The Arts

Kaifi Azmi: Socialism’s 'Stormy Petrel'

In poet Kaifi Azmi's birth centenary year, South Asians owe him to become a part of the movement of social change.

Note: This article was originally published on 10 May 2019, and is being republished on the occasion of Kaifi Azmi’s birth anniversary.


‘Stone Kaifi to death, the rulers cried
The Messiah? We do not know where he hides!’

Born Syed Athar Hussain Rizvi, a hundred years ago this year, Kaifi Azmi, who passed away 17 years ago today, was initially educated in Islamic seminaries, but eventually became a true adherent of Marxism, dedicating his life to the service of the Communist Party of India, and writing his most tortured work, Aavara Sajde (Vagabond Obeisances), when the CPI and CPM split in the 1960s.

The last lines of his eponymous poem go like this:

“One god after the other arrived
There is no god, Reason, exhausted, cried”

He is well known for his proclamation:

“I was born in enslaved India, have lived in independent secular India, and God willing, I will die in socialist India.”

Alas, his last wish was not to come true; indeed, the year he died – and even more so in recent years – was especially difficult even for secular India, thanks to the Gujarat pogroms. Kaifi’s death became a moment when people decided to rededicate themselves to the idea of secularism.

Kaifi won many awards in his life, but was proudest of his Soviet Land Nehru Award. The Urdu Academy conferred on him the Millennium Award in 2001, and he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship in 2002. Translations of his work, including the two most recent ones done by Rakhshanda Jalil and Sudeep Sen to commemorate the birth centenary, have been well received.

Also read: ‘For Abba With Love’ – Shabana Azmi’s Tribute to Kaifi Azmi

Kaifi’s oeuvre is not as vast as that of some of his other contemporaries, but it is varied and non-compromising on quality. For example, one of his poems Andeshe (‘Premonitions’) is a poignant description of a relationship ending and was adapted by Chetan Anand in the 1964 film Haqeeqat, picturised on soldiers presumed to be dead in the Indo-China war imagining their spouses grieving them.

‘The soul itself is upset; it’s not merely the heart’s pain
The heart is all afire, agony is a refrain
I’m not sad that she forgot me and scrubbed memory’s stain
But she did it with tears and hurt – that is what I regret.

Resigned, her young expectations must have bowed their forehead
Her certitude must have sunk to resignation with dread
A pall of smoke might have set in, the earth turned on its head
When her first dream-nest she was forced to destroy and forget.

The heart must have narrated to her such a complex tale
That she would have held back her tears composed and calm, but pale
But when she burned my letters in a closed room with a wail
Every word must have floated up and made her eyes more wet.

Scared, she must have avoided each recriminating gaze
But in a hundred images, she may have seen my face
When she must have moved my picture from its familiar place
She would have found me everywhere, a painful silhouette.

An innocent tease may have led emotions to overflow
Her tentative and bashful smiles would have betrayed sorrow
But when she burst into tears at my name, don’t I know
Her head on her friend’s shoulder would have stayed, upset.

If friends insisted on making her up, combing her hair,
Her saddened beauty must have seemed so barren and bare
Her face would strike no lightning awhile in hearts debonair
It would not have regained colour for days, alas not yet.”

In another poem Makaan (‘House’), Kaifi writes about construction workers and their role in the conquest of nature. In its unselfconscious modernism, the poem extols the power of labour in achieving mastery over nature (through the use of walls, and cables of electricity), and is reminiscent of a similar poem by Majaz on the train Raat Aur Rail (The Night and the Train), albeit with a lot more anger on behalf of the dispossessed workers.

Listen | Ten of Kaifi Azmi’s Most Memorable Songs

To me, the poem depicts the ultimate potential failure of modernity from the point of view of the socialist: that it does not automatically ensure a just and egalitarian society. Modernity sometimes fails the very subjects who were promised freedom from the feudal system they had laboured under in the earlier eras. Kaifi ends with a call for collective action, which is a trope he was to deploy consistently in his work.

“A hot air blows tonight
It will be impossible to sleep on the pavement
Arise everyone! I will rise too. And you. And yourself too.
That a window may open in these very walls.

The earth had forever threatened to swallow us
Since we descended from trees and became human,
Neither these houses, nor their residents care to remember
All those days humanity spent in caves.
Once our arms learned the craft however, how could they tire?
Design after design took shape through our work.
And then we built the walls higher, higher and yet higher
Lovingly wrought an even greater beauty to the ceilings and doors
Storms used to extinguish the flames of our lamps
So we fixed stars made of electricity in our skies.

Once the palace was built, they hired a guard to keep us out
And we slept in the dirt, with our screaming craft
Our pulses pounding with exhaustion
Bearing the picture of that very palace in our tightly shut eyes
The day still melts on our heads like before
The night pierces our eyes with black arrows,
A hot air blows tonight
It will be impossible to sleep on the pavement
Arise everyone! I will rise to. And you. And yourself too
That a window may open in these very walls.”

