Kaifi was not just an ideal husband, he was my friend who encouraged me to be independent and never imposed his will on me. He always respected my opinions, my wishes and my desires. In fact, he took great pleasure in my success and wanted me to achieve fame as an artist. It was not easy for Kaifi to live in the village without me but he never complained because he had an extraordinary ability to withstand hardship. I went to the village when I wanted to, and when I had had enough, I returned to Bombay. I am convinced that my absence exacerbated his illness.
Kaifi adored his children and his relationship with them was that of a friend. If they faltered he did not lose his temper but tried to reason with them. He would go to great lengths to make them happy. Shabana loves mangoes but when she was a little girl the fruit was rarely seen at our table because it was rather expensive. One day, Shabana brought two dozen mangoes from her friend Parna’s house, and happily told me, ‘Mummy, these mangoes came from Parna’s village and her Mummy has sent them for us.’ Kaifi noted his daughter’s remark, and though he did not say a word he filed it away in a corner of his heart. Many years later when Kaifi started living in his village after his illness, one of his first projects was to hire a truck and go to Malihabad. He brought back three hundred mango saplings and planted a small mango orchard, so that his daughter would always have her heart’s fill of mangoes. Every year Kaifi’s man Friday brings mangoes for Shabana from Mijwan.
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Kaifi was not given to demonstrating his love for his son but he was delighted to see Baba’s first interview as a cameraman in the newspaper. He cut it out, had it framed and hung it on the wall opposite his desk. Baba and Kaifi had a very strong bond and often sat together in silence for hours.
Kaifi had a cavalier attitude towards his health and never let his illness stand in his way. He had a chronic cough and though the doctor had forbidden him to have anything cold, Kaifi always drank cold water. He ate and drank wherever he found himself and this, too, contributed to his ill health. I would call the doctor and give him his medicines, after which he would gain a new lease on life, but oblivious to his illness he would continue working.
Kaifi cared for working people and the destitute, and had a firm belief in communism. He always carried his Party membership card in his briefcase, and would often take it out, saying with great pride, ‘This is my most precious capital.’ The objective of his life was to change the world, to banish poverty, hunger and ignorance. But he understood that to change the whole world would take a very long time, so he turned instead to answer the call of his village, where he did indeed achieve a huge transformation. Kaifi’s love for his village was obsessive. Even so, Kaifi would have approved of Baba and Shabana’s decision to give his cherished collection of over five thousand books, many of which are rare, to the Aligarh University Library, because many more students can have access to them.
‘A grand human being’
Kaifi had created the Mijwan Welfare Society and built its offices on his own land. He had ceiling fans installed in every room. That night all four fans were stolen and there was mayhem in the village. I was really angry and raised my voice loud enough for all to hear, ‘I don’t understand why Kaifi wants to kill himself working for such ungrateful people.’ Kaifi remained silent. Shabana, who is more impatient than her father, asked him, ‘Abba don’t you get frustrated when the change you are struggling for doesn’t occur at the pace you’d like it to?’ Kaifi answered her with equanimity, ‘Betey, when you are working for change, you should build into your expectation the possibility that the change might not occur within your lifetime, but if you carry on regardless, change will come, even if it does so after you are gone. Then, how can there be room for frustration?’
Kaifi was a grand human being. I have never seen a more gracious man. When asked, ‘Kaifi , how are you?’ He would always smile and say, ‘First class.’ This was so even a few days before he died. It is true that he always remained first class.
Life carries on as usual Kaifi, but you are nowhere to be found. When you want to go to the village I was secure in the knowledge that you would return. I recall that New Year’s night when the house was full of revelry. I was rushing around looking after the guests, when without warning a little wish awakened in a corner of my heart, ‘What if Kaifi were here?’ How amazed I was to see you walk through the gate, leaning on your stick. I ran to you and wrapped my arms around you, ‘Arrey vah! How come you’re here? How did you know that your absence was the only thing between happiness and me? How wonderful to have you back. Now that you are here my New Year will begin.’ How did you suddenly turn up that night? Kaifi, will it never be possible for you to return unannounced and for me to lose myself in your arms? I know this will never be. What can I do Kaifi, because I am all alone without you? I shall have to accept the truth that you have gone away to a far off place from where no one returns. Why does this happen? When will this burden on my heart be lifted? For how long will I have to go on living without you? They say people like you do not die, they live forever; but when will I believe this Kaifi?
Excerpted with permission from Kaifi & I A Memoir, Shaukat Kaifi, Zubaan.