Quiver: Pages From A Poetís Diary - by Bhawana Somaaya Back   Home  
Heís the model for Rotomac pen, director of Jet Airways and the life of a party. Writer, lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar is a four- time National Award winner and a raging activist. Some time ago honoured with the coveted Padmashri, and recently with a civic reception by the UP Government, Akhtar like most creative people had a humble beginning. Reproduced below are passages profiling the poetís life...
Whenever people write about themselves the first thing they disclose is the city they hail from. Which city can I call my own? I was born in Gwalior, reared in Lucknow, grew up in Aligarh, played truant in Bhopal and turned wise in Mumbai. I shall recreate my life through a brief flashback. This will convenience your reading and my writing.

City Lucknow Ö Characters Ė my maternal grandparents, other relatives and me. Iím eight-years-old. Father is in Mumbai, mother in the grave. I spend the day playing cricket in the courtyard with my younger brother. In the evening, a forbidding master comes home for tuition. His salary is Rs. 15. (I remember distinctly because the information is repeated everyday). We are given a pocket money of six paise in the morning and twelve in the evening, so there is no scarcity of money. I buy colourful sweets from Ramjilal Baniya in the morning and in the evening, spend my money at Bhagwati Lalís chaat stall on the footpath opposite. Life is comfortable.

The schools have re-opened. Iíve been admitted in Lucknowís prestigious school Colwin District College in the sixth standard. Earlier, only children of Talukdars were admitted in the school. Now, they accept admissions from ordinary mortals like me. Still, itís an expensive school. We pay a fee of Rs 17 a month. (I remember this clearly because everyday Ö forget it). Some of my classmates wear a wrist watch. They come from wealthy families. They have beautiful sweaters. One of them carries a fountain pen. They spend eight annas during recess time at the canteen, buying chocolates. (I no more like the chaat made by Bhagwati). Yesterday, Rakesh was mentioning that his father was sending him to London for further studies. Yesterday, my grandfather was saying, ĎYou scoundrel, if you pass your matric, youíll find a job of a franking staff in a post office.í At this age, when children dream of becoming engine drivers, I have resolved that when I grow up, Iím going to be a rich man.

City: Aligarh Ö Characters Ė my aunt, other relatives and me. My younger brother has been retained in my grandfatherís home in Lucknow, while I have been allotted as my auntís responsibility who has migrated to Aligarh. Itís only fair. One family cannot afford two orphan kids. In my auntís home, till the eye can see is a vast playground. Beyond the playground is my school. Iím in the ninth standard, fourteen-years-old. The winter in Aligarh is to be experienced to be believed. The first bell rings at 7 a.m. Iím on my way to school. Itís biting cold and a dagger sharp wind blows in my direction. The effect is so strong that I have to feel my face to check if my nose and ears are in place. Iím losing face everyday in studies. I donít know how, but somehow I manage to pass. While admitting me in this school, Minto Circle, my uncle said to the teacher, ĎTake care of him, his heart is less in studies and more in film songs.í I have seen Dilip Kumarís Uran Khatola, Raj Kapoorís Shri 420. I know a number of film songs by heart, but at home, forget humming, even listening to film songs is banned. So on my way from school, on the road, I sing full-throatedly. Never on my way to school. (Then, I can only scream in my shivering). My school is in the university area. Barring a few friends from school, most of my friends are from the university. Like the older boys, I like whiling time at restaurants. Often, I run away from school. There are complaints about me. Iíve been walloped by the family, but i makes no difference. Iím not inclined towards studies, but I like books. Iím reprimanded frequently, but I cannot give them up. I remember poetry by heart. Whenever there is a poetry competition in the university, I represent my school and every time, win several prizes. Iím well-known in the university. That the boys recognize me, Iím happy. That the girls recognize me, Iím happier.

Ö Iím a little older now Ö Iím 15 years old and writing my first letter to a girl. My friend Bilu aids me and together we work on the draft. Next day, I meet the girl in an empty badminton court and mustering courage, I hand over the letter to her. This is my lifeís first and last love letter. (I have forgotten the contents but I remember the girl). Iíve completed matriculation and am leaving Aligarh. My aunt is weeping bitterly and my uncle is trying to console her. He admonishes her, says sheís weeping like I wasnít heading for Bhopal, but the war front! (At that time, neither of us knew it, but Iím truly heading for the war front)!

