What is written on the folios of our hearts, whether it is literature or not, can be debated. But we all have written stories and songs like this, not to be told or shared with anyone. They are only for us to read and sing alone. But if they are the fond memories of those who are bigger than our hearts, it would be selfish to keep their memories to ourselves. The fondest memories of Gulzar that have travelled with me across the oceans, so far I have kept them to myself, safe from fire and winds. Those memories are in the form of letters, books and journals, detailing a number of visits to his home, Boskiyana, in Pali Hill, Mumbai, mostly with my father and occasionally with other family members. Gulzar has always been kind to welcome me at his home, whenever I have gone to Mumbai; even prior to my coming to the US, and in the years after. I first met Gulzar in 1990, and last in 2014, when I was invited to India to receive the Rajiv Gandhi Global Excellence Award.
In his living room, overlooking his garden, in the company of many Buddha statues and his books, Gulzar always greeted me by saying “Kasi hain Aap?” (How are you?). His voice shuts down all the outside noises, preparing one for a conversation with this modern-day Sufi, always clad in white. A person like me cannot be anything but herself in his presence. It is the tradition in the East that after greetings, we continue conversation with our guests by offering them something to drink. A sherbet made of almonds, saffron and milk, served with ice in a glass, is my favorite at Boskiyana. I have stored Gulzar’s memories in the sweetness of that sherbet and in the sunshine of the mornings spent at his home.
The man whose life was torn apart by the partition of India and Pakistan; the man who once chose to make his living by painting cars, so that he could find time to pursue his dreams of becoming a writer and a filmmaker; the man who didn’t come to Hollywood to receive the Oscar for his groundbreaking song Jai Ho*, because he didn’t have a suit (at least this is what he told me, when I called to congratulate him, and asked him the reason he had not attended the Oscar ceremony), is known to the world simply as Gulzar; who was born as Smapooran Singh Kalra in Jhelum district of British India, now a part of Pakistan.
But I have always known Gulzar (Gulzar sahib) as a poet first, and a person of enigmatic charm, who can be both welcoming and intimidating for anyone meeting him for the first time. I have known Gulzar sahib for over a quarter of a century, but every time I have met him, I have felt that I’m meeting him for the first time. This is how you feel when you are someone’s biggest fan in the world. Well, I know for sure, many of us would like to say that.
Anyone who has known Gulzar sahib and has hummed his songs; anyone who has read his poetry, which carries the calm of a morning and fragrance of an ocean breeze, surrenders to the mastery of his words. When Gulzar sahib picks his pen to write a Nazm, his words come to life and his poetry adorns itself with celestial metaphors to evoke the emotions in such a simple way that anyone can understand and relate to it.
Gulzar’s poetry is like a sea, deep and tumultuous, but with soft and gentle waves. His emotions loom like the layers of cloud to rain silently in the hearts of his readers. When Gulzar writes, he writes from his heart, that burns, smolders, and cools off on a piece of paper in the form of poetry.
As a child, I grew up listening to Gulzar’s songs on the radio, blaring them from loudspeakers in the streets of my hometown on special occasions and holidays. I have walked home, humming his songs many many times, and listening to them in my car on the streets of America, like the song – “Ek Akela is Shahar Mien” from the Hindi film Gharaonda (1977).
Ek akela is shahar mein, raat mein aur dopeher mein
Aab-o-daana dhoondhta hai, aashiyaana dhoondhta hai
Din khaali-khaali bartan hai, aur raat hai jaise andha kuaan
In sooni andheri aankhon mein, aansoo ki jagah aata hai dhuaan
These lines of Gulzar have lived forever with me. I wish I could translate this song for the readers, but I’m finding myself incapable of doing that at the moment.
One time, after reading my poems, Gulzar told me, “I’m not that sad, as much I want to be. I just have the understanding of sufferings.” Later he formally mentioned that in the introduction of my book “Tafteesh Jari Hai” (The Investigation Continues) , published in 1993. The same year I was planning to marry, and when I mentioned him about that, he lovingly wrote in his letter – “One thing which is very common in our society is that girls give up their creative work after marriage. I hope you don’t do that, in spite of your good, noble, intentions of marriage.” I have adhered to Gulzar Sahib’s advice to this day.
