Jessica Sequeira reviews Kaifiyat: Verses on Love and Women by Kaifi Azmi

Translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil (Penguin Random House India, 2019)

In honour of the one hundredth birthday celebrations of the Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, Indian writer and translator Rakhshanda Jalil has put together what her publisher calls a “curatorial” selection of Azmi’s lyrics and nazms (poems composed around a theme and meant to be recited) that centre on the topic of love and women. An accessible English edition of Azmi’s work is long overdue, as his body of work is modest but beloved in India. During its time it appeared not so much in books as in anthologies and popular movies, with verses reaching the majority of their audience through great playback singers like Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar. Actors like Raaj Kumar, Priya Rajvansh, and Guru Dutt would mouth Azmi’s lyrics as they danced or gazed with lingering, tear-filled eyes into the intimate distance or the moonlike face of a lover.

Penguin India is to be lauded for bringing out this book, which will find a much larger audience than previous editions of his work. This is in part because it includes a transliteration of the Urdu script, making the poems legible to readers of Devanagari, too. Azmi’s poems are surrounded by the words of the women closest to him: an introduction by his daughter, another by the translator, Rakhshanda Jalil, and an afterword by his wife. This is fitting, given that Azmi’s most famous poem is probably “Aurat” (Woman), a quiet yet compelling call to arms, almost incantatory in its repeated encouragement to the women in his life: “You have to walk beside me.”

Many of the poems in Kaifiyat are about mothers and daughters; Azmi sings their praises but also chastises them when they ignore their desires in order to conform. He repeatedly asks: Should one give way to a restless heart or control it for society’s sake? His answer is clear: it is a crime to hide love. Women should spurn social custom and declare their desire. When a woman lives solely for a man, he suggests, sadness is inevitable, as in one poem about a young widow who poisons herself after her husband’s death. They should be restless, refusing to settle for convention, choosing things for themselves, constantly questioning. Some poems are written in the third person, voiced by the poet “Kaifi,” many of which are personal and romantic. The hem of a piece of clothing is repeatedly depicted as a threshold, which, if crossed, brings ultimate closeness. 

Azmi makes it clear, however, that the question of love must be addressed forthrightly and then put aside, for there are other things to do on earth once the lover is near as the heartbeat to the breast, the fragrance to the flower. For this reason, I found the selection of poems presented in this edition to be perplexing. Though it contains some beautiful pieces, it is not representative. I wonder why the editors of this edition chose only “verses on love and women.” It suggests that these are nothing more than themes for Azmi, subjects, as they are for so many traditional writers of nazms. The subtitle doesn’t do justice to what women represent for this writer, nor to the significant political engagement in his work. Azmi engages with a much broader and more complex set of topics, and indeed both introductory texts included in this new edition focus heavily on his political involvement. Reading the preliminary materials, one is prepared for fiery political verses, but the selection is composed only of romantic poems.

The very personal foreword by Azmi’s daughter Shabana paints the poet as an understanding father with a sly sense of humor. She recalls everything from her father’s love for Mont Blanc pens to the mushairas (poetic performances) and mehfils (intimate evenings of entertainment) in which Azmi participated frequently at their home and the homes of others, alongside other poets such as Begum Akhtar, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, and Ali Sardar Jafri. She recalls them this way: “Their beautiful words fell like music on my young ears. I found the atmosphere fascinating—the steady flow of conversation, the tinkering of glasses, the smoke-filled room.” What she most appreciates in her father’s work, she says, is the way that, for him, the personal becomes universal, addressing “the struggle of all human beings.”

The text begins to sound a bit like marketing material when she describes her work with the Mijwan Welfare Society, which continues the development of her father’s home village, a project now apparently supported by Bollywood stars, and her own involvement with “women’s issues, the rights of the homeless and the need for communal harmony.” The eulogistic tone is perhaps understandable, but for me the emphases on sociology and politics, as well as her father’s personality, have the effect of making the poetry itself seem secondary, a sensation underscored by claims like: “There is no dichotomy in his life between word and action.”

In contrast, Rakhshanda Jalil’s translator’s introduction is informative, giving readers an essential context for the poems. Trained as a literary historian, Jalil is attentive to the environment in which Azmi wrote and the reception of his work. In video interviews, she speaks of her interest in writers with “eternal” themes, which explains her interest in poets, as well as her fascination with historical context. Jalil’s consciousness of the duality between the eternal and the now brings her close to Azmi, who in his poem “Woman” speaks of the double currents of “History” (“History has still not acknowledged your work”) and “reality” (“You are a reality and not just an interesting story”).

