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Meena Kumari, the poet

After my earlier article on the life of Meena Kumari, I explored the iconic actor’s prowess in an entirely different area of personal expression – poetry

Meena KumariMeena Kumari

My heart wonders incessantly
If this is life, what is it that they call death?
Love was a dream?
Ask not about the fate of this dream?
Ask not about the punishment
I received for the crime of loyalty.
(This is Life)


Meena Kumari, the iconic actor, will perhaps be better remembered by posterity as a poet of unique sensibility. For three decades she ruled Indian cinema – now referred to as Bollywood; and even after her tragic death due to alcoholism in 1972 her film Pakeezah continued to fascinate cinegoers. In a relatively short life, Meena achieved a place on the silver screen that few can match. Unlike the current trend of actors staying in business beyond their welcome, Meena died at her peak when she was barely thirty nine years old.

A few months ago I had reviewed Vinod Mehta’s biography of Meena Kumari authored in the 1970s (Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography) and wondered why her poetry had not been widely published. Within a few weeks, I was delighted to receive a copy of Meena Kumari the Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema – a collection of her poems translated by Noorul Hasan, a competent translator and a former Professor of English. The book has a thought provoking introduction by Philip Bounds and Daisy Hasan and a few other gems that have been rescued from the anonymity of film journalism.

Meena Kumari2

Meena Kumari3

Meena Kumari’s lasting friendship with the poet Gulzar is well known. In fact, Gulzar was even present in the hospital when Meena struggled for her life and finally gave up. It was Gulzar who published her poems after her death. In Pakistan, pirated copies of this orginal publication were available everywhere during my childhood. At railway junctions with small bookstalls, on the pavements where old books were sold and all other places where popular literature was bought and sold. However, this collection gradually faded into oblivion and today the English readers in India and Pakistan may not even know about the poetry of Meena Kumari, which by all standards is formidable. Hasan, the translator tells us in the preface: […]

The Real Meena Kumari

The soulfulness of India’s greatest tragedienne was born of an abiding love for reading and writing. 

Raza Rumi reviews a biography of the alluring star

The real Meena Kumari

Barri Bechari Hai
Meena Kumari
Jisko Lagi Hai

Dil ki Bimari Meena Kumari ruled the world of Indian cinema until her death in 1972 due to liver cirrhosis. Since her death her popular image has been that of a suffering tragic heroine who died of loneliness and excessive drinking. However, the story of Mahjabeen (Meena Kumari’s real name) is neither as simple nor stereotypical as painted by her panegyrists and detractors alike. I recall the days in my childhood when Meena Kumari’s last film Pakeeezah was scheduled to be shown on Doordarshan. The excitement was incredible and everyone I knew anticipated watching it via (illegal) TV signals from across the border. Such was her magic and appeal. And needless to state, sheer beauty.

Harper Collins have republished well known Indian editor, Vinod Mehta’s biography of Meena Kumari authored in the 1970s (Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography). This is a fine introduction to a larger-than-life person and performer. By no means authoritative it does give a fairly detailed account of her life, achievements and travails. As Mehta mentions at the start of the book, in 1972 he was a struggling ad copywriter “going nowhere. With false bravado which comes easily to a person who has achieved little, I accepted the commission and duly delivered the finished manuscript” in a few months. Mehta was “embarrassed at the effort” because the subject of his biography was not available for interviews, and Dharmendra — “the man who had callously used and discarded her” never gave him the time to hold detailed interviews. Having said that, the biography is fairly well-researched and brings forth lesser known facets of this exceptionally talented woman who remains a bit of an enigma to date. […]

Books, bombs & mangroves (on the fourth Karachi Literature Festival)

In its fourth year, the Karachi literature festival (KLF) has become a public event that brings together the cosmopolitanism and the fissiparous identities of Karachi. One of the greatest consolations of today’s Pakistan is the quiet yet formidable growth of this festival as a cultural marker. Such has been its influence that Lahore – otherwise deemed as the cultural centre of Pakistan – has now kicked off its very own literary festival.

The fourth KLF was a bigger event than its past lives. The list of organizers and partners has also grown over the years, but the credit for weaving it all together belongs to the indefatigable Ameena Saiyid, MD Oxford University Press. Little wonder that the world continues to recognize her contributions, as Saiyid was recently conferred the Knight of the Order of Arts & Literature by the French government.

