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

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 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:

“In trying to put these translated poems together in a volume I hope to contribute to conveying another image of Meena Kumari which deserves as universal an acknowledgement as her immortal image as the queen of the Bollywood firmament of yesteryears. Her flirtations with the pen are as seductive as her universally celebrated femininity and resourcefulness as an iconic Indian woman actor in film after unforgettable film for nearly three decades during which she could slip with ease and spontaneity from the role of a skittish Miss Mary to that of the soulful and haunting Pakeezah.”

Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi

The evolution of Urdu poetry especially the nazm (or poem) is a twentieth century phenomena. I consider Nazir Akbarabadi the pioneer of modern Urdu poetry but it was the influence of the progressive movement in literature during the first half of the twentieth century that truly changed the structure of the nazm. Not all modern poets, for example N. M. Rashed, were progressives but it was the age that allowed for experimentation and liberation from the archaic bonds of earlier style traditions. Writing in the 1960s Meena Kumari takes this tradition forward and displays a tone that is both direct and free of embellishment as if it is meant to immediately communicate with the reader. Having said that the plainness of style does not mean that the themes and ideas conveyed are not complex. As Hasan says in his introduction, Meena Kumari’s “unadorned, screaming verse reminds me of snatches of Donne, Firaq, Wordsworth, and Ghalib” and yet the “poetry is slight, casual, a kind of intermittent adventure or a holiday she allowed herself from her self consuming stardom.”

The erudite introduction by Daisy Hasan and Philip Bounds interprets Meena Kumari’s poetry as a critique of popular culture and all that ails it

The fifty odd poems in this book convey a powerful and at times ‘invincible’ voice of a person battling with the larger world and her inner sorrows, finding redemption in the creativity. The erudite introduction by Daisy Hasan and Philip Bounds interprets Meena Kumari’s poetry as a critique of popular culture and all that ails it. The poet is therefore challenging her public image and opening a window to her layered personality. Meena Kumari was also known as the ‘Tragedy Queen’ and the typecasting must have annoyed her.

A young Gulzar with Rakhi

It may be worthwhile to remember that Meena Kumari (real name Mah-Jabin Naz) never had a childhood. At age 7 she joined the industry ostensibly under the pressure of her parents who were both from an arts’ background but needed to generate more money for the family’s upkeep. By the time Meena turned eighteen in 1950, she had acted in nine films. She loved the attention and the glare but deep down the inability to have led a normal life and received a formal education must have wounded. In 1952 the super-hit Baiju Bawra completed her transition from a child star to an adult actor. For the next nineteen years she acted in fifty movies and acquired a place in the public imagination that few actors of that age did.

A few gems have been rescued from the anonymity of film journalism

Other than the stereotyping of a suffering, obedient or a self-destructive beauty (latter best exemplified by her memorable role in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam), a person of her intelligence was stifled by the imperatives of popular culture. ‘The Shop of Time’ is a poem that deals with the erosion of ‘spiritual capacities’ in the pursuit of “..wax dolls of wealth” that “can melt at anyone’s touch”. And so the commercial success is not the replacement for the contentment that a human being seeks. Meena Kumari in the poem lays it out:

A handsome dream of love

Which can cool my inflamed eyes

A moment of perfect intimacy

Which can soothe my restless soul

I came looking for nothing but this

And the shop of Time

Supplies none of these things.

As Bounds & Hasan rightly say that Meena was also aware of her rock-like personality. In ‘Cloud and Rock’ she is disdainful of the audiences – clouds – as she calls them:

You are clouds?

Came with the winds

Lingered for a while?

On the sky?

Burst?And?Vanished into some remoteness

We are rocks

Stuck in our places

Knowing that

Those who go away

Shall never return.

These tender and soulful poems convey the relationship of a poet the glory, power and hollowness of the world of cinema

Meena’s failed marriage with the celebrated director Kamal Amrohi, her later disappointments and recourse to alcohol are well known stories. Yet, her poetry for all its wistfulness is not morose or devoid of hope.

The night is here?

It has tiptoed in.?

There’s respite in its silence

And a lovely darkness.?

The silent countenance of the night!

Its lowering, soft, silent eyes

And imperturbable lap.

Welcome the arrival of the night.

There are times when she laughs and on other occasions exhibits a remarkable tendency to unpack the human condition. For example, in the poem ‘Past and Present’ she lays out the complexity of human emotion:

Each happiness

Is a devastated grief

Each grief

A devastated happiness.

And each darkness is a raped light

And each light a raped darkness.


Each present

Is an annihilated past

And each past

An annihilated present.

These tender and soulful poems convey the relationship of a poet to her immediate world of cinema – its glory, power and hollowness. But there is more to it. As the distinguished music director Naushad in his essay (also reproduced in the book) says that Meena throughout her short life was “exploited by people for their own ends, and was so frustrated that she took to drinking and writing poetry to fight her feeling of betrayal.” In this way she joins in the rich tradition of literature that protests against the structures and systems which objectify and limit the human spirit. For Meena Kumari, the film industry was the immediate orbit and she protested.

Bounds and Hasan put it rather well: “..The purpose of the cinematic heroine was to express unbounded devotion towards the man she loved, never once betraying a hint of ambivalence or indifference. By contrast, the single most persistent feature of Kumari’s poetry is its determination to explore a subtler understanding of how human feelings work. As varied as her writings undoubtedly are, their ultimate goal is to puncture the myth of undiluted passion. In essence her understanding of emotion is a relational one. So her poems appear as “a powerful rebuke to the industry in which Kumari had once made her name.”

He mentions the ‘young man’ in her room and her drunkenness

Another gem in the book is an interview conducted by Afsar Jamshed, a writer who recounts his various meetings with Meena Kumari. He mentions the ‘young man’ in her room and her drunkenness and quotes her: “It’s really strange that when I am embracing life people say that I am ruining myself and when I am actually ruining myself they call it self-renewal!”

A portion of that long piece is worth reproducing here:

“Finding her more accommodating that day I reminded her of my unpalatable and off-putting questions

What is going to be the fate of those questions? My interview will remain incomplete if they are left unanswered.

‘If I cannot answer them, time will.’

When I took her leave she came to the door to see me off. Stopping at the door she said, ‘When you write down this interview add an aside of your own.’

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

She thought for a moment and said, ‘Meena Kumari’s life was other people’s destination. For her own self it was a road leading nowhere…to no point of arrival…all right, Khuda Hafiz.’

Meena ji shut the door and before getting into the lift I noted down her parting words in my diary.”

These powerful poems are a lesser known element of our literary heritage. In choosing the word ‘our’ I am deliberate. Urdu is a language that transcends the India-Pakistan rivalry and constructed national identities. It is spoken and read on both sides and will continue to do so despite the efforts of both nationalisms to own and reject it. Meena Kumari’s sarcastic take in ‘Today’s Man’ therefore becomes even more relevant when we see what is happening in the region and the world:

The ‘ideal man’ is imprisoned

In the closed world

Of the time-torn pages

Inside the hard covers

of books.

He does not step out

Into the world

Just Peers at you

From the cracks

In his tattered pages

And says “Go to Hell”.

Meena Kumari’s stunning beauty was always unforgettable but it is her poetry that will live on. As a voice unmatched for its intimacy and integrity.

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