Safia Akhtar

A Candle in the Wind

Safia Akhtar who died prematurely at the age of thirty-seven in 1953 needs no introduction in Urdu literary circles. But to those not well- versed in Urdu literature, she can be introduced as a younger sister of the poet Asrar-ul-Haq Majaz, wife of the poet, Janisar Akhtar and mother of “Les enfents terribles” Javed Akhtar and Salman Akhtar. She was a brilliant mind, popular teacher, a talented writer and literary critic who did not have enough time to achieve her full potential. But she found a place in Urdu literature for her letters to her husband which she wrote over a period of nine years, and which her husband posthumously published under the titles:

“Hurf-e-Aashna ” (Familiar Words) and “Zer-e-Lub” (Below the Lips) as well as for a short collection of essays ” Andaaz-e-Nazar” (The way to look at).

In her essays, which are mostly literary criticisms, she comes out as an erudite litterateur who has keen observations, fairness in her criticisms and deep insights into human psychology. The first essay ” Shamman Ka Nafsiati Irteqa” (Shamman’s Psychological Development) is a critique of Ismat Chugtai’s novel “Terhi Lakeer” (A crooked line). This novel was not well received at first because of Ismat’s typical uninhibited style and writing on taboo subjects but when Safia wrote a critique of it, analyzing the psychology of the main character “Shamman”, the tenth child in an upper- middle-class family where she was considered an unnecessary addition to the family or an uninvited guest, the book was re-read with better understanding and appreciation. Another article “Ghar ka Bhedi”, Safia wrote on the insistence of a close family friend but told him that she was not going to demolish Lanka as in the saying “Ghar ka Bhedi Lanka Dhaye”. She handled the delicate subject tactfully and painted an exact picture of her husband with the help of anecdotes and episodes, without praising her husband or finding faults with him.

Her letters to her husband in “Hurf-e- Aashna” and “Zer-e- Lub” have been judged on various levels by the critics as literary masterpieces. In the uniqueness of style and frankness and familiarity of language, they are reminiscent of Ghalib’s famous letter writing.

These letters are very personal, intimate and were not meant to be made public through publication. If she has been watching the events from somewhere, she would be very hurt on the invasion of her privacy and breach of trust. It is true that these letters made her famous as a writer but this is not what she wanted. She wanted to live a normal life with her husband and children and not fame after death.

Many writers have commented on these letters and there is a marked difference in the opinions of male and female critics.

Here are some examples of male and female reactions to her letters:

Krishna Chandra, the celebrated Urdu story writer, found these letters most beautiful pieces of writing and they reminded him of “Meghdoot” of Kalidas who experienced the same pangs of separation, yearnings for re- union with the beloved and faced the same failures and disappointments. He felt as if, after hundreds of years, Meghdoot were still alive, warming up hearts and bringing tears to the readers’ eyes. He believed that in our literature and culture, a woman is an equal partner to man in all areas of life and so she is also equal in freely expressing her love for the beloved who can be her husband as was the case with Safia whereas Qurratulain Hyder, the modern Diva of Urdu literature, a fan of Safia, expressed her extreme annoyance on these letters in her harsh words.

The Urdu Ghazal maestro and Professor of English literature, Firaq Gorakhpuri expressed his appreciation of Safia’s letters in these words, “Despite illness and lack of leisure, I read the letters in one go. What effect these letters had on me, either I dismiss by just saying that it is beyond description or get hold of myself and carefully describe it. So, I have to say that the examples of such lofty human values, such expressions of pure and pious love, such sincerity and tenderness of a life-partner, and all with a pinch of wit – in a wife’s letters to her husband may not be found in any language and literature, these letters are such a Human Document” which may not be found in any other literature.

Salma Shan-ul-Haq Haqqi, Safia’s roommate in Aligarh and Jan Nisar’s cousin writes in her article, “Shaheedan-e-Wafa Ka Khoon Baha Kya”, this is a “Dastan-e-Gham” (Saga of Sorrows) which she wrote and posted to her husband incessantly, sorrows which she did not share with anyone, the hurts she did not consider appropriate to show to anyone, she had a right to share with the one who was the cause of them. This proud and self-respecting girl could not imagine showing the wounds of her heart to anyone else. These letters were a self-talk which, in her solitude she kept transferring on paper and sharing with only one person in whom she had put all her trust. Look at the irony of fate that he kept saving these very private and personal letters systematically, to put in a book later and thus making public what she had not shared with her closest relatives and friends. To add insult to injury, there were posters advertising the books asking people to buy them as the proceeds will go towards building a marble grave of Safia. How very sad ?