City: Bhopal Ö Characters Ė innumerable wellwishers, many friends and me. On his way from Aligarh to Mumbai, my father drops me in Bhopal, or lets put it this way, drops me halfway. For a few days, I stayed with my stepmother. Then, broke that link too. I study at Sailiya College and survive on the goodwill of friends. There are so many of them that if I were to make a list, it would surpass a telephone directory. Iím in my second year BA staying with my friend Ijaaz. He pays the rent, I just stay there. He studies and earns his bread through tuitions. All my friends call him Master Ö Master and I have had a fight on some issue. We are not talking and therefore these days, donít ask him for money. I take it from his trousers hanging on the wall opposite, or he quietly places a rupee or two next to my pillow. Iím in the final year. Itís my fourth year in the college and Iíve never paid any fees. The authorities never asked for it. Perhaps, this can only happen in Bhopal.

Thereís an empty room in the college compound, even that is given free to me. When classes end, I borrow two benches from any class and carry them to my room and spread my bedding. Thereís no cause for discomfort, except that the benches are bug-ridden. The hotel I have been eating free of charge has closed down feeding bankrupt collegians like me. In its place emerges a shoe shop. What do I eat now? Iím unwell, lonely, burning in fever and pining for food. Two boys from college, who I hardly know get me food in a tiffin. This, despite us not being friends. Theyíre foolish, but not me. I donít reveal that when they leave, I will cry. I recover and those two become my good friends. I enjoy participating in college debates. For three successive years, Iíve been winning the prizes at Bhopal Rotary Club. Iím awarded several trophies at inter-collegiate debates. Iíve even represented Vikram University at Delhiís Youth Festival.

There are two parties in college and both are pressurizing me to represent them for elections. Iím not drawn to elections, but I like speeches and represent both the parties. My room in college has been taken away. Now, I live with Mushtaq Singh. Mushtaq Singh works and studies simultaneously. He heads the Urdu Association. My knowledge of Urdu is impressive. His knowledge is superior. I can quote infinite poetry. He quotes better than me. Iím separated from my family. He has no family. I told you he is better than me. For almost a year, he has been nurturing our friendship, providing food, clothing and even though he is a true Sardar, buying me cigarettes.

Iíve taken to occasional drinking. We are drinking together at night. He is narrating stories about partition riots Ė he was very young then, but he remembers. The burning of two Muslim girls in Delhiís Karol Baug and how they were dumped in coal tar and another time when a Muslim boy was Ö I interrupt him, ask, ĎMushtaq Singh! Why are you narrating anecdotes only of the other side? Are you motivating a Muslim League?í Mushtaq Singh smiles Ö ĎOkay, what would you like to hear? Personal experiences or stories told to us?í ĎYour own story,í I reply. ĎOur family comprised of 11 members, ten were hacked before my eyes Öí

Mushtaq Singh remembers a number of Urdu poems. Iím living in his room for almost a year, but am still confused why the anarchists spared him. ĎWhy did they spare you Mushtaq? Good souls like you could belong to any group, any religion, but are always sacrificed. So how did you escape?í These days he is in Glasgow. When we were parting, I took his kada and put it in my arm and have worn it ever since. Whenever I think of him, I feel he is before me saying, ĎYou pride over your failures, you have to yet witness my defeats.í

City: Bombay. Characters: The film industry, friends, foes and me Ö October 4, 1964. I embark at Bombay Central Station. This time awaiting judgement from yet another court. I have to leave my fatherís home within six days. My pocket jingles with 27 paise. Iím happy, if I can make even 28 paise in future, it will be my gain and the worldís loss!

Ö Itís almost two years, but I have neither a roof above me nor the certainty of the next meal. Iíve written dialogues for a small film for which I was paid Rs. 100 a month. Sometimes, I work as an assistant, sometimes I do odd jobs and sometimes nothing. I visit a producerís office at Dadar to collect payment for a comedy scene Iíve written for his film. The scene will be credited to the famous writer. The office is shut. I have to go back to Bandra which is quite a distance away. The money in my pocket can either afford a bus ride or something to eat. Choosing the latter means walking my way home. I fill my pocket with channa and begin my long journey. As I pass the gates of Kohinoor Mills I ponder, that many changes may occur but these gates shall remain forever. One day, I promise myself, I will drive past these gates in my own car.

Iím writing dialogues for a film. After writing a few scenes, I go to the directorís house. He is eating breakfast which includes pineapple. He reads the scenes, then throws the papers on my face. Dismissing my services, he asserts that Iíll never make it as a writer. As I walk on a lonely street with the scorching sun above me, I wipe a stray tear that falls from the corner of my eye and resolve. One day I will prove it to him. Suddenly, I donít know why, a thought comes to my mind, does this director eat pineapple for breakfast every day?

