Begum Akhtar’s Songs Triggered This JNU Professor’s Romance With Urdu Poetry

She dreams in Urdu, sings in Spanish, and weaves romance with her shayari. Linguist, professor and poet Minu Bakshi is a woman of many talents.

Minu Bakshi has the controlled restlessness of an accomplished woman, one who has no time for frivolities because she is aware of her own potential. You’d think being a professor of Spanish literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for four decades while raising three children and managing the large home and active social life of her husband, a real-estate baron, is enough achievement, but you’d be wrong.

As if Minu insists on defying expectations, she also writes books of Urdu poetry. No, that’s not enough, either. She also sings in both Urdu and Spanish. And what a voice.

Like a diamond, there are several other sparkling facets to this 62-year-old’s life. A little probing over coffee at her sprawling residence in Lutyen’s Delhi reveals the spirit of an adrenaline junkie – she has won car rallies thrice – and a polyglot – she speaks seven languages fluently.

In the 1970s, while peaceniks around the world called for end to war and India struggled during the dark days of Emergency, she was busy being the brilliant black sheep of her clan, one of six siblings in a “typical Sikh business family” in Delhi. She’d already completed her B.Sc from the prestigious Miranda House by age 17, and got married while doing her Master’s at JNU.

She had her first baby while doing her MPhil, and despite being the mother of an infant, didn’t think twice about taking off to Spain to study the language further for six months at Universidad Complutense de Madrid. She later had two more children, the third one born a decade after the first.

As a young woman, Minu discovered Begum Akhtar, the ‘Mallika-e-Ghazal’ whose soulful renditions lit up a million hearts in the middle of the 20th century. Thus began the JNU professor’s own journey into Hindustani vocals and Urdu poetry.

“I remember a time when my father-in-law was ill and was admitted to a hospital. I sat with him from 1 to 4 pm every day after college. With so much time on my hands, I began writing,” narrates Minu.

Many years later, her ghazals were compiled into a collection, Tishnagi: The Thirst, which was adjudged the best book of Urdu poetry for 2014 by the Urdu Academy at Patna and was honoured with the Amir Khusro Award by the Husnara Trust, Delhi.

Minu Bakshi 8This year, she released her second tome, Mauj-e-Saraab, which also has the English translation of the verses, and the transliteration of the Urdu in English and Hindi.

“I’m crazy about Urdu. What you can say in two Urdu words needs 10 in English. Look at the word guftagoo – it means communication but also so much more,” says Minu, who is a regular participant at poetry festivals and has released several YouTube videos with her self-composed shayari. She’s also an exponent of Punjabi folksongs.

But Spanish is just as close to her heart. With her mammoth talent for understanding and communicating the real essence behind words, Minu has been working as an interpreter for the President and the Prime Minister of India at various occasions for over two decades.

She was recently conferred the Order of Isabella la Catolica by the Spanish government for promoting Spain and its culture, the second highest order given to foreigners.

Minu’s Sikh family has been through some rough times together. During the 1984 riots, their Safdarjung Enclave home in Delhi – which was one of the prominent residences in the area where they lived as a large joint family – was attacked and burnt down by a 100-strong mob. They barely had any time to jump over the boundary walls and escape with their lives. “If it wasn’t for our neighbours who sheltered us, we wouldn’t have made it,” she shudders in recall.

The experience left her father-in-law traumatized and he migrated abroad, leaving his sons to handle what was left. The brothers grittily got back to building an empire from the ashes of communal violence.

They now have several laterals ranging from hospitality to construction. Minu is a grandparent, her children are established businesspersons, and she’s due for retirement from JNU in three years.

“But I’m always going to be associated with it. I love the routine of going early to college,” she says, adding that all her writing happens after dark.

Sufi mysticism and romance, ghazals and nazzams, the silence of the stars and the awakening of a quest – the night is when Minu’s muses come alive, rousing her mind with the colours of youth, hope and love. “One should never withdraw. Keep fighting. That’s how you stay young,” says the poet.

First published in the October 2017 issue of eShe magazine. Read it for free here. Or buy the print edition.

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