When another close friend of Safia, Saeeda Qidwai was shown the poster and the books, she said angrily: “The preparations for her grave were being made for a long time and now they are complete. Now nobody needs to bother any more. Take away the poster and the book. l’ll never buy or read these books.

Safia’s relatives and friends who knew Safia in her younger days remember a very different person than what Quratul Ain Haider saw in her letters. They remember her as a rebel in her family who had no tolerance for irrational and unreasonable behaviour, who could not accept inequality between the sexes and who wanted to change unnecessary mores and customs in our society etc. How then she put up with a man like her husband? A simple answer is that she was passionately and unconditionally in love with him as she had unlimited capacity to love.

Her younger sister Hameeda Salem further answers the question by saying “Love has many colours. Mother’s love is selfless and does not expect anything in return, a sister’s love demands love in return, A wife gives everything to her husband and wishes to have everything from him like Safia Aapa’s love for her husband, all these colours were mixed and the mixture had a unique colour which could not be found anywhere.

Safia herself in one of her letters writes: ” Come and I’ll give you such a kiss on your forehead which will have a mother’s “Shafqat” (loving care by an older person) a sister’s pride, a wife’s sacrifice and a friend’s warmth all in one.“

It is surprising that none of the critics of the letters, pointed out that Janisar appeared an emotionally disturbed and broken man before entering Safia’s life and that he needed therapy. But it appears that Safia did realize that and instead of abandoning him, she felt strong compassion for him in addition to love. She decided to be his therapist herself and tried to help him through heavy doses of love.

The changed and improved Janisar after Safia’s death proved that she did succeed in her mission as he wrote two very beautiful and shattering poems in her memory when he visited her grave in Lucknow and when he married again his treatment of his second wife and her son from the first marriage was somewhat normal and he admitted Safia’s help, “Kis saleeqay se sikhaya mujhey jeeney ka shaoor” (How skill fully, she taught me how to live) and somebody else also said it on his behalf :

“Faraham Kar ke Merey Dil Ke Ajzaey Parishan Ko
Meri Bikhri Hui Hasti Ko Soorat Baksh Di Tunay
Kahan Baaqi Raha Tha Zindagi Ka Hausla Mujh Mein
Mujhey Ek Baar Phir Jeene Ki Himmat Baksh Di Tunay”

(By bringing together the broken elements of my heart, You gave a face to my scattered being, There was no will to live left in me you gave me the courage to live once again)

Safia was born in an enlightened Sufi family of Rudauli Shareef – a Qasba in Uttar Pradesh known for its Su␣ Saints, progressive and literary people and communal harmony. Safia received her early education at home. Her father realized from the very beginning that she was very bright and told her mother that she would do better in studies than her sons. He taught her Urdu, English and Farsi himself and a lady teacher taught her the Quran. Occasionally she took help in Mathematics from her brother Majaz. Her father, Chowdhry Seraj-ul-Haq was the first Law graduate in his Qasba and the first landlord to leave Rudauli to take up a government Job. This move gave her and her siblings an opportunity for higher education. Safia’s schooling started from fourth grade in Karamat Hussein Muslin Girls College in Lucknow. But only after one year, her father was transferred to Agra and she was put in the hostel. At that time (till 1947) , the principal of Karamat Hussein Muslim Girls’ College used to be an English woman. Safia’s mother, who was proud of her Indian culture, didn’t want her daughter to be educated under the guidance of a British woman. So, her father got himself transferred to Aligarh from Agra, where all his children, girls and boys both could receive education in one place.

Safia was admitted in grade seven in Abdullah College and received double promotion the very first year. Then she passed in first class throughout, It is said that some boys grew jealous of her because some parents used to give their sons her example. They found out from the servant which was Safia’s room in the house and if there was light in her room till late at night, they would throw stones through the skylight to disturb her.

After completing her Intermediate in first class, she wasted one year waiting for B.A. classes to be opened in the Girls College, and then only she was able to resume her studies. But before she could complete her studies, her father retired and moved to Lucknow where he built a retirement home which his son Majaz named “Darul Seraj”. Safia was put in the hostel in Aligarh, she passed her B.A. and topped for B.T. Degree. Her teachers were so impressed by her performance that she was soon hired as a supervisor of training programme. She could not be hired as a lecturer without a Masters’ degree so she joined a Master’s programme after her marriage. The financial situation in the family compelled her to earn a living. Her husband kept moving from one place to the other and was not always employed so she tried to be a permanent provider for her two children as well as for him when he was unemployed. This meant living separately and alone most of the time, holding a full time job, a household to look after and two babies to rear. When the second arrived too soon, the first was brought to Lucknow by her unmarried younger sister. After a miscarriage, Safia’s health deteriorated fast and she could no longer perform her duties so she was also brought to her parents’ house in Lucknow. She was diagnosed of a rare type of blood cancer which could not be cured at that time. After a couple of moths’ she passed away on Jan. 17, 1953.

