On the evening of 8 January, in the Bhendi Bazaar neighbourhood of south Mumbai, the grounds of a government school bustled not with schoolchildren, but with people attending an Urdu language and literature festival. About 400 people sat in white plastic chairs facing a large stage, and many more watched from the balconies of a nearby building. At 7 pm, an unlikely trio of performers took the stage: Neha Sharad, a television actress; Suhail Warsi, a poet; and Pooja Gaitonde, a singer.
That night’s event celebrated a series of letters that Safia Akhtar, an Urdu scholar, wrote to her husband, Jan Nisar Akhtar, himself an Urdu scholar, poet and Bollywood lyricist. To kick off the evening, Sharad read out a letter from April 1951, in which Safia praised the blossoming literary abilities of her six-year-old son Javed—now a famous poet and Bollywood lyricist. “Mujhe faatehana masarrat hoti hai iske zehanat aur dimaagh ko dekhkar. Maine tumhaare behtereen unsur neechodkar apna liya hai. Lekin tumne bhi kuch nahin khoya,” Sharad recited. (I feel a joy of accomplishment when I see his intelligence and his mind. I have made the best of you mine, yet you have not lost anything.)
Warsi responded to Sharad with a line from one of Jan Nisar’s poems, titled ‘Aakhri Mulaqaat’—Last Meeting, where the narrator yearns for his loved ones. “Mat roko inhein paas aane do/ Yeh mujhse milne aaye hain/ Main khud na jinhein pehchaan saku/ Kuchh itne dhundle saaye hain” (Don’t stop them, let them come closer/ They have come here to visit me/ These I can barely remember/ These shadows foggy and unclear). Finally, Gaitonde, accompanied by a live band, sang one of Jan Nisar’s songs from the film Sushila: “Darde dil darde wafa, darde tamanna kya hai, aap kya jaane mohabbat ka takaaza kya hai” (What do you know of the pain wrought by heart, desire and fidelity, you wouldn’t know of the demands of love). As the performers drew an arc from the letter’s joy, to the poem’s nostalgia, and finally to the song’s ache, even those audience members who did not know the history of the two writers’ relationship were moved by the mood. After a short break, during a call to prayer from a nearby mosque, the evening continued with other triplets of letter, poem and song.