Ajeeb daastaan hai yeh, Kahaan shuru kahaan khatam, Yeh manzeeley hai kaun si, Na woh samajh sakey na hum…
Teresa Rehman has a delightful link on Facebook. One click on it and you are transported to a world of writings – from current events to remarkable literary works, opinions to candid photographs. The “webzine” as she prefers to call it is The Thumb Print (www.thumbprintmag.com) and as an online magazine, it is the cyber-face of the Northeast. But what propels the popularity of Thumb Print in cyber space are some enchanting and stimulating real-life conversations – the venues are often up-market without being elitist, the topics thought-provoking. Every such upcoming conversation is put up as an update on her link. The last update had a catchy headline: “Meena Kumari comes to Guwahati” and it was accompanied by a photograph that was unmistakably of the legendary actress. For me, the first thought was “What on earth…!!!”
Terra Mayaa! The venue could well be Guwahati’s most popular party zone but it often effortlessly converts itself into a meeting ground for the intellectually stimulated Guwahatian offering an unparalleled ambiance for thoughtful exchanges, cinematic screenings and coffee. I walked in to an already intense atmosphere – a large gathering of people comfortably seated and watching the initial rushes of “Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam” in total silence. Exactly until that moment, ignorance for me was bliss! I had no idea at all of Meena Kumari’s work and life. The grayscale pictures on the screen did not make much sense to me and I was more interested in trying to spot the known faces in that gathering. Yes! I seemed to know some of them – Dhruba Hazarika, Ashutosh Agnihotri and Indrani Raimedhi among others.
What transpired thereafter were not films but poetry! And to me, knowledge! Mehjabeen Bano had lived a short life and she lived it more famously as Meena Kumari. Yes, she was an actor par excellence, commercially bankable, but her melancholic life led her to pen some incredible verses – dark poetry in that most mellifluous of languages called Urdu. Her poetry was a small window to the gloom and vacuum in her life; but for Gulzar, who published her writings after her death in 1972, that window would have remained shut, lost to the world. And so, “Bringing Meena Kumari to Guwahati” was courtesy Dr. Noorul Hasan, retired Professor of English at NEHU, through a piece of translated work encapsulated in a book: “Meena Kumari – The Poet, A life beyond cinema”. The challenge must have been formidable. Chaste Urdu verses, linguistically lyrical, melodious, translated into a very functional language like English while maintaining complete fidelity to the original work demanded a different dimension of literary prowess; in the readings done by Dr. Hasan’s daughter, Daisy – herself an eminent UK-based academician and proficient language expert in her own right, speaking with an impeccable accent – Dr. Hasan’s capabilities were for us to judge and marvel at. The jugalbandi between the father and daughter – one reciting the original work and the other, the translation, was absorbing and. Interspersed with this were the well-heeled interjections from the extremely knowledgeable, well-read and articulate Ashutosh Agnihotri (who moderated the discussion; none could have done it better), G.M. Srivastava (who stressed on the fact that understanding Urdu would give a better sense of appreciation to the English translation), Robin Barthakur (whose depth of knowledge on the subject and of Urdu poetry made the afternoon refreshingly enlightening), Prof. Ranjit Choudhury (who tried to understand how much of trans-creational tendencies might have crept into Dr. Hasan’s brilliant translation attempt), Indrani Raimedhi (whose simplified explanations certainly helped me cope with the whole proceedings better) and Me (through my profound, deafening, ignorant silence!).
Beyond the glitz and glamour, Meena Kumari led a sad life. Just six years old when hired for “Leatherface” in 1939 by Vijay Bhatt and named Baby Meena, her journey as an actor coursed through 94 films ending with Pakeezah in 1972. Married to Kamal Amrohi, a dissatisfying relationship that broke up within 12 years, she led a lonely life battling alcoholism and finally died, alone, in 1972. The dark poetry that emanated from her heart and flowed through her pen reflected her misery and the treachery that she had to endure as a slave of love.
For me it was an indeed an “ajeeb daastaan…” and I felt like a fish out of water – albeit an intelligent fish capable of surviving in a new and testing environment. As a prose writer, I have always felt that poetry is a much superior form of expression which, if within my capacities to understand, is to be enjoyed and if not, discarded. For once in my life that Sunday of 17th August last, I tried to understand poetry at a platform where it was discussed and dissected that, in another situation of say, just reading it off a book, would have instantly rejected as something beyond my powers of comprehension. Somehow today, poetry is within me and yet remains beyond me. Mehjabeen’s verses had indeed made a profound impact and knowledge rather than ignorance, for once, is bliss!