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The magic of Kaifi Azmi

  • Published at 06:30 pm October 12th, 2019
The book

Book review

Uth meri jaan! Mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe 

(Rise, my beloved! With me, you must walk along)


It is with these words from Kaifi Azmi’s iconic poem, “Aurat | Woman”, that Sudeep Sen opens his compendium of English translations of Kaifi’s poems. Sudeep chooses these words for a personal reason—“Aurat”, he explains in his Introduction, was his “initiation” into Kaifi’s poetry—as a child, having been brought up in a traditional Bengali household, he had heard his mother recite the Urdu poem at Durga Puja celebrations in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park neighborhood [incidentally, set up as a colony for “East Pakistan Displaced Persons” or people of Bangladeshi origin in pre-partition India]. 

A young Sudeep was “smitten” by its “depth and parabolic lyricism” and “drawn to its political core” in a way that he might not have understood as a child but which, he says, has shaped his “poetic ideology” later. Even if it were not for Sudeep’s personal reason, this opening line from “Aurat” is, perhaps, the most apposite choice to begin a book on Kaifi with, for it pretty much sums up not only his fiercely liberal ideology but also his poetic temperament and, a cursory glance at the contents, reveals that Sudeep knows this rather well. 

Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms brings together Sudeep’s selection of 50 Urdu poems of Kaifi Azmi, presented in the Devanagari script and translated into English by five different translatorsHusain Mir Ali, Baidar Bakht, Sumantra Ghosal, Pritish Nandy and Sudeep Sen himself. This 224-page work also contains extensive bibliography, book jacket facsimiles, and lovely archival photographs of Kaifi’s family and colleagues in the book’s colophon. 

“The secrets of my heart would not have been revealed”, Ghalib had famously said, “but for my selection of verses” [Khulta kisi pe kyon mere dil ka ma’amla / sheron ke intekhaab ne ruswa kiya mujhe]. Sudeep’s selection of Kaifi’s poems reveals not only his grasp over the poet’s wide canvas but also his vast understanding of Kaifi, the man. Was the Marxist card-holder a believer? Did his romance occasionally give way to socialist concerns? Was his dissent predicated on sheer idealism? These and similar questions find answers in different nazms found in the book, and Sudeep chooses carefully. 

In “Ibn-e-Maryam” [translated by Husain Mir Ali as “The Son of Mary”], Kaifi takes forward the classical Urdu poet’s tradition of using the metaphor of Christ but gives it a modern heterogenous twist to depict the pitiable condition of the common man. While “Aawara Sajde” [translated by Baidar Bakht as “Wandering Prostrations”] is Kaifi’s heart-breaking elegy on the split of the Communist Party of India; in “Nazraana” [translated by Sumantra Ghosal as “Gift”], he implores his beloved to not open her doors for him out of sheer benevolence. Undercurrents of Kaifi’s avowed feminism smoothly make their way through “Behroopni” [translated by Pritish Nandy as “She with the Many Faces”] where he celebrates womanhood in its varied forms. 

In terms of lyricism and cadence, Sudeep’s own translations of Kaifi are the best. They first absorb the essence of the original and then deliver it with a delightful spark, characteristic of the Sudeep we know as an English poet. In fact, he admits that his “litmus test” while translating is that the English versions should read as “good contemporary poems”. His translations of 11 of Kaifi’s nazms begin with one of the most sensuous poems in Urdu literature, “Ek Bosa | One Kiss”:


Jab bhi choom leta hoon, in haseen aankhon ko

sau chiraagh andhere mein jhilmilaane lagte hain

. . .

Phool khilne lagte hain, ujde-ujde gulshan mein 

pyaasi-pyaasi dharti par, abr chhaane lagte hain


Sudeep translates these verses as: 


The moment I kiss these beautiful eyes —

a hundred lamps in the darkness — glow, glitter

. . .          

Flowers bloom in unkempt wilted gardens

on the thirst-wrenched earth — clouds collect, hover 


The Urdu word jhilmilaana may be translated into English simply as “glitter”. However, by using “glow, glitter”, instead of just “glitter”, Sudeep has not only captured the spirit of what Kaifi wants to say but has also lived up to his promise of giving his readers translations which themselves read like good English poems. Similarly, he translates pyaasi-pyaasi dharti as “thirst-wrenched earth” and abr chhaane lagte hain as “clouds collect, hover”. In another nazm, “Do Raatein | Two Nights”, he translates uljhe-uljhe hue jazbaat as “jumbled-confused emotions” and sehmi-sehmi si inaayaat as “scared-frightened favours”. There is, probably, no English equivalent of uljhe-uljhe or sehmi-sehmi but Sudeep’s translations come as close as translations can and bear testimony to the fact that he knows, what Mark Twain calls, “the difference between the right word and the almost right word”.

I may have minor quibbles with Sudeep over his translations of a verse or two; but the fact that there are only a verse or two which one can argue with itself asseverates Sudeep’s prowess as a highly fine and tactful translator. To be honest, as improper as it may sound, I did not expect a contemporary English poet with a Bengali background and anglicized disposition to translate so sensitively from a language such as Urdu—I am glad Sudeep has proven me wrong. 

Kaifi was a poet of hope and optimism. Like Faiz, he believed in the promised day—vo din ki jiska vaada hai, jo lauh-e-azal pe likkha hai. He knew that the desired change will ultimately come and he also knew that it will not come during his lifetime. And, despite knowing that, he kept working for it till his last breath. On the last page of the book are inscribed his words:


haan magar ek diya naam hai jiska ummeed

jhilmilaata hi chala jaata hai


but there is one lamp, one named hope —

one that continually flickers, glows!


These words (in Sudeep’s translation), rather beautifully, encapsulate the ideology of Kaifi Azmi—that masterly poet, fine lyricist, profound thinker, sensitive humanist, debonair gentleman and the walking image of India’s rich and composite culture. 

Kaifi, who spent a lifetime resisting wrongs, ended his pièce de résistance, “Inteshaar | Disarray”, beseeching his people to rise and churn out a revolution. He wanted someone to repay the debt, someone to take responsibility of that revolution which is still due: 


koi to sood chukaaye, koi to zimma le

us inquilaab ka jo aaj tak udhaar sa hai


In these dark times when all that Kaifi stood for is being mercilessly crushed, by putting together this compendium of his best works, Sudeep has made a laudable effort to repay that debt in some measure. 


Saif Mahmood is an advocate in the Supreme Court of India and author of Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City & Her Greatest Poets.