During her illness her husband was in Bombay where he had gone to try his luck with writing film lyrics. He was a poet of high calibre but did not have much success in writing film songs. He did not visit his ailing wife in Lucknow because of financial problems but he did not say so. When he received the telegram that his wife’s condition was critical, a ␣lm actress lent him the money for the ticket to Lucknow. He arrived after Safia’s death, went to the Grave yard, stayed by his wife’s grave the whole day and wrote “Khak-e-Dil”.

Going back to how Safia met her husband, in the hostel in Aligarh, her roommate was Salma, who later married her cousin Shanul Haq Haqqi. Salma, her husband and Janisar Akhtar were all cousins, Janisar was also a friend of Safia’s brother Majaz. Salma writes that one day, Janisar showed up at Girls’ College to see Safia, Introducing himself as her brother Majaz’ friend. Safia was taken aback at this unexpected visitor but at the same time, something wonderful but unfortunate happened, she fell madly in love with him at the very first sight and he, obviously, did not feel the same way because he did not contact her again for quite some time which was very disappointing and painful for Safia.

After much delay, he did write and told her about himself, about his job and interests etc. Then her parents received a letter from his mother which was a marriage proposal for Safia from him. Her parents checked his family background from Safia’s roommate Salma (who had nothing to do with this proposal and had met her cousin only once as they lived in different parts of the country). But, she told Safia’s parents that he came from a well-educated family of poets for six generations. Even his grandmother was a poet whose Takhallus (pen-name) was “Hirmaa’n”. His father was the famous poet Muztar “Khairabadi”. The boy himself was very bright, well educated and a lecturer in Urdu literature in Gwalior. She did not know more about him but with the information available Safia’s parents considered this a suitable proposition as this was the first reasonable marriage proposal for Safia. They immediately sent their acceptance. After a prolonged silence from the groom’s side, Safia was very disappointed and her parents very worried. At this point, Safia took an unusual and a bold step of writing to him frankly expressing her feelings for him and asking for his reasons for his delays. The response did not come immediately but after a while and in his letter, he made a confession. He told her about his infatuation with an older and widowed relative with three children who had looked after him very well when he had a break down because his first romantic relationship had abruptly ended.

He felt indebted to her and wanted to look after her and the children. Now Safia knew the reason why he had been dithering and she appreciated his honesty and sense of gratitude to his widowed relative and told him so. After some time, his mother revived the marriage proposal. At this point, her elder brother Majaz who did not think that his poet friend was a suitable match to her, tried to dissuade her by telling her that he had a flery temper and he would be difficult to live with. But this negative information from a reliable source could not change her mind.

The marriage did take place but some very odd happenings the very first day indicated towards a rocky road ahead for Safia. The groom was not on good terms with his mother as the son and mother arrived separately at the bride’s house. After the ceremonies, “Rukhsati” (The bride’s departure from her parents’ home) was to take place the next day. But Safia’s family learned that the groom was not going to leave with his family, so all his relatives left without the bride, the groom and the widowed relative. They left after several days. It was very odd and cause of much embarrassment and anguish for Safia and her family. Such odd behaviour was the pattern throughout the nine years of their marriage, He always acted according to his whims and wishes without any consideration to anyone. The details of Safia’s ordeal can be found in her own letters, in her article ” Ghar Ka Bhedi”, in her younger sister’s book ” Hum Saath Thay” and in Salma Haqqi’s article ” Shaheedan-e- Wafa Ka Khoon Baha Kya“

Although Safia’s husband did not appreciate her but her in-laws did. Janissar’s brother -in-law who was a very conservative man and against girls’ education and emancipation changed his mind after getting to know Safia and said if girls could be like Safia after education and without Purdah, he was not against it. So, because of her, all the girls received education in his family.

To sum up this very sad story, it would be fair to say that Safia fell in love with the wrong man and he could not fall in love with the right woman. Thus proving Ghalib right once again:

“Ishq Par Zor Nahin Hai Ye Woh Aatish ‘Ghalib’
Ke Lagaye Na Lagay Aur Bujhaye Na Banay”

Sehba Ali

Writer is from Rudauli. an expert in linguistics with passion of Urdu language.

(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 1 Issue 10, Dated 05 January 2015)

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