Ö Itís around 2 am in the guise of the Bombay rain, it seems as if the seas are falling from the skies. I am sitting on the steps of a portico in Khar Station, under the dim rays of a bulb. Three men are asleep on the ground totally oblivious of the stormy rain. In a far corner, a wet dog is moving around restlessly. It seems as if the rain is never going to stop. For quite a distance, huge drops of rain pour over empty dark roads. There is no sign of light from the formidable leaking buildings. Everybody is asleep in their respective homes. Somewhere in this very city, is my fatherís home. Bombay is such a large city and I am so small Ö almost insignificant. No matter how courageous an individual, he sometimes feels scared Ö very scared.

Ö Itís more than a year and I am staying at Kamal Studio now known as Natraj Studio. I sleep anywhere in the compound. Sometimes in a verandah, sometimes under a tree, sometimes on a bench, or in the corridor. Many homeless and unemployed people live here in similar circumstances. Amongst them is Jagdish with whom I become good friends. Everyday, he devises new strategies of obtaining food. He knows who can offer us a drink, where and why? Jagdish has turned his struggle into some sort of an art.

I have got to know a vendor who sells second hand books at Andheri station. So there is no dearth of books. All night long, wherever I find a little light shining on the compound, I sit and read. Friends joke that if I read so much in dim lights, I will loose my eyesight. These days, I am getting to sleep inside one of the roms in the studio. The room has huge cupboards on all four sides in which dozens of costumes of Pakeezah are stored. Meena Kumari has separated from Kamalsaab, therefore shooting of the film has been stalled for some time. One day, I open a drawer of one of the cupboards. It is filled with old fashioned shoes and chappals to be used in the film. Amidst them, are three Filmfare awards won by Meena Kumari. Dusting and cleaning them, I keep the trophies aside. This is the first time I have touched a film award. Every night, I shut the room and holding the trophy in my hand, stand in front of the mirror fantasizing the day I too will win a trophy. I fantasize facing a hall packed with applauding audience. I think about how I will smile Ö? How I will shake hands? Before I can come to some conclusion, a notice is put up on the studio board. It says that people working in the studio are not permitted to stay within the premises.

Jagdish comes up with yet another brainwave. He decides that until we come up with alternate arrangements, we could stay in the Mahakali Caves (Mahakali is a part of Andheri and today boasts of wealthy inhabitants and Kamalistan studio). Those days however, it was a lonely street, amidst a jungle and small hills in which there were old caves made by renounced god men living on alms. Sadhus addicted to drugs hung around the place. The mosquitoes in the Mahakali Caves are so dangerous that they donít have to bite you. They just have to touch you and you wake up! I realize now why it is impossible to fall asleep here without drugs. Somehow, I manage to pass three days.

A friend from Bandra invites me to spend a few days with him. I am all set to go to Bandra. Jagdish informs me that within a day or two, he too will go away somewhere. That was my last meeting with Jagdish. In the coming years, life took me to great heights but even after 11 years, Jagdish continued where he was Ö in those caves, reeling under the effect of drugs and alcohol, which finally caused his death. The sadhus staying there and the slum dwellers in the surrounding areas collected alms and performed his last rites. The end of a story. His friends including me got to know of his death much later. I often wonder what was so special about me and so wrong with Jagdish? It could very well have been Jagdish who was called by his friend to Bandra and me who had stayed behind in those caves. Sometimes, everything seems to be a coincidence. It thatís so, what are we all so egoistic about?

The friend with whom I have come to share the room in Bandra, is a professional gambler. He and his two other colleagues have a knack of setting the cards and impart the knowledge to me as well. For a few days, I manage to survive in their company. Then, they leave the city and Iím back to square one Ė now who will pay my room rent next month? A famous and a successful writer offers me to write the dialogues for him (for which naturally he gets the credit) he will pay me Rs. 600 per month. I think over it. Rs. 600 at this point of my life is worth Rs. 600 crores. Then I wonder that if I take up this job now, Iíll never have the courage to leave it. Iíll be doing the same all my life. Then again, I think of the rent to be paid next month and then shrug it off with, ĎIíll see what happens.í After three days of recurring conflict, I decline the offer.

Days, weeks, months and years pass. Itís almost five years since Iíve come to Bombay. My meals are like the moon in the sky. Clouds, the circumstances. The moon is visible sometimes and sometimes disappears. These five years have taken its toll on me, but my pride is intact. Iím not disheartened. Iím certain, in fact very certain that something will happen, something will definitely come my way. I wasnít born to just wither away and die Ė and finally in November 1969 I get what in the film parlance is termed, the Ďright breakí.

