Letters to a Young Poet

The influential correspondence of Safia Akhtar

In 1949, Jan Nisar Akhtar left his family’s home in Bhopal to pursue a career writing film lyrics in Bollywood. EXPRESS ARCHIVE PHOTO
01 February, 2016

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.

The performers drew the excerpts of Safia’s writing from a collection of letters called Zer-e-lab—which literally translates to “under the lips,” but idiomatically means whispered, intimate conversations. The book is one part of a two-volume set of her letters, published in 1955, that span almost a decade, from 1943 through 1952. The letters become especially dramatic in 1949, when Jan Nisar moved from the couple’s home in Bhopal to Bombay, seeking work as a lyricist for Bollywood. For the next few years, Safia supported their family with money she made teaching Urdu at a college, all the while raising their two young sons. Safia’s letters are worth reading not only for her expressive prose, but also for her rich account of a marriage defined by intellectual partnership and devoted sacrifice, even under pains of impending tragedy.

Both graduates of Aligarh Muslim University, Safia and Jan Nisar were part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, an anti-imperialist literary wave that was sweeping through India’s cultural elite. They also both belonged to “families with deep literary lineage,” Mehr Afshan Farooqi, whose translations of Safia’s letters were published in 2005 in TheAnnual of Urdu Studies, told me in an email. (All of the excerpts from Safia’s letters in this piece are from Farooqi’s translations.) “They were drawn to each other because they had similar beliefs and values,” she said.

Safia Akhtar’s letters, initially published in a two-volume Urdu set in 1955, were later translated into Hindi and published as a book, Tumhaare Naam. COURTESY RAJKAMAL PRAKASHAN BOOKS

According to an article in the Lucknow Observer from last year, Jan Nisar—who had heard of Safia through his cousins—went to meet her at her college. She fell for him right away. After they exchanged a few letters, Jan Nisar’s family sent a marriage proposal to Safia’s family, who replied soon in approval. After a protracted silence from the Akhtar family, Safia, frustrated, wrote to Jan Nisar to express her interest directly. They began a renewed correspondence, and then married in 1943. “If I hadn’t succumbed to my superfluous desire and blithe audacity in daring to write to you, who knows where our lives would be drifting now?” reads a letter from 1950.

After Independence, Safia and Jan Nisar moved to Bhopal, and both took up posts teaching Urdu at Hamidia University. In an interview from 2006, their son Salman Akhtar, now a psychoanalyst and poet, remembered that on some mornings, when his father did not want to get out of bed, his mother would go teach class for him. “And actually, the students loved it when she appeared,” Salman said. “Because she was a much better teacher.”

In 1949, Jan Nisar quit teaching and left for Bombay, hoping to pursue poetry while making a living writing film lyrics. He lived in poverty, struggling to find work. Safia sent him money whenever she could. Rumours about their marriage circulated in Bhopal after his departure—even the principal of the college where Safia taught told her to beg Jan Nisar to get over his “passion” and return home. “In short, there has been a lot of gossip,” Safia writes, but she immediately sweetens her complaint with irony and romance. “What could have been a better opportunity than this to satisfy your desire for tumult, Akhtar? The blaze of your love is bent on leaving me burnished gold.” Even in translation, her prose retains an elegant intensity.

In 1951, Safia contracted a skin disease that we now know was cancer. The letters during her illness began to express, more openly, her despair at Jan Nisar’s distance. Towards the end of 1952, she moved from Bhopal to her parents’ house in Lucknow. In her last letter to Jan Nisar, dated 29 December 1952, she entreats him to come visit before it is too late. “Akhtar, come to me, don’t let me die,” she writes. “Come now, let me put my head in your lap and get a long sleep.”

Safia died 18 days after writing that letter, aged 37. Two days later, Jan Nisar reached Lucknow. On his way from Bombay, anticipating her death, he had composed a poem called ‘Khaak-e-Dil’—Ashes of the Heart, still one of his best-known works. Its opening lines translate to:

Lucknow my home, my lush green home!

In your rocking embrace

I bury the beauty of my world

The heart that beats to your rhythms

That heart too I bury here with you.

After Safia’s death, Jan Nisar spearheaded efforts to give the letters a wider readership. This culminated in 1955, when Zer-e-lab and Harf-e-Aashna, two companion volumes of her letters, were released by Maktaba Jamia, a Delhi-based publisher.

That was also the year Jan Nisar finally got his big break in films, writing lyrics for AR Kardar’s Yasmin, and soon after, for Raj Khosla’s smash hit CID. He went on to write lyrics for over 150 songs. Even though Safia never saw her husband succeed in Bollywood, many who know his work say that she left her imprint on it, as well as on his poetry. Farooqi described Safia as “an inspiration for Jan Nisar.” In a 2014 talk, Salman mentioned ‘Khaamosh Avaaz’ (Silent Voice), a poem Jan Nisar wrote when re-visiting Safia’s resting place. “The entire poem,” he said, “is my mother, from the grave, talking to him.”

In the letter where Safia begs Jan Nisar to come home before she dies, she also thanks him for a poem he sent her in a previous letter. “I have always had your love, care, friendship, affection, confidence and warmth,” she exults. “Now I feel that I am in your poetry too. What more could I desire?” On stage at the festival, Safia’s influence resonated most poignantly at the end of the evening, with a song Jan Nisar wrote 25 years after her death. “Aap yun faaslon se guzarte rahe, dil se kadmon ki aawaz aati rahi,” the singer’s voice rang, clear and mournful, throughout the school grounds. “As you walked further into the distance, I heard your footsteps inside my heart.”