poems of the man, Charaaghaan: Haan magar ek diya jiska naam hai ummeed/ Jhilmilata hi chala jaata hai! (But there is one lamp, one named hope / One that continually flickers, glows!)
Urdu is written from the right to the left. So what is the last page in English books, is usually the first page in Urdu books. However, Azmi, whether read in translation from the left or in its original from the right, does more than flicker. He shines and glows all the way.