SM Mehdi: A Life Less Ordinary – by Jawed Naqvi (Jawed Naqvi is an eminent Indian journalist and popular columnist and political analyst. He is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi.)
(S M Mehdi, who passed away in Aligarh in January 2015, had for most of his 90-plus years dreamt his own version of unselfish dreams, hitched mostly to an embarrassingly abiding faith in the fellowship of man)
THERE can be many ways to announce the end of an era. Saeed Mirza made Naseem, for example, a delicately poignant film that turned the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya into a metaphor for the unravelling of the Nehruvian promise. Saeed staged a cinematic coup of sorts, in fact, by getting the leftist poet Kaifi Azmi to agree to essay the waning of the Indian dream. He excelled in his role as the doting grandfather of Naseem, a curious, fun-loving Muslim schoolgirl, like so many of her age from the pre-1990s Mumbai.
At the end of the story, Kaifi passes away quietly in his bed on the day of the Ayodhya outrage, leaving Naseem distraught but also equipped with his simple, unassuming insights into life, to cope with the challenges the cataclysmic day would usher.
Saeed’s schoolgirl reminded me in a way of a skit by American playwright e.e. cummings that we staged in Aligarh’s Abdullah Hall (a rare peep for any man behind the walls of the chronically gated women’s college). A girl in the one-sentence play wakes up on the bench in a park, and says: “What a beautiful day.” The sun falls down from the sky. The stage goes pitch-dark. Haven’t there been a few other occasions in history when darkness descended when it was least expected, often at the high noon of an otherwise promising day.
S.M. Mehdi, who passed away in his sleep in Aligarh last week, had for most of his 90-plus years dreamt his own version of unselfish dreams, hitched mostly to an embarrassingly abiding faith in the fellowship of man. In that quest early on he befriended Kaifi Azmi in Kanpur in the late 1930s, and drafted him into the communist party of which he was already a member.
They had a third friend, Munish Narain Saxena, a thoroughbred Lucknow Kayasth, a raconteur and a wit who possibly spoke better, easier Urdu than his two comrades. Over a stretch of time, Mehdi became known to an entire generation of young admirers as Maamujan, so much so that Doordarshan serialised his scribbled notes about his comrades recently, as Maamujan ki Diary. His comrades and alliances ranged from Faiz to Hameed Akhtar, from Ahmed Ali Khan to Sajjad Zaheer.
Let me share some memories from years of conversations with Maamujan. They describe what seems like an improbable era he belonged to, and also give hints of how Naseem’s dream could have been saved from destruction.
Munish Chaacha, as we knew Mehdi’s life-long friend from Lucknow, was a hands-on communist pamphleteer who rode a rickety old scooter with an oversized helmet for a large portion of the life he spent in Delhi. In Mumbai he edited the Hindi Blitz while having a tough time coping with a strict disciplinarian of a wife, a sister of K.A. Abbas’s wife. In Lucknow, when Mehdi’s sister had gone away to Lakhimpur Kheri for a longish stretch with her husband, the trio of Mehdi, Kaifi and Munish converted their 17 Kutchehry Road residence into a commune.
Before he became a more astute communist, Kaifi was a devotee of Hazrat Ali, and a few of his early poems about human brotherhood were culled from traditions surrounding the iconic Islamic figure. The poet became popular for his deep hypnotic voice though initially, according to Maamujan, he liked to croon his poetry in tarannum. Mehdi and Munish found it insufferable and threatened to walk out if he sang off-key once more.
“Utho dekho wo aandhi aa rahi hai,” Kaifi was immersed in his newly composed verse at Kutchehry Road one day. Sit up and watch the storm approach, would be a rough translation. It was a hot and dreary afternoon. Munish, halfway into his siesta, was in no mood to brook the grating on his ears. “Yaar, tumhari aandhi ko dekhney ke liye uthna zaroori hai?” (Is it necessary to sit up to watch the storm you are imagining, Kaifi?) His protest registered, Munish turned his back on the unmoved friend.
It was a tribute to this bonding that Munish found himself playing Shabana Azmi’s father for her school admission in Mumbai. It was a requirement that the parents be able to express themselves in English. Sultana Jafri, wife of fellow poet Sardar Jafri, played Shabana’s mother before the school principal.
On another occasion, Munish could have been an inspiration for Mother Teresa. He was the one who cleaned the festering stench from the blisters of friend and comrade Majaaz Lucknavi.
It was Munish, according to Maamujan, who took the tragic hero home, nursed him, and put the self-destructive poet back on his feet.
In 1970, Sheila Bhatia (her partner Hali Vats had been a gun-runner for the communist party) directed Mehdi’s play Jaan e Ghazal, the story of Urdu poetry in a musical format. Begum Akhtar had composed the music, the only time she did so for the stage. Madanbala Sandhu was the heroine. I have yet to come across someone who can sing and act on stage with aplomb as Madanbala did. Unfortunately, in the year of Begum Akhtar’s centenary, I have been searching with no apparent success for men and women who can help revive the magical musical.
In recent years, when Maamujan had gone totally blind, he would continue to share his thoughts with the youngsters whose attention span for history was flagging. As an Indian communist, he had a preference for the middle of the road P.C. Joshi against an implacably radical B.T. Ranadive.
His grandson had given him an Internet radio on which he could listen to the news from different sources. The news was not good of late, but he didn’t blame any villain for the chipping away of his dreams. He was too seasoned a campaigner, too good a Marxist, not to divine the passing of an era.–c. Dawn
Various videos where S M Mehdi shares important cultural historical events of India. Click each link to listen.