Jalil gives a very helpful biography of the poet, focusing on his politics. Azmi was born in 1919 in the village of Mijwan in Azamgarh (Uttar Pradesh) as Saiyyed Athar Husain and left as a child with his family for Lucknow. His father sent him to the madrasa Sultan ul-Madaris, the largest Shia seminary in the city, where he wrote his first ghazal at age eleven. There he also arranged his first strike for student rights and was introduced to the famous story collection Angarey (“Sparks”). When he joined Gandhi's nationwide swaraj (self-rule) and satyagraha (civil disobedience movement), getting involved with the labor unions and communist party, he began to publish in leftist literary journals. He eventually ended up moving with his wife to Bombay, the nucleus of both the film industry and the Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM), where he started writing lyrics for films. In addition to his poetic work, Azmi would write 240 songs for eighty films, gathered in Meri Awaaz Suno, and would eventually win the most prestigious Indian literary prizes for his work. 

Here Jalil comes into her own as a historian, giving an account of the PWM and emphasising its importance. Her arguments are synthetic—she says Azmi’s poetic and film work formed part of the same continuum, with his poems and politics mutually reinforcing each other, and his verses on politics and love interlacing. “Like a master vintner pouring new wine in old bottles, Kaifi has used traditional genres such as the qataamasnavi and the ghazal to speak of radically new concerns,” she says, adding that: “Critique of fascism, imperialism, capitalism blend and merge seamlessly with vignettes of love, longing and loss.” There is no sense that Azmi was conflicted about these intersections, or that they posed a particular challenge for him. Perhaps he was good at reaching compromises. 

Azmi and his wife lived in a commune and were both involved in the PWM, stylistically and politically. But the movement started to suffer due to independence when many Urdu writers were forced to move to Pakistan, and the modernist movement, which was more interested in the life of the mind. Many writers, including those experimenting with Indian English, began to see the religious, cinematic, and political traditions—precisely the intersection at which Azmi was working—as stifling at best and insipid at worst, believing they must turn to other cultures in the attempt to create something new. “Indian English” poets and novel writers like A. K. Ramanujan, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Nissim Ezekiel, and Jayanta Mahapatra did not want to use a traditional English but rather developed their own kind of writing, colloquial and neologistic, open to influences ranging from William Carlos Williams to Dylan Thomas and Ezra Pound.

I am sympathetic to this reaching for other traditions, this scrappy creation of oneself from diverse cosmopolitan sources, but reading Jalil’s biography of Azmi it is also easy to see the attraction of the other approach. I am struck by the remarkable fluidity with which Azmi moved from one formal structure to another, writing religious and romantic verses in Urdu then lyrics in Devanagari, moving from Lucknow to Bombay, sliding from the madrasa to the film industry, taking on both the non-political ghazal and the rousing song for the people. His wide range is due in large part to precisely his work within formal structures and institutions, from the format of mushaira recitations to the conventions of the movie song. Even his questioning of the system fits into this logic—often those who most criticise the way things work are the ones most deeply involved in that system in the first place.

Jalil’s emphasis on synthesis in her introduction suggests it might be possible to analyse how Azmi’s progressivism in public life was mirrored or challenged in his poetry, even in his verses on the eternal themes of love and eroticism. The resistance found in his poetry complicates what the title suggests is a simple collection. It seems to me, for instance, that the repeated theme of the “restless heart” is more than a rhetorical technique. Azmi implies that love and social justice have in common the need for action in the present, the presence of both elation and despair, and the danger of complacency and an excess of waiting. “Life lives in struggle, not in the thrall of patience,” he says. He beckons to a woman with the following words: “Come, there is no time for suppressing / There is much to do besides love.” There are many thorns and embers in his poems but even more hems and stitches, places of connection.