I now want to turn my attention to another of Kaifi’s important poems, Iblees ki Majlis-e-Shoora: Doosra Ijlaas’ (Satan’s Congress: Second Session), inspired by the eponymous poem written by Muhammad Iqbal almost half a century earlier. In fact, Kaifi’s poem was written exactly a hundred years after the death of Karl Marx.

Poet Kaifi Azmi with his comrades headed for a conference of Progressive Writers’ Association. Credit: Twitter/Syed Ahmed Afzal

While this poem cannot be numbered among Kaifi’s classic poems, nevertheless, it is very important for its contemporary significance and historic eloquence, reading the poem as we are 200 years after the birth of Karl Marx, and at a time when capitalism is in another crisis at its very centres in Europe and North America.

Unlike Iqbal’s aforementioned poem, the Satan of the ‘Second Session’ is a reactionary character, who is the creator of imperialism, monarchy and fascism; and is witnessing the scene of his defeat with his own eyes. It does not matter whether this defeat is at the hands of socialism or Islam, or the revolutionary fusion of both. Following Iqbal’s poem, Kaifi’s poem indicates this situation.

Actually, Kaifi’s poem is not in response to Iqbal’s poem, but an expression of the prospects which are concealed within the womb of this historical epoch. Today a new compromise between the Islamic world and socialism is needed, which is of historic importance. Only socialism will end capitalism and monarchy; and the democratic and humanist traditions of Islam will assist it.

Kaifi’s prophecy for a socialist India notwithstanding, his glad tidings in the aforementioned poem will be fulfilled:

‘The flood of peace clashing with the palaces of Washington
Cannot cross it alive, this paper lion”

Whereas the poem sensitively mentions, in passing, the inter-socialist conflicts (between the USSR and Maoist China), it also does not shy away from sympathising with the Palestinian cause, a stark comment on how India had started moving away from its warm support in Nehruvian India towards Israel while Kaifi was still alive:

“Nazis of the past are now Israel
Before whom, heads bowed, are the heirs of the Nile”

The poem also anticipates the growth of US imperialism (there are references to the US defeat in Vietnam), the rise of Arab petrodollars (following the defeat of Nasserism and the surrender of Egyptian leader Sadat at Camp David) and the perils of nuclear warfare, with which we in South Asia are all-too-familiar in the 21st century.

‘Those who number dollars on the beads of their rosaries
Their beards like purses, making begging-bowls of their bellies”

Kaifi’s brief ‘Statement of Defense’ at the beginning of the poem deserves to be quoted in full here to give a fuller measure of the man and his politics:

“By writing “Satan’s Congress (Second Session)” I find myself in the witness-box of the accused and am presenting my defence by seating my conscience on the chair of justice that whatever I will say will be the truth and nothing but the truth. About 30-35 years ago when I had read Dr Iqbal’s famous poem “Satan’s Congress” for the first time, I was influenced, as well as impressed by it.

But afterwards when history did not follow the exact same pace which Satan had predicted, then the wish repeatedly arose that I should summon the second session of Satan’s Congress and narrate its tale. But for one I was so impressed by Iqbal’s tone and melody that I would not have the courage to lift the pen. Secondly, this hesitation too lest I begin to be numbered among those Lucknow poets who wrote long poems in response to “Shikva”.

I am grateful to (Ali Sardar) Jafri that he has clarified in his preface that this poem is not a response to Iqbal. This is the truth too. I see, and like me, so does the world, that socialism which was not deemed even worthy of attention by Iqbal’s Satan and whose antidote he has seen in fascism, today that philosophy of life is victoriously embracing the entire world of humanity in its wide arms.

When fascism and Nazism were dealt a decisive defeat at the hands of socialism on end of the Second World War, then I and late Sahir (Luhianvi) made a plan to write the second session of Satan’s Congress; but like many official plans, that plan remained merely on paper.

But the manner in which there was a general massacre of Palestinian fighters in Beirut at that time shook up my conscience such that I indeed wrote up this poem. However much trust I have over my philosophy of life, had I had a similar trust over my art too, then this poem would have been written long ago from now, and there too would not have been the need to present a defence.”

Also read: The Poet with the Smallest Suitcase in the World

All his life, Kaifi Azmi remained a hopeful ‘stormy petrel‘ of socialism, and in his birth centenary year, those in South Asia owe him to become a part of the movement of social change. And as Kaifi would gently condemn the naysayers:

“Those who watch the storm from afar
For them, the storm is both here and there”

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore. He is the recipient of the prestigious 2013-2014 Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in the UK for his translation and interpretive work on Saadat Hasan Manto’s essays and the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He can be reached at razanaeem@hotmail.com.