Sometimes, Shabana felt insecure with the love Abba gave me, says Tanvi Azmi while missing Kaifi Azmi
Tanvi Azmi pays a heart-warming tribute to her father-in-law and renowned poet Kaifi Azmi on his 20th death anniversary.
Kaifi Azmi was an incredible contradiction. A dreamer, who was as much a doer. A romantic who was also a keen realist. Someone who nurtured roses and cacti with equal fervour. A non-believer, who paid obeisance to humanism. A poet, a philosopher not confined to the armchair but someone who reached the grassroots to rewrite the destiny of his remote village Mijwan, now on the world map.
In a home peopled by women, he was an equalist. He can be credited for his wife Shaukat Azmi’s individualistic journey as an actor and author. For daughter Shabana Azmi, he was a worldview, the fountainhead of her being. And for daughter-in-law Tanvi Azmi, he was the all-loving, all-embracing ‘Abba’, whose reminiscences light up her face even as they leave her eyes moist.
On his 20th death anniversary, Tanvi Azmi pays a tribute to the legendary Kaifi Azmi. In her own words...
“Abba said no one can harm you”
It was almost 37 years back that I got married into this family. Being an inter-caste marriage, the situation was volatile. My parents (the late actor Usha Kiran and Dr Manohar Kher) received much flak for my decision. I was threatened too. It was a difficult time but Abba (Kaifi Azmi) said, “Bete, jab tak main hoon, tab tak tumhara ek baal bhi baaka hone nahi doonga. I will stand guard outside the house and see to it that no one harms you. You needn’t fear. Main tumhare saath hoon.” The person hugely responsible for making my transition so easy was Abba.
I was the darling of my parents. My father would say, “My daughter is a phool and she should be treated like one.” I was fortunate to receive the same loving treatment in my sasural as in my maika. Not for a minute did Abba allow me to feel the absence of a father. He used the endearment ‘Dulhan Pasha’ (honourable bride) to address me. It’s like putting the bahu on a pedestal. When at leisure, he would ask me to sit and sing his songs like Waqt ne kiya kya haseen situm (Kaagaz Ke Phool 1959), Jhoom jhoom dhalti raat (Kohraa 1964) and even those written by others. At times when he was researching, he’d ask me to read out stuff in Hindi for him.
“Abba was the most secular man I came across”
During the initial days of our marriage, Baba (cinematographer and director) and I lived in another apartment. Every evening we’d visit the family home in Janki Kutir. After two years we also moved into Janki Kutir. Abba was the most secular man I came across. I am not too religious. But I follow some rituals. I had a small mandir in the corner of the house. Every morning I’d pray there. Whenever a new car was bought, I was asked to do the pooja and break the naryal. I’d apply the auspicious tikka and do the aarti.
The great thing about the Azmis is that they celebrate Holi and Diwali with the same gusto as Eid. In fact, Mummy (mother-in-law Shaukat Azmi) would take a whole jingbang of relatives and kids to Mount Mary Church during Christmas, complete with festoons and caps. I still put up a Christmas tree during the season. It’s on my husband Baba’s insistence that I started bringing Ganpati home. Baba loves the festive atmosphere, preparing modaks and all.
“Sometimes, Shabana felt insecure with the love Abba showered on me”.
Abba practiced what he wrote. There was no incongruity. His work was in sync with his philosophy that women should be respected. Be it his wife, daughter, or daughter-in-law, he accorded the same respect to each one of us. (Laughs) To the extent that it sometimes made Shabana insecure with the amount of love and affection, Abba showered on me.
He used to affectionately call Shabana ‘chiriya’ and ‘gulab ka phool’. Once he happened to tell me, “Bete tum mere gulab ke phool ho.” Shabana overheard that and all hell broke loose. She asked him, “Abba aapne Tanvi ko gulab ka phool kaha?” His quick retort was, “Nahi bete, main toh gobi ka phool (cauliflower) keh raha tha.” (Laughs) Then he looked into my direction suggesting ‘don’t give me away’.
