Renu Sud Sinha
At 86, Gulzar has achieved almost everything in the field of words, but is still not ready to rest on his innumerable laurels. Driven by his love and passion for poetry, Gulzar was 76 when he started off on yet another uncharted path — to gather contemporary poetry in Indian languages in one volume. A decade later, what emerged was a labour of love and passion — 365 poems, a poem for every day of the year — reflecting the ethos of a nation born some 70 years ago.
The book starts with verses of hope tinged with the rosy glow of freedom, but soon turns into disappointment of expectations not met. The feminist movement, emergence of Naxalites and their struggle, the trials and tribulations that Punjab went through — in short, it is the poetic journey of a nation and its testing times.
‘A Poem A Day’ is a massive 968-page book ostensibly “for anyone who likes poetry and is interested in the use of words and language”, as the author’s note says in the beginning. However, as this child of Partition, growing up on classical poetry of undivided Punjab, experienced the turning and tossing of his era in the poetry of his times, he wanted the Indian youth of today to experience the joys of contemporary poetry so as to relate it to their times and not the verses of Tagore or Ghalib of bygone eras they read in their textbooks.
So, the grand old man of letters waded through Indian regional poetry, literally from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, starting from 1947 to 2017, to sift through the works of contemporary poets rooted in their soil, (apni zameen se judey, as he says in his inimitable style), and translated most of them into Hindustani and English.
Because language has no borders, there were also poets from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, all foreign lands now, as well as languages and dialects without scripts of their own, written in scripts of better-known languages.
Poets from the land of his birth
Born in Jhelum district of undivided Punjab, Sampooran Singh Kalra may have been particularly fascinated by the poets and poetry of North-East, but was always connected with those from his own land despite moving to Bombay.
Amrita Pritam and her Partition-based “Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nu” was an obvious choice, as were Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Paash, Sukhbir, alias Balbir Singh, Lal Singh Dil, Mohan Singh, Surjit Patar and Ustad Daman (Pakistan) among the contemporary names from Punjabi poetry.
Many poets and writers, who could not find a place in the book due to space constraints, remain etched in his consciousness and he talks about them with much admiration — Navtej Singh, Harnam Singh Naz, Gurmel Pannu and S. Swarn.
Timeline of a nation
Poems written in all 34 languages since Independence have been included in a chronological order, capturing and reflecting the journey of a nascent nation through its evolution. It starts with verses of hope tinged with the rosy glow of freedom, but soon turns into disappointment of expectations not met. The feminist movement, emergence of Naxalites and their struggle, the trials and tribulations that Punjab went through — in short, it is the poetic journey of a nation and its testing times, through the eyes of the poets who spoke in the voice of masses, yet had a limited reach.
The hurdles were countless — lack of proper scripts, non-availability of translations and sometimes translators, even the English translations of Punjab’s most popular poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi were hard to come by. So what kept Gulzar going? A simple yet burning desire to bring to the young their poetic heritage.
And who were the people who helped him traverse the path? He makes particular mention of Ananth Padmanabhan and Udayan Mitra from the publishing house for their support but at home, it was daughter Meghna who kept her “Papi”, as she fondly calls him, from burning the candle at both ends at the “young” age of 86.
The indulgent father speaks of her and the women poets included in the book with much admiration. Shefali Debbarma, Mamang Dai, Mamta Kalia have found a special mention at various foras where he has talked about the book. And he refuses to bind their words within their gender, as he feels women, in their poetry, have achieved the equality they may not have found in reality.
He also refuses to burden Meghna with the task of carrying forward his legacy, as he feels she has the capability to forge her own legacy and imprint. He fondly talks of her capacity for detailed research and hard work, her feminism — reflected in her works like ‘Filhaal’ and ‘Talvar’.
A peek into the future
After this mammoth project of capturing the past, what’s on his mind? The confining months of lockdown may have provided a requisite pause but have also brought home the problems of the common man whom he lovingly calls “Murari Lal”. His troubles and struggles will feature in “Murari Lal ki Nazmein” in the coming months.
