During my summer break in India I had a chance to talk to a class of 18-year-olds. I was there as a writer, talking to them about the writing process via my books. My second novel, The Long Walk Home, is historical fiction. It tells the story of Punjab’s twentieth-century history by refracting it through the life of one ordinary Punjabi gentleman.
That particular period is marked by several turbulent events which, in turn, provided me as a writer with intriguing plot points to wrestle with. The narrative arc begins with pre-partition and comes all the way to the present. However, facing a class of young people, all of them born after 1990, my challenge was how to engage them with my novel considering that by the time they were toddlers Punjab’s last watershed event in the separatist Khalistan movement had been laid to rest.
As I held up the book for them to see, my eyes fell on the back cover and the arabesque whirls and curlicues swam before me. These were from a blurb written by Gulzar for the book. My editor had seen it worthwhile to send the book to the legenday poet, lyricist, film-maker, in the hope that it would connect with him and win the book some advance praise.
I was to get lucky. Gulzar saab liked the book enough to want to write a shayr in its praise. It is his considerable genius that he took four lines to say what took me 400 pages. But, that's another story. Suffice to say that when I heard that he had written a shayr for the book, and would like to speak with the writer, I fair enough fell off my chair. Me? Speak with Gulzar? I stuttered to my editor. And he had mooted the idea?
Panickng, I turned to the one person whose counsel I rely upon when I'm bouncing off walls - hubby. He knew what this meant to me. Ever since he'd got to know me in management school he'd heard me hum, narrate, opine with some Urdu shayr or ghazal and he knew that in the pantheon of poets I revered were two men. It must have been a relief to him that one was dead and long gone, and the other was a living legend, a poet whose Bollywod lyrics the whole family had grown up with.
Hubby was not off the mark - in that commonly understood sense of family, Ghalib and Gulzar had breathed in my household the same air as did we siblings and our parents.
So, that frantic spring morning hubby told me to sit down, take some deep breaths, and write down the conversation I intended to have with Gulzar, blabbering not being an option. I did just that. However, after my nervousness decamped I realized I was speaking with a professional. Gulzar Saab was courteous, said he had liked the book and had written a shayr since, as a poet, that was the way he felt he could justify what he felt for it. However, his concern was whether I'd be okay with an Urdu shayr on the cover of my English novel - would it alienate my English readers?
I was gobsmacked, touched, and infinitely humbled. Here was a man widely regarded as India's greatest living poet and his concern was for how my book would be received by my English readers! When I managed to mumble that it would be my and the readers privilege, he said okay. Thereafter, he oversaw the design of the cover to ensure that the shayr, written in Urdu in his hand, and transliterated below, blended with the overall aesthetic.
That, to my mind, revealed more than anything else can, about a famous person. Humility, truly, is the mark of a genius.
The book was released and won critical acclaim and hit several bestseller lists. In its wake, I got a chance to meet with Gulzar saab. Right before the meeting I was seized with apprehension once again. It was a nebulous fear - what if my ideal was different from my construct of him? Every artist that we admire acquires a flesh and blood persona in our minds - it is spun out of their art that we have consumed, which we use to adorn them with characteristics and qualities we’ve encountered in their work. A gap, therefore, has to exist between what we have created in our imagination and what actually exists.
Gulzar saab had invited me to his beautiful bungalow on Pali Hill. Set back from the road, its sloping roof is nestled in lush greenery. I blogged about that interaction here. Suffice to say that in the first few minutes all my apprehensions slipped away. Gulzar saab is a genuinely warm person with an easy laugh and banter and as we discussed books and writing, I realized I was getting seriously lucky. The chance to meet an artist whose work I admire was translating simultaneously into the happenstance of engaging with an admirable person.
I crowned Gulzar saab my Ustad, the Urdu word to my mind a fitting descriptor for a mentor-cum-Guru.
So, returning to that balmy Bengaluru morning when I was facing forty pairs of curious eyes, I latched onto that flowing Urdu script. Surely, the girls could not be unaware of Gulzar?!
