Kaifi & I: A Memoir
by Shaukat Kaifi
edited & translated by Nasreen Rehman
This new work is a fascinating stroll down memory lane with the renowned theatre and film artiste Shaukat Kaifi, of her marriage of more than half a century to the iconic poet Kaifi Azmi. Set against the backdrop of a newly independent India, Shaukat Kaifi’s narrative is infused with romance and energy – in their relationship, as well as what their lives were all about – literature, poetry, theatre and politics. Vignettes of Shaukat’s hometown, Hyderabad under the nizam, represent a different world from the one she comes to inhabit with her card-carrying communist husband.
From Shaukat’s vantage point (close to the party but never being a member), we get a glimpse of the camaraderie and mutual support in the commune. But we also learn of the later disintegration in the party, and also of an interesting discomfort with emotion. Following the death of her first born infant son, “It became clear to me that most people feel uncomfortable around those who cannot control their grief and tend to walk away … in time I learnt to smile.” Shaukat also reveals that, were it not for her obstinacy, one of the finest actors in Indian cinema and theatre, Shabana Azmi, would not have been born. Going against the wishes of the party leaders, who felt that an infant would be a burden on the party’s meagre resources, Shaukat refused to undergo an abortion, supporting herself during her pregnancy through acting and programmes on All India Radio.
Throughout, Shaukat shares intimate portraits of eminent theatre personalities associated with the leftwing Indian People’s Theatre Association and the Progressive Writers Association in the 1950s. During the sugar-rationing 1950s, for instance, we learn that Dina Pathak never carried her allotted tin of sugar to the table, and that Habib Tanvir would give her a spoon from his. More than anything else, however, Kaifi & I is an enchanting story about love that is consuming, but not total surrender, as in Kaifi’s poem dedicated to Shaukat soon after they met in 1947: “You will fly when you’re free and not ensnared by love/ Heaven is not just in the arms of a man/ Walk unfettered on the path of freedom with me/ Arise, my love, for now you must march with me.” (Laxmi Murthy)
Killing the Water
by Mahmud Rahman
Covering a broad historical and geographic landscape, the stories in this collection move from a journey though the Sundarban before Partition; to villages across East Pakistan during the 1971 War of Liberation; to US cities such as Boston, Detroit and Providence during the financially lean times of the 1970s and 1980s. Displacement, both physical and emotional, is a common theme across the narratives, with Rahman exploring the distress and yearning memories evoked by the past. In “Yuralda”, for instance, the eponymous protagonist of Dominican origin single-mindedly craves a guava, or guayaba as she pronounces it, in the middle of a drab November in Providence.
Indeed, dislocation and the 1971 war are the anthology’s centre of gravity, forces that refuse to allow the characters out of their ambit. Rahman gives sympathetic voice to the sorrows and the dilemmas of his characters, approaching their struggles with humour and irony. At the same time, though each story effectively recreates the protagonists’ world, the collection ultimately comes across as somewhat pat. Though several of the narratives do make for good reading, one cannot help but believe that the characters have more to them than comes across in these pages. (Surabhi Pudasaini)
The Veiled Suite: The collected poems
by Agha Shahid Ali
This collection brings together works from six volumes, spanning the career of the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali. His claim to fame is the popularisation of the ghazal form to English-reading audiences, translating Faiz Ahmed Faiz (in free verse) and composing ghazals, with their demanding conventions, in the English language. Ali’s work is marked by the referential, absorbing sources literary, historical and vernacular, and displays a rewarding scope to experiment with diverse forms.
His ‘American’ poems, taken by the country’s landscapes, are all sharp edges and scintillating images, defining both himself and his adopted nation by the peripatetic nature of the exile and immigrant. His “Homage to Faiz Ahmed Faiz” plants in the reader an aching need to return to Faiz, and powerfully explains one important source of his sensibility. In what reads as a potent validation for the space of the political in verse, he addresses Faiz directly: “Those poets’ lament concealed, as yours revealed, the sorrows/ of a broken time. You knew Ghalib was right/ blood must not merely follow routine, must not/ just flow as the veins’ uninterrupted/ river. Sometimes it must flood the eyes,/ surprise them by being clear as water.”
It is that value of simultaneous witness and protest that emerges in his poetry touching upon Kashmir, his motherland, and reaching a kind of ripeness and potency in “The Country without a Post Office”, where Kafka-esque details of India’s military presence in the Kashmir Valley provide a surreal note to the sense of loss and dislocation. That dislocation – of the memory of Kashmir to its militarised present, exacerbated by his distance from his home – perhaps explains Ali’s penchant to fold history so persuasively into the personal and present. For instance, his “Rooms Are Never Finished”, a collection moored by the death of his mother, has a piece that carries like a freed arrow, sustained through a folio of poems to pin historic grief to his present, as he carries his mother’s body from Amherst (in the US) to Kashmir.
Some of work can sometimes come across as too clever, as his callous one-line poem “On Hearing a Lover Not Seen for Twenty Years Has Attempted Suicide”, which reads: “I suspect it was over me.” Others, like the ghazals collected in “Call Me Ishmael Tonight”, can be too opaque and inaccessible. But at his best, which is more often than not, Ali’s verse is powerful, provocative and engaging. (Alston A D’Silva)