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'My dupatta would be curled around my neck instead of being draped over me'

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Rebellion is as much a collective art as it can be individualistic. In a tony corner of Mumbai, one awaits an experienced practitioner whose lifetime is a rebel’s canvas.

From the wide windows the view of the sea is marred only by the eyesore of a crude white mansion angling in. Inside, the living room is awash with sunshine. Shaukat Kaifi enters slowly, gripping a sturdy stick, resplendent in a red Maheswari sari with a gold border, her wrists, neck and ears laced with gold ornaments, her hair dyed jet black.

She is all of 81 and retains the dramatic presence of her eventful career as a theatre and film actress and, more lately, the author of Kaifi and I, a book about her life with writer-poet-lyricist husband Kaifi Azmi.

Originally published as Yaad ki Rehguzar in Urdu by Zubaan, it has been translated into English by Nasreen Rehman, following its success in Marathi, Hindi and even, intriguingly, Japanese. “The praise she is receiving has lifted her spirits mashallah,” says her daughter, actress Shabana Azmi, who familiarises one with the fact that Shaukat is more comfortable speaking Urdu or Hindi. For the moment, the mother is staying with her daughter.

As it turns out Shaukat’s mellifluous Urdu is captivating. When she talks of her life, an era with its past vitality invades the room. It was a time of love, poetry, rebellion, spirited public-mindedness, the idealist days of the communist movement and a journey through radical change. She tells a story well; anecdotes, dates and names skip off her tongue effortlessly, as her eyes glint behind black-framed glasses.

“Even in childhood, I was a rebel. My dupatta would be curled around my neck instead of being draped over me,” she says. Mother Khatoon indulged her young daughter but Shaukat’s aunt was scandalised. You may as well wear a beacon on you, she scolded her teenaged niece. “I just gave her a dirty look and thought to myself, I hope she drops dead!” sniggers Shaukat decades later.

Shaukat was born into a well-off Hyderabad family. Her father Yahya Khan was an excise inspector at the Nizam’s dispensation. Khan was not just indulgent, he was progressive too. Unlike her uncles who disapproved of educating the girls in the family, her father sent his daughters to school, some even to a co-ed.

The book gathers those moments, as it captures the perils of a pre-Independence youth in the Nizam-ruled Hyderabad, her move to Mumbai to live in a communist commune after her marriage, a union of 55 years, the death of her eldest child Khayyam days before his first birthday, the order to abort her second baby by the Communist Party of India (CPI) of which her husband was a full-time member (she was not earning and Kaifi was underground: who would support the family, they argued), her involvement with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and Prithvi Theatre.

Shaukat was known to be outspoken but her rebellious nature took full shape when she fell in love with Kaifi. “I used to revolt against tradition,” she shrugs.

The tall young Kaifi was already making waves as a revolutionary poet when 19-year-old Shaukat met him at a mushaira or poetry event hosted by family friends. “Kaifi brought inquilab (revolution) in my life.”

Shaukat, who had witnessed the tyranny of the Nizam’s rule, was overwhelmed when he recited Taj (Crown). “I thought how brave of him to speak against the Taj, Ala Hazrat (the Nizam) used to wear a crown so the poem was indirectly calling upon people to rise against the current rulers. He could have been jailed for just saying what he did.”

That evening she was in a white starched kurta and a rainbow coloured crinkled dupatta she had dyed herself. “In my opinion I was looking very good!”

After the recital, the girls made a beeline for Kaifi, so Shaukat headed towards another upcoming poet, Ali Sardar Jafri, for his autograph. Only when the crowd thinned did she seek Kaifi out for an autograph.

More than 60 years later, she recites fluently from memory the verse he scribbled for her. “It was so nonsensical, I was very upset.” Later, at her aunt’s place she asked why he wrote so carelessly for her. Why, he countered, had she turned to Jafri. “I was very happy he was jealous at least.”

At that time she was already engaged to her cousin. The single-minded Shaukat went to her father and told him that for her it was Kaifi, and Kaifi alone. “Abbajaan was so broadminded and sweet,” she recalls. He initially did not take her seriously, not even when she showed him a love letter Kaifi had written in blood. “That, my dear, could well have been written in goat’s blood,” he snorted.