Jalil isn’t the first to translate Azmi’s work, but it is often a blessing to have available multiple versions of a set of poems. In Azmi’s case, the process of translation presents particular difficulties. His Urdu is simple but elegant, accessible to the masses yet substantial in its meaning. Translating Azmi requires a tone that is poetic yet approachable, unobtrusive but not colloquial, with a lyrical formality that can coax out emotional effects. In addition to the Penguin book, this year Bloomsbury India is releasing a selection of Azmi’s nazms under the title Poems, translated by the poet Sudeep Sen, and there are several other smaller celebrations of Azmi’s work in India. Until now Azmi’s primary translator in English has been the government official and writer Pavan K. Varma, whom Azmi personally respected and whom he directly requested to work on his Selected Poems. Varma translated with great linguistic playfulness and infused Azmi’s work with something that to my ear sounds almost British. I’m partial to his translations myself, but I wonder whether, were I not such an Anglophile, I’d enjoy them or find their stylistic liberties off-putting.

Jalil’s translation is “simpler” than Varma’s, more direct and closer to the syntax of the original. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s closer to everyday speech. Taken as a whole, her translation reads elegantly, fluidly, almost as prose; it doesn’t sound like something anybody would actually say, but it still manages not to call attention to itself or sound unnatural. Azmi’s laments, injunctions, and melancholy accounts of joy and regret read as monologues on the sorrows and elations of love, and invite us into his reveries.

Urdu poetry, capacious enough to include forms like the ghazal and cinematic lyric, contains many artificial forms, sometimes personal, sometimes drawing on “typical” figures such as the widow or pregnant woman. It is a poetic tradition rich with dramatic imagery, one that aspires to intensity, so a formal register in English such as Jalil’s doesn’t sound amiss. Jalil uses interjections such as “O,” “Fie,” and “Bravo,” which, if not done with a certain irony, sound dated, as if harking back to another period of poetry. Phrases that sound oddly Shakespearean or formal to my ear, such as “smitten” or “tremulous lips,” may sound natural for another public: say, a Delhi native educated in an English-language school. Jalil has also worked a great deal on the important Urdu poet Ghalib, and I remember being pulled up short by a similar “bravo” in the Ghalib translation by Frances W. Pritchett and Owen T. A. Cornwall (“bravo, rose season!;” “Bravo, oh common joy of the commoners!;” “Bravo to the hairsplittingness of your arrow!”). I don’t know if Jalil has read this translation, or if a similar sensibility underlies her choices, but decisions like this suggest to me that she’s working within a specific tradition of Urdu poetry translation. 

The translation, in general, is a great achievement, and at several moments I felt Azmi’s voice coming through to me directly thanks to a finely selected use of the formal register, as in phrases like: “I was birthed by solitude / All of me emanates from loneliness,” “They say the pregnant woman is not so innocent. No one knows whether she will birth a demon or a god,” “A thousand ragas dream inside your body,” and “It is a poet’s heart, why should it be needlessly empathetic? Give me a flower too if you like this poem of mine.”

The afterword by Azmi’s eighty-one-year-old wife describes him as a loving father with a social consciousness, and as a friend: “He always tried to help me progress in my work, create a name for myself, be independent and to win people’s approval.” She describes how, as an elderly man, he had his wheelchair placed on the railway tracks in the village of Phulpur to stop its railway station from being destroyed and the protestors from being beaten. Eventually his intervention helped the narrow-gauge line to be expanded into a superfast train that connects Azmi’s home village in Azamgarh to Delhi. Today it is called the Kaifiyat Express.

Kaifiyat is not a critical edition, and the accompanying texts written by family members come off as slightly hagiographic, an impression that is reinforced by a meditative black and white photo of Azmi on the cover. It is beautiful, but it makes him look more like a saint than a lover. The introductions are anecdotal and divided with somewhat confusing temporal cuts, which seem to have been added by editors. I would have liked to have seen a more formal analysis of Azmi’s work to better understand how it fits into the tradition of Urdu poetry and to unravel the traditional and modernising tendencies that appeared in his poetry, not just in his life. Azmi is repeatedly referred to as “strange,” but I still don’t feel that I have a grasp of what is particular to his poetry. Without close readings, the book seems to talk over and around the work, so that I almost feel the poems could be replaced with a different selection, without any change in the discussion.

Still, I am very grateful for this book. The hardcover is a lovely thing to hold and gives readers a route into Azmi’s universe that is far more accessible than previous editions. I hope it will be one of a series of reissues of Azmi’s poems, each with their own intricate rainbow of feelings and ideas.