Success is like the Alladinís magic lamp. Suddenly, the world is beautiful and people benevolent. Within a year-and-a-half, Iíve achieved a lot and there's so much more in the offing. Itís as if you touch mud and it turns gold. I envision my first home, my first car. Itís time for wishes to get fulfilled, but a loneliness persists. On the sets of Seeta Aur Geeta I meet Honey Irani. She is a large-hearted, outspoken and a cheerful girl. Within four months of meeting each other, we get married. I invite many of my fatherís friends for the wedding, but not my father. (There are certain wounds that even the magic of Alladinís lamp cannot heal Ė this can only happen with the passage of time). Within two years, we are blessed with two children, daughter Zoya and son Farhaan.

The next six years are swarmed with 12 successive superhits, awards, applause, magazine and newspaper interviews, photographs, money, parties, global travel, twinkling days and starry nights. Life turns into a techni-coloured dream. But like every dream, this one ends too. For the first time a film of ours flops. (There are many failures following this and many successes too but somehow the unadulterated happiness that comes out of debut success and the innocence of that joy is lost forever).

On August 18, 1976, my father expires. (Nine days prior to his death, he had presented me with his last book on which he had autographed and written, ĎYou will remember me when Iím no more.í He was right). Until now, I identified myself as a rebel and an angry son, but now Ė who am I? I look at myself and around me with a new perspective. Is this what I want out of life? Ė People around me are not aware but all those things that gave me joy until a few months ago appear fake and pretentious. Now, my heart is set on dreams, which in worldly terms seem meaningless. My bond with poetry is hereditary and my interest deep-rooted. I knew ever since I was an adolescent that I could, if I desired, write poetry. But I didnít. It was my way of protesting, of expressing hurt.

In 1979, I recite my first poem. By writing it, I make peace with my legacy. With my father. During the course of this period, I meet Shabana. Kaifi Azmiís daughter, Shabana also is returning to her roots. She too is troubled by thousands of queries she didnít stop to question earlier. Itís not surprising therefore that we are drawn towards each other. Slowly, a lot is changing within me. My partnership within the realm of the film industry ends. Those close to me are disturbed by the metamorphosis. In 1983, Honey and I separate. (My marriage with Honey ends but even a divorce cannot hamper our friendship. And if there is no trace of bitterness in our children despite our separation, then the credit goes to Honey. Today, Honey is a successful film writer and my good friend. In this world, there are very few people whom I hold in such high esteem as I hold Honey).

Itís taken a decision but for many years after leaving home, my existence was a Ďlifespan spent in a hotel, to die in a hospitalí. I was always a heavy drinker but then I began drinking even more. This is one phase of my life I deeply regret. If people have tolerated me during this phase, itís their generosity. I would have perhaps drunk myself to deterioration, but one morning, words of a dear one touch me deeply. Ever since, I resolve never to touch alcohol again. I havenít and never will.

Today, after so many years, when I reflect upon my life, it feels like the river gushing down over the mountains, dashing against boulders, finding its way through the rocky paths, bouncing, exploding upwards, yet careful of finding its level. The river has now found its shore, is calm and stable.

My kids Zoya and Farhaan have grown-up and are about to begin a life of their own. In their sparkling eyes, I see dreams of the coming days. Salman, my younger brother is a successful psychoanalyst in America, author of many books, a good poet and a father of two well-bred children. Life was equally tough for him but with hard work and dedication he accomplished his goal and is today on the road to progress. Iím happy. So is Shabana, who is not just my wife but also m beloved. She is the owner of a beautiful heart and a priceless mind. ĎShe belongs to the world I live in.í This line if it wasnít written by Mazaaz many years ago, I would have written for Shabana. Life is kind to me, but one particular childhood memory haunts me even today Ė I remember January 18, 1953 vividly. City: Lucknow Ė My maternal grandfatherís home. My sobbing aunt holds my and my six-and-a-half-year old brother Salmaanís hand and leads us to large room where many women are seated on the ground. Covered with a white cloth, her face revealed; lay the body of my mother. Seated near her, my grandmother is weeping quietly. Two women are consoling her. My aunt takes us closer to the body and asks us to see our mother for the last time. Only yesterday, I have turned eight. I understand. I know what death means. I look at my mother carefully so that I can etch her face into my memory for eternity. My aunt is saying, ĎPromise her that you will become something in life, that you will do something in life.í Iím unable to say anything. I just keep staring at my mother and then some woman covers her face with the white cloth.

Itís not as if I didnít achieve anything in life, but then a thought crops my mind. I havenít accomplished even a quarter of what Iím capable of. An unsettling feeling that ensues as a result of this, somehow never seems to go. Ö
Published in ScreenIndia. How can I explain my fascination about Javed Akhtar's works? I like everything he wrote. Read this one.. I am sure it leaves you very emotional.