The living legend is also mulling over publishing the leftover verses that could not be accommodated in this book — poems on universal emotions such as death or poems on the poem itself. His legions of fans await.
The plight of migrant labourers plodding home during lockdown, hoping to escape the pandemic, hunger and misery, is reflected in this unpublished, untitled poem that Gulzar, who still writes in longhand Urdu, has shared with the readers of The Tribune:
Mahamaari lagi thee
Gharon ko bhaag liye the sabhi mazdoor-karigar
Machinein band hone lag gayin thee saree
Unhi se to haath-paaon chalte rehte the
Warna zindagi to gaon mein hee bo ke aaye the
Arre, sagaayi, shaadiyaan, khalihaan, sookha, baadh
Harr baar aasmaan barse
Marenge to wahin jaakar jahaan par zindagi hai
Yahaan to jism laakar plug lagaaye the
Plug nikaale sabhi ne
Chalo ab ghar chalein sab
Sab chal diye
Marenge to wahin jaakar
Jahaan par zindagi hai.
I Have Seen This Scene Before
I have seen this scene before
A whole army standing entrenched
With guns on shoulders, ready to fire
And, in front, a crowd of people
Perhaps it is 1919, and Amritsar
Somewhat like Jallianwala Bagh.
Or maybe it is the scene of Lahore in 1936:
The day of the freedom struggle’s annual assembly.
So much in this scene seems to be familiar
The faces appear to be known
The despondency and anger on their faces
Their ages, their emotions
All of this, I am acquainted with.
Maybe, it is 1942 in Allahabad:
In a railed – off island
In the centre of the town square
An entire army in readiness
Lines drawn, their guns ready to fire
And in front a mob of people
Their fists clenched
The same flag in their hands
The same slogans on their lips
The bullets fired in the same way
Some people dying as they died before
Blood flowing the same way on this very street.
- (Translated from the Urdu by Pavan K Varma)
My Mother and My Poem
by surjit patar
My mother could not understand
although it was written in my
She only gathered that
there was some grief in her son’s mind.
But wherefrom his grief came
while I am here.
My illiterate mother scanned my poem with great care
and said to herself: look, people, look
the sons whom we gave birth from
tell their grief to the papers not to us.
She took the page to her breast hoping
perhaps it is the only way
of getting close to her son.
- (Translated from the Punjabi by the poet)
Will Be Killed
by rajesh joshi
Those who not participate in this
Will be killed
Those who oppose, will be made to stand in the witness box
Those who speak the truth
Will be killed
It will not be tolerated that someone else’s shirt
Be whiter than ‘Their’ shirt
Those wearing spotless shirts
Will be killed
Pushed away from the world of Art
Will be those who are not bards
Those who do not plod
Will be killed
Flying the flag of religion
Those who do not participate in the rally
Will be shot brutally
Will be named atheist
Biggest crime this time is
To be unarmed and to be innocent
Those who are not criminals
Will be killed.
- (Translated from the Hindi by Nirupa Joshi)
by ranjit hoskote
Wipe your fingerprints from the air,
rinse out the mug from which you drank
last night’s coffee.
Clear the view in the window
with a sweep of plush curtain
that takes cloud, sky and mountain with it.
Cut the photograph from the frame,
grab the red hair-band from the onyx jar,
the spectacles from the desk.
Cover your tracks.
Walk through water.
You were never here.
(Written originally in English)
by ramakanta rath
As I was about to go out
to meet you
How could I,
dripping with water,
meet you? I came back.
It hasn’t rained for a long, long time,
but you’ve moved away.
A drop of water will no longer fall
on this bone-dry body of mine.
- (Translated from the Odiya by the poet)
— Excerpted from ‘A Poem A Day’, selected and translated by Gulzar, with permission from HarperCollins.