Though, I did go through a phase when I couldn’t write anything after coming to Chicago. Poetry refused to speak to me in a language that no one around me was able to understand. But I never allowed myself to be so happy, wrapped in the comforts of life, that I would stop writing completely. However, I have always allowed others to believe, even Gulzar Sahib, until now, that “I’m not that sad, as much as I want to be.”
I am tempted to share how Gulzar influenced me as writer and a filmmaker. How I connected with him and how he wrote about my book. And when I met him in person for the first time, what role Dr. Rahi Massom Raza played in it. I’m so tempted to share how Gulzar sahib took the time to respond to every letter I wrote him from my small hometown. But this article is not about me, it is about him. As, without Gulzar, the Contemporary Indian Poetry edition of Life and Legends would have been incomplete.
In this edition, we were hoping to publish some of the new translated poems of Gulzar, but unfortunately, the translator we solicited sent regrets instead. And a last minute request to Gulzar sahib, to send his own work, who would call it a good idea? Gulzar is a big name and India reveres him. But, even God can sometimes be too busy to hear our prayers. Or maybe it is not true? Only when I was about to give up my hopes on publishing his poems, I realized that the heavens had already sent me many blessings, and I already had several poems of Gulzar sahib from him, written with his own hand, sent to me long ago for a journal we wanted to start back then in India, but that idea for some reason never came to fruition. Gulzar Sahib, in his letter, had authorized me to use my own discretion in publishing these poems, so I’m using them today, only after twenty five years, by translating some of his original Urdu poems into English.
Let us say a poem once again,
let us caress an old wound
to swell up our eyes with tears.
Let us cut open a sore
by gently touching a blade to it.
Or from a road travelled long ago
let us turn around to call a familiar name.
Come, let us say a poem once again.
(Translated from the original Urdu by Kalpna Singh-Chitnis.)
You might have seen
when the monsoon lands lavishly in a hot desert
it leaves the sand humming for a while,
filling it with a hope to see, somewhere a seed sprouting,
blessing the womb of the barren land.
(Translated from the original Urdu by Kalpna Singh-Chitnis)
Gulzar, a highly accomplished filmmaker and writer, who has written a number of poetry collections, novels and books of stories and translations, would often mention very humbly, that he just writes emotional poems and makes sentimental films, but as an avid reader of his poetry who has been following his writings for over three decades, I must say that Gulzar’s latest collections of poems, particularly Pluto and From Kalburgi to Ayodhya only prove that his poetry and poetic sensibility is as big as life itself. His new poems bring out the hidden fire in him to illuminate a century of India’s history of freedom struggle, the partition of India and Pakistan, and India’s challenge to survive as a true democracy in its polluted social, religious, and political climate. His new poems are also about the ironies of life and dilemmas of his own. The pain he has felt in writing these poems can be best described in a poem from Pluto:
बहुत दिन मैं तुम्हारे दर्द को सीने में लेकर जीभ कटवाता रहा हूं.
उसे शिव की तरह लेकर गले में सारी पृथ्वी घूम आया हूं
कई युग जाग के काटे हैं मैंने
तुम्हारा दर्द दाख़िल हो चुका अब नज़्म में और सो गया है
पुराने साँप को आख़िर अंधेरे बिल में जा के नींद आई है.
Keeping your pain in my heart for so long,
I have only allowed my tongue to be bitten;
by coiling it around my neck,
I have traveled the whole earth like Shiva;
I have spent aeons staying awake,
now your sorrow has entered my song and has fallen asleep,
an old serpent has finally returned to slumber, in a dark pit.
(Translated from the Hindi by Kalpna Singh-Chitnis.)
Gulzar continues to return like the ocean waves, every time with something new to offer to the shore, then goes away for a while, only to bring back something more precious for us.
Walking on the shore of the Pacific, I hear Gulzar now in a conch shell, like a distant sea.
Tera Kuch Saamaan* (Some of Your Things) – Inspired by Gulzar’s song “Mera Kuch Samaan” (Some of My Things)
Jai Ho* Lyrics by Gulzar is an Oscar winning song from Slumdog Millionaire.
Original Poems © Gulzar. Personal Photos, letters , translations and features © Kalpna Singh-Chitnis.
Kalpna Singh-Chitnis is an Indian-American Poet and Filmmaker, based in the United States.