“Abba and Mummy would have their in-house jokes”
Abba and Mummy were on the same wavelength. They had this morning ritual, which they devotedly followed. Tea was served in a trolley, and the kettle was dressed in an exquisite chikankari tea cozy. They enjoyed the morning cup in silence. In fact, Abba’s nazm, Ek Lamha, perhaps an ode to this togetherness, captures the warmth of that moment. It goes:
Zindagi naam hai kuchh lamhon ka
Aur un mein bhi wahi ikk lamha
Jis mein do bolti aankhen
Chai ki pyaali se jab utthin…
Kaun jaane ki usi lamhe mein
Door parbat pe kahin
Barf pighalne hi lage.
When we moved out of Janki Kutir into our home, Baba and I carried forward this ‘morning tea ritual’. Basically, Abba was a quiet person and so is Baba. One morning Mummy called me. She asked, “Kya kar rahe ho?” I replied, “Main sannate (silence) mein baithi hoon.” She responded, “Main bhi yahan sannate mein baithi hui hoon!” referring to her equally quiet husband. For the next 45 minutes, we two kept chatting on the phone while our respective men sat in silence in the background!
At other times, Abba and Mummy would be guffawing amongst themselves so much that Abba would have tears rolling down his cheeks. They certainly had some in-house jokes, which were never shared with the children. When I asked Baba about it, he said, “Unke aapas ka mamla hai!” You could sense a subtle romance between them when Abba expected his wife to know when his plate was empty and when it needed to be refilled. She would gently ask, “Kaifi doon aur?” and he would nod his head.
Another way of showing love towards Mummy was when she’d fall ill. He’d drop all that he was doing and accompany her to the doctor. Abba would say, “Meri biwi ko aap theek kar dijiye.” The emphasis on ‘meri biwi’ was eloquent.
“Abba was a humanist”
Abba was an evolved man. You evolve only when you begin to view human beings as equals and when you rise above prejudice. This kind of Sufi outlook doesn’t stem from religion. It stems more from the goodness of a human being, from a belief, which you work towards… Doosra Banwas (written in the aftermath of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition) about Lord Ram going for a second exile was written in our house, in front of me. Abba was a true humanist.
Abba had stared death in the eye so many times that it only made his resolve stronger. His health was never up for discussion. He’d already suffered a stroke (Kaifi suffered a stroke in 1973) when I got married. Since then, he was only using his right side. He needed support for everything. Eventually, that became inconsequential. He would travel in trains for mushairas. Being the senior most poet, his recitation would be slated for the last at around 3 am.
“Abba believed death is not to be mourned”
His resolve for achieving his prime goal – the upliftment of his beloved village Mijwan (Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh) was amazing. He wanted to get the railway track organized from Lucknow to as close as possible to Mijwan. For that, he met ministers day and night. He went on a dharna and sat on a railway track on a chair. He founded a school for girls and a computer center. Abba was indeed a miracle.
It’s not easy being a partner to someone, who has such huge demands on himself and the change he wanted to bring about. But Mummy believed in what he did. That was their greatest strength. Initially, there was no place to stay in Mijwan. Abba and Mummy lived in brick and mud houses. She’d say, “Kahan lekar aate ho Kaifi.” But then she would mingle with the villagers. Sometimes, she would wake up to a swarm of women sitting around her bed, waiting for redressal.
During his last days in the ICU, when I’d ask Abba, “Kaise hain aap?’ He would reply, “First class!” When he found it difficult to talk, he would raise his thumb to imply ‘first class’. Abba once told Baba, “Kya aise kabhi ho sakta hai, tum Mijwan mein film banaao?” It moves me to think how Baba shot his first film Mee Raqsam (I Dance, 2020), revolving around a Muslim girl’s wish to learn Bharatnatyam, in Mijwan. There can be no bigger tribute to Abba. Baba in his own quiet way fulfilled that dream just as Shabana is carrying forward the legacy.
Baba hosts a celebration of Abba’s birthday on 14 January every year. Unexplored, young singers, musicians, and poets come together to pay a tribute to his work. His nazms are presented in fusion form. Abba believed that life is to be celebrated and death not to be mourned. That’s why perhaps, I’ve never seen Baba grieve for him. After his demise, Shabana was having a tough time. I was deeply impacted too. But Baba maintained, “You have to celebrate Abba’s life. It was a full one.”