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Review: Kaifi Azmi: Poems/Nazms Edited by Sudeep Sen

By July 1, 2019No Comments

Source : Hindustan Times   –   Anisur Rahman

Kaifi Azmi: Poems/Nazms is a rich mix of academic, formal, tonal, poetic and representational translations into English of the eminent Urdu poet’s work



Towards the fag end of his life when Kaifi Azmi (1919-2002) was not able to move his fingers and write down properly, he asked Shama Zaidi, a well-known screenwriter, to note down a poem which she gladly did for him. This poem, called Dhamaka, which he spoke out to her, would sound like a blast indeed, even if you read it in silence. A month later, he composed another poem called Zindagi while lying in his bed in the hospital. Not a blast though, this poem would grow on you like a strong pronouncement of hope and faith. Both the poems find their ways with us as testimonies of conviction written by one who kept his optimism alive through his life in spite of all the odds he suffered. This was typical Kaifi, a poet-activist, who chose sometimes to prioritise his mission over poetry, while at others his poetry over his mission. In both the cases, he was true to his vocation as a poet, as well as an activist, and could very well weave the rhythm of one into the other with amazing success.

In one of his writings, Kaifi Apni Nazar Mein (Kaifi in His Own Eyes), he argued that life was a series of struggles that one needed to undertake to bring about a change. He said that this struggle for change also marked his trajectory as a poet. He reasoned further that when a poet meditates in a moment of seclusion over his surroundings and composes a poem, he too joins the same struggle for change, albeit differently. Let me assert that such a stance could come only from a poet like him who could bring poetry to bear upon social purpose and transform his own personality in turn.

In yet another piece of his writing, Main Aur Meri Shairi (Me and My Poetry), Kaifi wrote “The only thing I can say about myself with certainty is that I was born in colonial India, grew old in a free India and shall die in a socialist India. This is neither an incredible claim, nor the dream of an insane one.” In saying this, he tried to locate himself in the larger context of history as he envisaged it in terms of past, present, and future. He believed that it is in this flux of time alone that human beings could seek their existential meaning. This hope of a poet associated with the Progressive Writers Movement and holding a card of the Communist Party, kept him and his poetry alive through his entire career. The collections of his poetry Jhankar, Aakhir-e-Shab, Aawaara Sajde, Iblees ki Majlis-e-Shoora and his complete works collected in Sarmaaye amply justify his larger commitment to life and times at a broader level.


Those who have not yet been able to read and appreciate the merits of Kaifi as a poet because they do not know Urdu would do well to draw upon Kaifi Azmi: Poems|Nazms selected, edited and co-translated by Sudeep Sen. Sen has grown with four languages — Bangla, English, Hindi, and Urdu — in different measures and has acquired a certain tone of voice as a poet in English. If I am right in saying that a sensitive care for cadence is what distinguishes Sen’s English poetry, then he surely is the right person to translate Urdu poetry. Translating Kaifi was a matter of choice for him which, of course, is one of the first conditions to enter into any kind of translational negotiation with one’s chosen author. In a recent interview, Sen has aptly remarked that “the act of serious literary translation was … waiting to happen for me… I have kept the tone of the book personal, pointed, anecdotal, poetry and translation focused”. A reading through his translations would affirm that Sen could hold Kaifi’s hand quite firmly and create an eminently readable poem in the English language. Apart from translating 11 poems with great distinction for this volume, he has also brought together four more translators to join hands and produce a book of 50 selected poems in very competent English translations.


Interestingly, Sen’s co-translators happen to pursue different vocations and they employ their special skills to appreciate and translate Kaifi. The book brings together an academic (Husain Mir Ali), a bridge engineer (Baidar Bakht), a cinematographer (Sumantra Ghoshal) and a poet and film maker (Pritish Nandy) to negotiate with Kaifi in their own ways. Their renditions clearly differ from one another and project Kaifi in different splendours. The book is a rich mix of academic, formal, tonal, poetic and representational translations and, taken together, they qualify as an eminent case for studying comparative translation poetics.

The book is also remarkable for its precise planning and deft execution. It is a non-pedestrian book of translations in many ways. An introduction to the poet goes well with the headnotes the translators have provided on their methodologies of translation. Similarly, the devanagri text runs parallel to the English translation which helps a reader relate with poem directly. The book is properly supplemented by a rare photo album of Kaifi along with his family and friends, as also a select bibliography, and bio-notes on translators. It is the first complete book of its own kind; a kind of Kaifi Reader, that would appeal to larger sections of bibliophiles looking for the essential Kaifi and his life and times.

Formerly, a professor of English at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, Anisur Rahman is currently Senior Advisor at Rekhta Foundation.

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