But Yahya Khan did not trifle with his daughter’s love and did then what few fathers would do even today. He bought two train tickets and, without telling his wife, took his daughter to Mumbai where Kaifi was living in a CPI commune.

The poet worker stayed in a single room that held books, a cot, chair and stove. He used to earn Rs 45 those days out of which Rs 30 went for food and Rs 10 for a railway pass. Her father took Shaukat aside. “Right now your splendour is such that the dupatta you wear today will next be worn a year later. Observe if you can live Kaifi’s life and then decide.”

Khan took his young daughter for a walk on the seafront. “Among our people, we marry only once. Are you sure?” She replied: “Even if he had been a labourer, I’d have married him.” Kaifi and she were wed the next day and her father returned to Khatoon, who did not speak to him for a month. Shaukat was forgiven only when she took her newborn son to her mother. “She wept and hugged me.”

Shortly after her marriage, P.C. Joshi (CPI general secretary), came to her room in the commune. “Sweet se aadmi thhe (he was a sweet man),” recalls Shaukat fondly. What do you do all day, he asked her. Shaukat, at that moment, was busy trying to make a tea cosy. “A communist wife cannot sit idle. She has to walk shoulder to shoulder with her husband. She has also to earn and make their children good citizens,” Joshi told her kindly.

She began to work as a voice artiste with All India Radio and was thrilled when she got Rs 10 for a play. The icing was her stint as an actress with the IPTA.

Their first son was born in Uttar Pradesh and Shaukat went to her in-laws’ home in Mijwan village near Azamgarh. Purdah was observed and she went along with the custom, but the couple often escaped to the coffee houses in Lucknow’s Hazratganj.

Why did she agree to purdah? “My in-laws gave me so much love, although they were Shias and very orthodox, and I was a Sunni. To make them happy I quietly wore a sari and dupatta. But never the burqa,” Shaukat explains.

What seemed revolutionary to others was just and natural to her. She took four-month-old Shabana in a sling to her rehearsals at Prithvi Theatre, where Prithviraj Papaji Kapoor never minded a child’s cry. Years later, she essayed a brothel keeper for Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay where her research took her to Kamathipura’s redlight areas. “I went to Kamathipura for eight days to observe the characters for my role as a madam.” It was only after the film came out that Kaifi remarked, “Aapne mujhse ek baar puchh liya hota (You could have asked me once)”. Shaukat explains: “However broadminded one may be, he must have felt a little awkward that I was doing a tawaif’s part.”

AAfter years of living in Mumbai, Shaukat and Kaifi left to work in Mijwan village. Change had been slow to come to his ancestral village. There was no school, no electricity. “Kaifi was a landowner’s son but their land had been usurped. I built a bathroom in our hut. And he built a girls’ school and started teaching there. When the pressure cooker used to whistle, the village women would come running thinking a train was approaching! Later, we even started computer classes.”

Her thoughts drift a little. After her husband’s death eight years ago, she fell ill, abandoning the book she was working on. It is her son-in-law Javed Akhtar she thanks for her renewed efforts. “After writing half the book, I went quiet after Kaifi died. Then Javed said, Shaukat appa, complete it, it will be very popular.”

The age of rebellion may seem passé to some but she is thankful that her children are secular and public minded. Her cinematographer son Baba Azmi and his actress wife Tanvi have taken on the welfare of their cook’s children. Shabana has built 12,000 homes for the needy. “But people today are very selfish. The devotion to the common cause is not there any more, not even in the communist party. But change will happen.”

Suddenly, at the stroke of the hour, she says: “I think we have talked enough. I am tired now. I need to rest.” As she steers slowly out of the room, she adds that her arthritis keeps her from walking much.

I make the mistake of nodding. “You keep nodding at everything but your questions don’t stop,” she exclaims exasperatedly. Although an hour discussing a lifetime sounds inadequate to some, one is unsure now whether to dip or sway one’s head.

Barely out of the building I am summoned back. The maid informs me I had forgotten to take a copy of her memoir. In the snug bedroom, Shaukat is reclining. She inscribes an affectionate message in Urdu. As I exit, she is gazing at the next serial on her favourite channel.

Did the serial end the interview? Rebels don’t always play by the rules.

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