Kaifi Azmi once memorably described a film lyricist’s job as first digging a grave and then finding a body to fit it! Needless to say, he managed to find some spectacular bodies. So has Javed Akhtar, one of the most popular film lyricists of our times and, coincidentally, Azmi’s son-in-law. In fact, several of Akhtar’s songs have far exceeded the brief extended to a song writer by the Hindi film industry; many of his songs have risen beyond their time and circumstance and spoken to our collective consciousness. Blurring the definition of lyric and poetry, there is a great deal in Javed Akhtar’s cinematic oeuvre that is outstanding poetry, such as this lyric from the film 1942: A Love Story,which contains within it tremulous beauty and technical finesse in near-perfect proportions:

Kuch na kaho, kuch bhi na kaho
Kya kehna hai, kya sun-na hai
Mujhko pata hai, tumko pata hai
Samay ka yeh pal thum sa gaya hai
Aur iss pal mein koyi nahin hai
Bas ek main hoon, bas ek tum ho

But there is far more to Javed Akhtar’s poetic oeuvre than the lyrics he has written for the film industry; there are two selections of non-film poetry comprising ghazals and nazms: the first collection entitled Tarkash was published in 1995, followed by Lava in 2012. The nazms from these two collections have been culled to create In Other Words, and as its title indicates, it includes translations into English and transliteration into Devnagri of the Urdu nazms.

But the title also alludes to an altogether different set of words, images, metaphors – different, that is, from the vocabulary of film lyrics – that show us the ‘other’ Javed Akhtar. Sometimes wistful, sometimes questioning, this "other" Javed Akhtar shows those sides of his personality that the public persona camouflages so well. There is, for instance, the child within him who looks back and remembers the tree that grew in his courtyard in Mera Aangan, Mera Ped, or the lived-in room in Woh Kamra Yaad Aata Hai, or the grown man who shows a child-like wonder for sounds that became words in Zubaan:

How was a sound
First poured out into lines?

Stunning, multi-hued images tumble out of the nazms included in this collection, as though in a kaleidoscope, dazzling us with bursts of ideas and thoughts. Apart from their great aural and sensual appeal, they also have a questioning, probing quality, as though the poet is using the nazm to ask larger metaphysical questions about the world around him, as in Waqt, Kainat, Aansoo, Yeh Khel Kya Hai? where he creates an avalanche of questions:

What is time?
What is this thing that goes on without pause?
If it did not pass
Then where could it have been?’


Is there a world beyond that
Is there a sky
If there is nothing
Then how far does this nothing extend

Defying the conventional labels of "revolutionary" or "romantic", the poems included here show a curious mind forever grappling with the world around him. Asking, probing, extending the frontiers of understanding, he is the seeker in search of answers:

For centuries
I have been gazing into the cosmos and its vastness
At all its wonder, all its wonder
The stars whose rays, like messengers
Have been travelling for millions of years
Eager to reach the earth
Someday, they will surely light up my eyes
Someday, I will be able to grasp the hem of that light
And clutching it, go look into that space

Elsewhere, nazms such as Banjara, Gham Bikte Hain, Beghar, Shikast are brimful with the pain of loss, longing and loneliness. Sometimes, the sorrows are so stark that no amount of sophistry or cynicism can hide them or dull the sharp edge of pain:

I have always sold my sorrow
For a good price
The sorrow I have got today
I cannot display it on any counter
For the first time I am ashamed
This sorrow I shall not be able to sell

Like the earth that spews molten rock from deep within its bosom in the form of lava, Javed Akhtar’s poetry emerges from some deep crevice within his soul. Flowing like a molten river, gleaming and incandescent on the surface but rippling with a singeing and scorching heat, this collection hides unexpected depths. But just as, upon cooling and calming, the lava that erupts from the innards of the earth can also nurture and nourish, so too can this collection of poetry that is by turns angry and philosophical, questioning and answering, troubling and troubled, restless and restful.

~ Rakhshanda Jalil

Perhaps I should forget you
This is now the proper thing to do
But even if I wish to erase you from my mind
How can I forget?
After all you are real
Not just a dream
What can I say
About this wretched heart
That could never forget
The rapport that never was
That idea, that one idea
Which was never expressed
That word, that one word
Which I could not say to you
That relationship
Which never existed between you and me
I remember all those things
Which never happened

These daily disturbances
These constant journeys
Rushing here and there
Meeting this person and that one
All our moments
Seem as if
We are travellers
At a railway station
Hurriedly searching for our carriages
Before the train departs
Who don’t even have the time to breathe
Sometimes it appears as if
We don’t even have the leisure
For it to occur to one
To meet the other
And yet when this unfeeling world breaks my heart
Whenever approaching hope
Suddenly turns away from me
Whenever a flower of happiness
Blooms in my heart
Whenever my mind
Gifts me a thought
Whenever my heart feels empty
In the wake of a fulfilled desire
Whenever pain threads
Pearls of tears on my eyelashes
It’s then that I realize
That when happiness, sorrow or surprise
When any emotion
Turns a corner
There, for a moment
The whole world gets left behind
There, for a moment
The strings of this puppet-like life
Get snapped
At this bend
All I need is you
But this is one of life’s beautiful truths
That whenever such a bend has come in my path
There, on every such turn
I have found you walking alongside me

