(Following is an excerpt from the autobiography of Shaukat Kaifi, wife of Kaifi Azmi. The autobiography, Yaad Ki Rahguzar, is originally written in Urdu. English translation is done by Nasreen Rehman.)

Kaifi Azmi & Shaukat Kaifi with their daughter Shabana Azmi.

Choti Apajan was married to Akhtar Hasan, a Progressive writer and poet who was invited to Hyderabad in 1946 by Qazi Abdul Ghaffar, of Laila ke Khatut (Laila’s letters) fame, to join him as editor of the Urdu daily, Payam. Akhtar Bhai was a gracious host and Choti Apajan was always by his side in their open house where writers from the Progressive Writers’ Movement, such as Makhdoom Mohiuddin, were regular visitors.

In February 1947 a Progressive Writers’ conference was organized in Hyderabad and Akhtar Bhai arranged for the poets Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri to stay with his elder sister, Baji. His youngers sister Rabia Burney lived next door, and it was here that Sardar Jafri was staying with her friend Sultana, who later became his wife. Fortuitously, this was during the long school holidays, and as I happened to be visiting my sister in Hyderabad, I was able to attend the conference and meet the Progressive Writers about whom I had heard so much. In Hyderabad it was not uncommon for writers with slightest claim to fame to put on airs and treat with disdain those whom they considered less fortunate or famous than themselves. The young progressive writers were a refreshing change; they wore their fame so lightly that I was overwhelmed. Little did I know that this chance encounter would change my life forever.

One night there was a mushaira. I was sitting in the front row with Bade Bhaijaan. The air was filled with expectation. Finally, I was going to hear the celebrated poets. I had spent hours before a mirror trying on one kurta after another and head settled on a white kargah kurta, a white salwar, a dupatta skillfully dyed in the colours of the rainbow and golden salimshahi shoes. I was determined to overshadow all the other young women. When Kaifi began to recite his poem Taj, I felt impelled to fix my gaze on this tall, slim and charismatic young man, whose voice, God help me, had a timber like the Rumble of storm clouds. How brave of him to recite a powerful poem against monarchy and injustice in the Nizam’s city! Bade Bhaijaan turned to me and said, ‘Such a bold poem from one so young; these people are truly fearless’. after the Mushaira people rushed towards the three poets with their Autograph books. College girls swarmed around Kaifi like flies but I preferred to wait my turn, and giving him an arch look, I turned towards Sardar Jafri and asked for his Autograph instead.

After the crowds had dispersed, I walked up to Kaifi with great confidence and held out my autograph book to him. From the corner of his eye Kaifi had caught me going towards Sardar Jafri; and to my dismay he scribbled some meaningless couplets in my book.

The flaming cloud that seems to shine

The earth of the nightingale’s honour 

Come into my domain like a secret 

My heart bell rings and lightening swings 

Grab the beauty and come into my heart

I was miffed. Kaifi has inscribed a charming couplet for my friend Zakia who was beaming with delight and I was consumed with envy. When we returned to Chhoti Apajan’s, I joined Kaifi on the steps leading to the house and demanded petulantly, ‘Why did you write such silly couplets for me?’

‘Why did you ask for Jafri Sahib’s autograph first?’ Kaifi asked mischievously. He was pleased to see that I was amused in spite of myself and we sat right there on the steps, slipping into a conversation as though we were old friends. The eagle eyed Chhoti Apajaan descended upon us announcing, ‘Dinner is served.’ Then she continued, ‘and yes, Kaifi don’t forget to congratulate Shaukat; she is getting married in three months time to Usman, our Mamu’s son. Kaifi’s crestfallen expression mirrored my dismay as we made our way to dinner. I had learnt from Sardar Jafri that Kaifi was getting married to some lady in Bombay who wanted to have a sherwani made for him and that two of hemru, a rich brocade, which was the speciality of our region. I could not help but feel a twinge of envy.

After dinner Kaifi and I returned to sit on the steps. ‘In three months you will be married and you won’t even think of me.’ Kaifi said in a very subdued voice.

‘And you will go back to Bombay and get married,’ was my rejoinder.

‘Now, I will never get married, not for the rest of my life,’ Kaifi declared.

‘ Marriage is a must,’ I counselled him like an agony aunt, ‘without marriage life is incomplete…… human being remains unfulfilled…’ I was rambling on when I caught Kaifi staring at me. Avoiding his gaze, I rushed off to my room! Something had stirred in me – an emotion unfamiliar but exciting. I could not wait for Dawn to break.

Next morning, I went into Kaifi’s room. He was standing there, wearing a pair of grey trousers and a white shirt. Fresh from his bath, there were drops of water glistening on his long black hair. I had with me the perfume ‘Evening in Paris’ which was all the rage at the time. Purposefully, I rushed up to Kaifi and daubed some on his test. As I turned around and ran I could sense his eyes full of laughter following me out of the room.

Kaifi went for a meeting after breakfast and disappeared for the whole day. In the evening, Akhtar Bhai and Baji were hosting a dinner party; Zakia and I flitting around preening ourselves. It was eight o’clock and there was no sign of Kaifi. Zakia said, ‘I think, Kaifi is asleep at Rabia’s house.

‘Go, go and wake him up,’ I need her. 

‘Why should I?’ She asked. I was just saying, ‘Indeed, and why would I….’ when Kaifi walked into the room.

I was standing by a window, near and earthenware pot of cold water, covered with an engraved silver bowl. Kaifi walked up to me and said, ‘I am very thirsty.’ I filled the bowl with water and offered it to him.

He said, ‘More.’ 

I refilled the bowl. He said, ‘More,’

I poured some more,

‘More,’ said Kaifi.

I looked at him questioningly. 

He said, ‘My thirst is unquenched.’ 

Flushed, I hurried away. My world was transformed into a kaleidoscope of colours.