And I started by taking them through the book's synopsis and how it was summed up perfectly by a shayr from Gulzar. Did they know Gulzar, I asked. A round of head nodding, perky eyes, several smiles - but of course! I asked them which Gulzar song they remembered and the offerings ranged from the Osacr-winning Jai Ho to the youth anthem Dhen Te Nen to the lilting melodies of Aandhi and Mausam and – Goli maar bheje mein!
Needless to say, I had wind in my sails thereon!
A few days later I was in Mumbai where I went to meet Gulzar saab again. I narrated the incident and asked him how he had managed to stay so relevant. After all, he had begun his career five decades ago? (The first film for which he penned the lyrics was Kabuliwala in 1961). He gave a short laugh, grinned and said the reason was simple - he was a child at heart!
I sensed it as instinctively correct yet I could not break it down. Besides, my eight-year-old daughter had come along for the visit and Gulzar saab was enquiring about her school and the stuffed tiger she had brought along. Over sugarless tea we chatted about his current work - he is translating Tagore into Hindustani and English, both poetry and a short story collection for children. Many people aren't aware that Gulzar saab’s fondness for Bengali literature inspired him to learn the language.
I noticed a bust of Ghalib that had not been there during my previous visit. Gulzar saab mentioned that he had commissioned a sculptor from Sholapur to make a bust for Ghalib's home in Ballimaran in Chandni Chowk area of old Delhi. He has been at the forefront of a group of people engaged in attempting to free the old haveli of encroachers. Last year the bust was installed in Ghalib’s home which now houses a museum. Pleased with the result he’d requested another for his home.
I suggested I'd like a picture of him beside Ghalib but he said no, let it be of all three of us. So my daughter clicked a picture of me in the company of my two maestros.
Gulzar saab gifted my daughter a Buddha figurine and suggested she keep it on her study table where it would bless her. I updated him on my next book and its expected release in December. As Gulzar saab rummaged in his study for some book that he could gift Malvika we sighted a cushion in one corner where a dog was nestled. It was Pali, Gulzar saab's pug which had passed away. Pali was his faithful companion and that was where he bided his time as his master wrote at his desk daily. Now Pali's spirit was still in the study as the bronze cast of him snuggled in one corner.
Malvika was touched by the story - she loves all animals, above all dogs. It was time to say our byes. We petted Kalia, Gulzar saab’s other dog, and once outside, I asked my daughter if she had got bored. No, she shrugged, as she clutched the Buddha figurine and an aromatic candle she had got as gifts, I had a good time.
Well, I'd had a good time too. Come to think of it, I have always had a good time with Gulzar saab’s poetry… Be it Tere bina zindagi se koi shikwa to nahin, which had me scratching my head when I first heard it as a pre-teen; Tujh se naraaz nahin zindagi hairaan hun main, which has been like a balm in the face of life’s knocks; Jungle jungle pata chala hai, chaddi pahan ke phul khila hai, which makes me grin ear-to-ear even today; Kajra re, to which I’ve oft danced with my daughter; the lilting Dil to bachcha jai ji; the TV serial Mirza Ghalib which ensconced me into the fold of Ghalib; the wonderfully nuanced sketches of human relationships in Aandhi, Mausam, Masoom, Ijazat …
In the preamble to a song – Dil dhoondta hai phir wahi – from his film Mausam, Gulzar saab says:
misra Ghalib ka hai,
aur kaifiyat apni apni
The couplet is by Ghalib, and
each listener brings to it his own
Albeit a very prosaic translation but the essence is evident. And that, I think, is the reason Gulzar saab has stayed relevant through changing times – his poetry, that subliminal distillation of life’s experiences, speaks to each one of us.
Sach to yeh hai ki, geet Gulzar ka hai aur kaifiyat apni apni …
On that note, a very happy birthday Gulzar saab!
On that note, a very happy birthday Gulzar saab!