When Khwaja Ahmad Abbas died in 1987, he left behind an unmatched legacy. He was not only a filmmaker, but also a novelist, short story writer, playwright and a columnist. While Abbas gained international acclaim for his works, he remained a man of simple needs throughout his life. Here, Abbas’s nephew, Anwar Abbas, recalls growing up around “KAA” and shares numerous stories that shed light on his austere lifestyle.

‘Theft of books is no theft’

My mother travelled all the way from Panipat to Bombay (now Mumbai) in the mid-1940s to receive proper medical attention in the care of a loving sister-in-law, Mujtabi Khatoon (Mujji). Next door lived Shahid Latif and Ismat Chughtai with their only child, Seema. Here in Bombay in a small flat in a building called Samandar Tarang I was born as yet another KAA because Khwaja Ahmad Abbas baptised me as Anwar, his favourite name and the hero of most of his films and books.

Abbas’s 1983 novel The World is My Village is not just the extension of his first novel Inquilab (1958) but also a philosophy of his life. It was not just the group of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) but people from all over the world who KAA met during his travels and his professional work as a journalist, writer and filmmaker, whom he made friends with.

This is one of the differences that I had with him. Many years ago, my wife and I locked his almirah (wardrobe) of clothes, since many of his friends and unit members would walk away with his shirts, sweaters and scarves. KAA was livid and said, “Whatever I own belongs to everyone else. You are welcome to my items as well.” Many of his books were removed from his personal library and he would smile away and say, “Theft of books is no theft.”

Years later when he wanted some of the 73 books he had written, he wrote an appeal to friends and relatives to send the books so that he might photocopy them and return them in good time. But except for three of four books, he did not receive them back.

‘Who does my flat belong to?’

His resistance to private property was irksome. We lived in the two-bedroom house at Philomena Apartments on what is now known as Khwaja Ahmad Abbas Marg. The landlord in typical Catholic generosity offered him the upper storey of one of the larger and newly-built apartments on ownership basis, if he would release the ground floor rented flat, where, ostensibly, he wanted to build a commercial establishment. But Abbas was no taker of this proposal. At one time I booked a flat with my company’s loan, in the neighbouring building. He persuaded me to release the booking saying, “Who does my flat belong to? You, of course.”

It may be remembered that we occupied the two bedrooms while the humble KAA slept in the drawing room, often sharing it with some of his unit members. This was the room where Raj Kapoor, in a drunken state, expressed his undying love and devotion to Abbas and the house staff peeping from underneath the dining table watched the “live show”.

As for travelling, KAA never had a problem. He would often buy his air ticket in the erstwhile Soviet Union where his earnings on books and films were blocked. This way he would engage in his own version of money laundering. While KAA could buy a brand-new Hudson car (a fuel guzzler) or receive an Ambassador car as a gift from Raj Kapoor, through his father Prithviraj Kapoor for the stupendous success of Bobby, he was quite happy to use public transport – sitting on the upper deck of a BEST bus, or hanging from an overcrowded second-class compartment in the local train, precariously holding the bar. Whenever he used a taxi he would make sure that he had enough tasks in the city to justify the high expense. On one occasion, as he was waiting for a BEST bus near his house, Dev Anand’s limousine stopped in front and offered him a lift. “No, thank you,” said Abbas, “My bus will take me where I want to go.”

Abbas’s younger sister lived in Karachi. Since he had written a few articles against the Two-Nation Theory, KAA was blacklisted and not permitted to enter Pakistan, but this did not deter him from visiting his sister and family periodically. The stratagem was to buy a first-class ticket from Moscow to Bombay via Karachi and make the connection that would allow him at least 48 hours on Pakistani soil. He would be taken to the airport hotel and confined to his room. He would call all his well-connected friends and relatives and in the wink of an eye be at his sister’s house laughing and joking with his old friends from Aligarh.

‘What can anyone give me at this age except death?’

After Indira Gandhi’s death KAA wrote The Last Post, for which he wanted to interview the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi. In the PM’s office Rajiv Gandhi had Mani Shankar Aiyar by his side and KAA had me with him for support.

The interview went off well enough but at the end KAA asked the then prime minister two thorny questions: “Did your mother have dictatorial tendencies? And do you think super computers are more important than milk for children?” Gandhi who walked up to the door to receive KAA earlier, sat in stony silence. When we left, I asked KAA, “Why did you ask these two questions?” “To test the mettle of the young man,” he replied. “But this interview could get you places, like a handsome honorarium, a chair in the media university or an advisory post.” “What can anyone give me at this age except death?” was his reply.

I did not ever see KAA cry. He may have done so at the demise of his beloved wife and his father, but I did not see it. Once, while I was reading to him newspaper reports of Sunil Dutt’s Pada Yatra from Bombay to Amritsar, to pray at the Golden Temple and ask for forgiveness for the massacre of Sikhs. Abbas cried. It showed his deep love for secularism and for the saint of India’s freedom struggle – Gandhiji. Sunil Dutt walking with the aid of a stick and with his head covered must have brought back memories of the Salt March undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi. I saw tears rolling down his wrinkled face.

KAA finally “resigned” on June 1, 1987, leaving behind a large number of his “family members”, whom he always cherished and belonged to as much as his close blood relatives.

This edited excerpt is a part of Saha Sutra and is based on Sahapedia’s module on KA Abbas. Sahapedia offers encyclopaedic content on India’s vast and diverse heritage in multimedia format, authored by scholars and curated by experts – to creatively engage with culture and history to reveal connections for a wide public using digital media.