KLF attracted thousands of people from Karachi, and beyond. This time, I noticed that the majority of the attendees were from the younger generation, with a large number of schoolchildren involved in a parallel world of books, storytelling, art and simple fun activities. Of course, a liberal bubble is always deceptive, and on day two the tragic incident in Quetta – which killed and injured hundreds of Hazaras – shook the participants. Despite the action packed days, the Hazara killings loomed large and most sessions articulated a strong condemnation of the ghastly massacre.

The festival started with another, albeit lesser, tragedy. Gulzar ji, the celebrated Indian poet, lyricist, and filmmaker, decided not to attend KLF after his brief sojourn in Lahore and his birthplace Dina. Prior to KLF, I had been most excited about conducting a session with him and another formidable talent, Vishal Bhartwaj, the avant-garde Indian filmmaker. The last time I had met Gulzar ji was at Ghalib’s birthday celebrations at Delhi, where I walked with him like a shamelessly smitten fan. Ameena Saiyid read out Gulzar ji’s letter in which he had apologized for his absence by saying, “Mujh se naraaz na hona” in his simple and evocative style. The wretched Indo-Pakistan politics continues to haunt cultural exchanges. Perhaps it was the post Afzal Guru scenario played up by the so-called security experts, or his emotionally draining trip to his birthplace that rendered him incapable of further staying in Pakistan. Either way, it was the curse of history that kept us all away from listening to Gulzar ji. Apparently, he composed this couplet upon his return to India, in a spirit of defiance: “Shehr-e-Pak mein agarche ghar banana mana hai; qabr ik basana chahoon main wahan toh kyun nahi” (Even though it is prohibited to build a house in a Pakistani city / I could wish for my grave to be built there).

KLF, otherwise, kept me pretty occupied with an eclectic variety of sessions, some of which I moderated. The first one was with Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s about his new book; ‘Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian scientists speak out.’ Hoodbhoy has compiled this book with this question which he reiterated at the KLF: “Are we safer today than before we acquired the nuclear bomb?” Sadly the answer can only be in the negative as Hoodbhoy reminded us all. This was a spirited session with a huge, enthusiastic audience, endless questions and a generous dose of Hoodbhoy’s wry witticisms. To one of my earnest questions, he asked me to hold on and told the audience how telling it was that Dr. Qadeer Khan (who flaunts the fatherhood of Pakistani bomb) had joined hands with the Jamaat-e-Islami. Having spoken at an earlier book launch in Islamabad, I found the difference between the two audiences staggering. In the patriots’ capital, many hyper-nationalists undermined Hoodbhoy’s worldview, but most at KLF agreed with his position[s]. […]

We shall overcome the trap of violence

As clouds of war hover in the skies of Lahore, I am missing Delhi and lamenting the relatively difficult venture to visit the city The December of . 2008 was a month of promise. I was meant to visit the Jawaharlal Nehru University, read a paper, participate in a conference and enjoy the environs of the campus that would have glowed in December sunshine. Not to forget that I was meant to pick up two books on Gulzar, the great modern poet and lyricist of India whose links with Urdu and Pakistan’s Punjab are as intractable as the nine centuries of our South Asian past. How keen I was to walk around the bookstores of Delhi and try out the unfrequented eateries hidden behind the mayhem of the urban life. Above all, I wanted to finish the book that I have been writing on Delhi. For that I have to do a little more exploring of its myriad moods. Alas! Certain things are not meant to be. My trip was scheduled right after the tragic Mum bai events which were equally mourned in Pakistan. But that terrorist event has now become a bone of contention, almost a drumbeat for war, between India and my country . […]

Gulzar’s Mera Kuchh Samaan…

This poem composed by Gulzar was beautifully rendered by Asha Bhosle in the unforgettable film Ijazat. Someone forwarded me the text and I suddenly remembered all those evenings, when this song was played and re-played amid friends, beloveds and memories. All the little objects of my room at home (that has changed so many times now), […]

June 26th, 2008|Arts & Culture, Cinema, Personal, Poetry, Urdu Literature, video|9 Comments