The Economic Times of July 15, 2009 went against its grain, devoting an entire editorial to a Hindi film ballad. Titled “Bollywood bounce in slowdown times”, it gushed about a song that it said “captures the Indian spirit wonderfully”. The number it waxed about was “Dhen Te Nen” from Vishal Bhardwaj’s forthcoming film Kaminey. The song - boisterous, pacy, ebullient – which takes Bollywood’s signature tune that we all grew up with – dhen te nen – and vocalizes it into a spirited song emblematic of youth is penned by a 72-year-old Padma Bhushan awardee, Gulzar.
Coincidentally, July 15 was also the date when I had an appointment to meet Gulzar saab. Early this year, my publisher HarperCollins had sent my book The Long Walk Home to him for a possible blurb. I was to get lucky. Not only did he like the manuscript, he wrote a shayr in its praise. The same is carried on the back cover of The Long Walk Home, with a short quote in English on the front cover.
For me, Gulzar saab’s endorsement held a special significance. Like any Indian of my generation, I have grown up on the myriad offerings of this creative genius. In addition, he had impinged on my consciousness at the age of eight when I was dragged to watch Mausam. Thereafter, my sister gushed endlessly about the movie – I suspect she became a doctor inspired by Sanjeev Kumar’s Dr. Gill of the film – while I came away with a sense of something beautiful yet incomprehensible. I was to experience the same when Aandhi burst upon our household and ‘Tere bina zindagi se koi’ played repeatedly, confounding me with its sense of simultaneous acceptance and exception. As I grew older, the apparent paradox in Gulzar saab’s poetry, the turning on its head of a known idea – witness ‘hamne dekhi hain in aankhon ki mahaketi khushboo; havaaon pe likh do havaaon ke naam; is mod se jaate hain; silii havva chhoo gayi, silla badan chhil gaya’ – started to reveal itself and I was touched by its magic.
Then was to come Mirza Ghalib, the TV serial scripted and directed by Gulzar that made ghazals dance in my veins. I had grown up in a home where Urdu poetry resonated through mauseeki and shayari programmes telecast by neighbouring PTV (Pakistan TV’s reception in our border town in the seventies was superior to that of Amritsar DD). However, it was Gulzar’s wand that brought Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib strolling through our home: the aristocrat in his peaked hat and long robes, the lover of wine and luscious mangoes, the consummate poet who could weave a shayr on anything under the sun. Yeh masaail-e-tasawuf, yeh tera bayaan Ghalib (Your deliberations on the mystical, your inimitable proclamations Ghalib) – to the latent writer in me, it opened a world where words formed the conjuror’s tool. Today, my 70-year-old aunt and my 7-year-old daughter both rock to ‘beedi jalayi le jigar se piya’, and I – like the rest of my countrymen – continue to be in his thrall!
But coming back to that fateful morning. Mumbai had been pouring for 36 hours, the morning’s Times of India carried a front-page picture of a boat on the flooded Milan subway, which made my daughter Malvika query: “You didn’t tell me there is a river in Mumbai!” Additionally, Malvika had been throwing up since the middle of the previous night. The doctor’s diagnosis was food poisoning and she was one Domstal up and, like any child, was ravenous precisely when food was not permitted for several hours. What compounded matters further was that we were in Nariman Point and I had to travel to Bandra for my appointment. It did appear that morning as if the elements were colluding to ensure I miss my meeting.
But then Indra took a break, Malvika was able to digest water – which meant I could leave her at my friend Vrinda’s place for a few hours, and we could sally forth towards Pali Hill. I had asked Vrinda to accompany me – what if I lost my tongue or garbled it in the presence of the legendary writer, and needed saving? It helped matters that she was as keen to meet him as I; okay, a wee bit less since I regard myself as the primary fan! Vrinda and I reached Boskyana in good time and were ushered to the portico where we were taking off our footwear when Vrinda glared at my toenails and hissed, “Why are you wearing such bright nail polish?” I groaned.
The next instant we found ourselves in a cool, shaded living room which, as we took our seats on the sofa, we figured was L-shaped. In the short leg of the L, at a table piled high with books sat Gulzar saab, writing. A minute later he walked up to us, dressed in his trademark white kurta pajama wearing a warm smile. Gulzar saab is a man of immense presence. However, as he greeted us warmly, my nervousness evaporated. In its place was happiness, joy at sharing space with a man whom I hold in profound respect, who greeted us warmly and was offering us tea. As he got up to speak with his assistant, Vrinda – who had been silent thus far – whispered, “He is overwhelming.”
Gulzar saab is a man who wears his aura lightly. He had generous words of praise for The Long Walk Home, and he divulged his experience of Partition and his family's move to Delhi in its aftermath. For those who might not be aware, he was born in Dina, Pakistan, in a Sikh family. His father was a trader but Gulzar saab took to writing as a way to exorcise the demons of Partition.
Before long we were discussing writing and the time and discipline it commands. When I remarked that I had only 4 hours to write before my daughter returned from school, he shared his own experience with his daughter Bosky. As the primary caregiver till she was twelve, Gulzar saab said he knew what it was like to plait your daughter’s hair and tie her shoelaces and drop her to school. I sat there soaking it all in. I see myself as a full-time writer and a full-time mother – the nature of both is such that neither decamps, there is no furlough from either. Perhaps because my writing career is as old as my daughter’s age, I also regard both the vocations as similar – you learn on the job, the learning is constant, and just as one does not raise a child to be a great parent, one does not write to be a great writer – in both, the joy is in the act.
Gulzar saab encapsulated my thoughts and feelings beautifully when he limned his philosophy as a parent. “Never assume that you know more than your child,” he said. “If your child is two-year-old then you are a two-year-old parent – you are both learning.” How amazing! I rogered it there and then. As a parent there are numerous occasions when I feel, Shucks! I should have known better. Next time, keeping Gulzar saab’s wisdom in mind, I shall be less harsh on myself, and Malvika and I will get a laugh out of whatever situation it is that requires me to be the omniscient parent – who then falls flat!
Over the course of one hour we discussed movies and songs and the evolution of languages, and through it all Gulzar saab was a great companion. He is a fascinating conversationalist, with a trove of anecdotes, a sense of humour and a delightful wit. He surprised Vrinda and me by giving us the gift of some of his books, and I requested him to autograph my copy of The Long Walk Home – his inscription will always be my beacon. Before we wound up, I requested him for a photograph. Gulzar saab, the amiable host, turned up the lights. As I stood next to him, holding the book in my hand, he clasped his right hand firmly over mine, blessing both the book and the writer.
It is not everyday that one gets to meet one’s idol. And rarer still to discover that the legend is a person of warmth, humility and infinite grace. I am honoured to have had the privilege of his company. He is my inspiration for writing more.
What do I wish for him? To avoid the trap of chhota munh aur badi baat, I shall wish for Gulzar saab by borrowing his lovely lyrics from the recent Allianz Bajaj commercial: Jiyo har lamha, tum ko zindagi peene ki aadat hai!
Dhen Te Nen!