The two of us were once just letters
We met one day
And a word was formed
We found a meaning,
Then something happened
And now
You are a letter
In one square;
I am a letter
In another square
In between
How many squares of moments lie empty!
Another word can be formed
And we can find a meaning
It can be so
We have to think
How to fill those empty squares

Come Now and Do Not Think
Come now
And do not think
What will you gain by thinking?
All that you have understood
You have regretted
All that you will understand
You will regret
Come now
And do not think
What will you gain from thinking?
The level of feeling you have now attained
This is in my care
Forget that as well
How long will you grieve for it?
Why is this world
So vile on the inside?
Come now
Let us find some way to live
The problems given to us by truth
Let us make them easier
With lies
Look at me
Look into my eyes
Then I shall swear to you all my false oaths
And you will repeat all those false words
Which everybody loves
Protestations that we would
Live and die together
Let us, you and I together
Spend our time in this way
I’ll show you some dreams
Then you can show me some dreams
Have no meaning
And as long as we meet
Oh, the game will be sweet!
And when you become disenchanted
Tell me:
‘The time of our meeting is over’
Come now
And do not think
What will you gain by thinking?

The evening draws in
The red sun begins to hide in the sea
And over there
Some birds
Forming a line
Fly off to those forests
To those trees, where they have made their nests
Those birds
Will return to their place
And go to sleep
Only I am left wondering
That in this forest of houses
I have no place at all
The evening draws in
Where shall I go?

What is This Game?
My opponent has made a move
And now
Awaits mine
But for a long time
I stare at the black and white pieces
That sit on the white and black squares
And I wonder
What are these pieces?
If I were to assume
That these pieces
Are no more than wooden toys
Then what is the point in victory or defeat?
Neither is this necessary
Nor is that important
If there is no pleasure in a win
Nor sorrow in a loss
Then what is this game?
I think
If I must play
Then I should convince myself
That these pieces are indeed King and Queen
That these are real foot soldiers
And arrayed before them Is the enemy army
Which plans
And intends
To destroy me
But if I were to make myself believe this
Then I think
This is no longer a mere game
This is a war
That must be won
A war in which all is fair
It is as if somebody says to me
This is a war
And a game too
This is a war, but one between players
A game, but one like war
I ask myself
This game
Why does it have such a rule
That no matter what happens
To any of the pieces
The one that is King
Must be protected from harm at all times?
That only the Queen has the freedom
To move in any direction it wants?
I wonder
This game
Why does it have such a rule
That once a pawn leaves home
It can never return?
I wonder
If this is the rule
Then what are rules?
If this is the game
Then what is this game?
I have been wrestling with these questions for a long time
Meanwhile my opponent has made a move
And awaits mine

Clutching his father’s finger
When a small child
Went to the fair for the first time
His innocent
Bright eyes
Looked on a new world
What is this? What is that?
He asked excitedly
His father, bending low
Told him the names
Of many things, many spectacles
About the jugglers
The daredevils
The conjurers
And what they did
Then they turned towards home
The child rocked
in the cradle of his father’s arms
And rested his head upon his shoulder
The father asked:
Are you sleepy?
Time is like a bird
That keeps flying
The fair returned to the village
The old father
Clutched his son’s arm with trembling hands
While the son
Explained all he can
About what this was and what that was
The father rested his head on his son’s shoulder
The son asked:
Are you sleepy?
The father turned
Looked down the memory lane
Saw the dust kicked up
By the feet of moments past
Good ones and bad
The bitter and the sweet
And then
Turning towards his son
A faint smile playing
On his lips
Said softly:
I am sleepy now.

I often think
That the lava of grief
Flaming and melting
Slowly creeping forward
In the dark lanes of my mind
Could be stemmed
If I wished
The embers lying on the raw skin of my heart
If I wished
Might be extinguished
Then I think
That the wind
Blowing colder than ice
Through the chinks
In all my relationships
The chill weather
Settling on all my friendships
Might, heaven forbid!
Freeze this body and this soul
I often think
That the lava of grief
Flaming and melting
Slowly creeping forward
In the dark lanes of my mind
Is a torment
But at least it is something
From which warmth reaches my soul
From which heat enters my body
This grief is my necessity
I am alive
Because of my grief

He who was known to be crazy about you
He who knew your story by heart
On whose walls hung
Your pictures
He who repeated
Your every word
He who was happy in your happiness
Sad in your sorrow
Who used to think, even when you were far apart
That he was close to you
He who had no qualms about bowing his head
Before you
He, truth be told
Never really loved you
His predicament was
That his paths were difficult
Marauders roamed fearlessly
On them
Forever on the heels of his ego
He took his precious self-worth
And entrusted it to you
In order to hide his shame from the world
As well as from his own eyes
He considered your success
Your victories
Your status
Your name, your fame
To be the very purpose of his being
Never believed
That he had an existence apart from yours
But he
Has left those dangerous paths behind
Time has bestowed
– though not quite in the same measure –
Some favours on him too
He doesn’t need you anymore
And that declaration of faith made in the past
Has no worth now
While that which he had placed in your trust yesterday
That ego
He is asking for its return today
The matter is simply this
O known and famous one
The one who till yesterday
Accepted you as a god
Was never really your fan

Excerpted with permission from In Other Words, Javed Akhtar, translated by David Matthews and Ali Husain Mir, Harper-Collins India.