Book extract from 'The Moonsmith Gulzar': There’s so much that I would like to burn…

Lyricist and poet Gulzar is not known to be a rebel or a rabble rouser. But his delicate use of words show a sensitivity and understanding that rise above his lyrics used in popular films

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Book Cover
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Shailja Chandra

Lyricist and poet Gulzar is not known to be a rebel or a rabble rouser. But his delicate use of words show a sensitivity and understanding that rise above his lyrics used in popular films.

Therefore, when Shailja Chandra resigned from her corporate leadership role in Sydney, Australia to work on a book about her mehboob shayar Gulzar, she did not expect the fulsome praise her work would elicit from the poet himself.

“I have passed through this surgery a number of times. Mostly it has been skin-deep only. This is the first time it's an open-heart surgery - and Shailja is the surgeon. She has touched deep down at the core of my poems,” wrote Gulzar.

“Most books about my works have not gone beyond the film lyrics or some popular ghazals –But Shailja has gone beyond that and touched the soul. That's why I wrote to her once, "Your work is the best work on my works, so far!" I still stand by that statement.”

Here are some excerpts from The Moonsmith Gulzar:

Khalil Gibran said: “Every beauty and greatness in this world is created by a single thought or emotion inside a man.”Gulzar’s work on the soil, society and our moral, environmental, ethical recklessness is a treasure trove of such potent, poignant ‘single thoughts and emotions.’ Words that convey intense, personal moments of belongingness — not impersonal social activism:

MoD pe dekhaa hai wo buDhaa sa aik peD kabhii

Meraa waaqif hai, bahot saalo’n se mai’n use jaantaa hoo’n…

…Subah se kaat rahe'n hai'n committee wale

MoD tak jaane kii himmat nahi'n hoti mujhko

(Have you seen, at that corner, that ageing tree? / It is an acquaintance I have known for years.

Today, since morning, municipal authorities are cutting it to pieces/ I do not have the courage to go up to the corner.)

At no point does his voice put a contemptuous mirror to social decadence. Nor does it ever issue dry precepts of reform or sing ballads of mutiny. Instead, he speaks of the raw tales of the scars, spirit, and struggles of the soil and society.

Patthar pe patthar rakh rakh ke

Ek makaa’n oopar uthne kii koshish me’n hai

Saath kii chhat pe kohnii rakh ke

Aasmaan kaa koii konaa dekh sake!

(Placing stone upon stone/ A house is trying to raise itself

Placing its elbow on the neighbourhood roof/ It strains to see a corner of the sky!)

Kakadu National Park located in Australia’s Northern Territory is a uniquely vibrant place that allows an instant connection with its rich cultural and spiritual heritage through Australian indigenous folklores called the Dreamtime Stories.

I am fascinated by the Dreamtime Stories that are not just conduits between the ancient laws, wisdom and values and later generations but also powerful prayers of the indigenous communities since time immemorial: prayers to pay their deep respects to the scattered footprints of the spiritual ancestors on its timeless soil — the trees, the billabongs, rocks, land, and the animals:

We belong to the ground

It is our power and we must stay close to it or maybe

We will get lost.

A similar sense of foresight, respect and belongingness with nature flows in Gulzar’s sentient voice in ‘Hamii’n se ho…hamii’n me phir se boye jaoge, tum phir se lauToge (You will be seeded again in us, you will return to us again)

Just as Dreamtime Stories, Gulzar’s voice resonates— evoking a sense of affinity and custodianship…

Mai’n jungle se guzarta hoo'n to lagta hai mere purkhe khade hai’n

Main ik nau zaaida bachcha

Ye peDon ke kabeele

Uth ke haath me mujh ko jhulaate hai’n…

(When I pass through the forest it seems my ancestors are around me

I feel I am a new-born baby

And these tribes of trees

Are rocking me in their arms)

The true essence of his ‘native’ voice rests in his unmatched ability to pour his own vulnerabilities, anguish, and despairs into it.

Jungle se guzarte the to kabhii bastii bhii kahii’n mil jaatii thii

Ab basti me’n koii peD nazar aa jaye to jii bhar aataa hai

Deewar pe sabzaa dekhke ab yaad aataa hai, pahle jungle tha…


(Passing through the jungle, sometimes one could find a colony somewhere

Now, spotting a tree in a colony makes my heart heavy

Greenery on the wall reminds me it was once a jungle)

How do Gulzar’s words persuade us to resign from the position of a passive observer to become an active participant… Watch how his words actively draw us in and how we earnestly start partaking in Gulzar’s despairs, ecstasy, compassion…

Mai’n akhbaar ke panne par apnii tasveer dhunDhtaa hoo’n

Aaj ke din kitne mare

Aaj kaa score kyaa hai

Ehsaas nahi’n hotaa ke zindaa hoo’n

(I search for my photo in the newspaper

How many have died today

What is the score today

Cannot feel that I am alive)

Ajiib hai ye nizaam jis me’n,

Nizaam ne kaat kar mere haath

Qaaydo’n aur faailo’n me’n chhupaa diye hai’n !

Kahaa’n se DhoonDhoo’n mai’n haath apne

Ke mere haatho’n pe aur logo’n ne haath apne chaDhaa diye hai’n!!

(Bizarre are these rulers wherein

The rulers, having chopped my hands,

Have hidden them in procedures and files

Where do I look for my hands,

As others’ hands have been pulled over my hands!!)

Gulzar can pierce into the heart of the matter to un-layer the subtle, imperceptible, yet something universal.

‘Mai’n cigarette to nahii’n peetaa

Magar har aane waale se bas itnaa pooch letaa hoo’n ke ‘maachis hai’?

Bahut kuch hai, jise mai’n phoo’nk denaa chahtaa hoo’n, magar himmat nahii’n hotii!

(No, I don’t smoke

But I often ask people for a light.

There’s much I would like to burn

If only I could find the nerve)

Gulzar unveils the larger patterns and profound poetry of the moment with an amazing brevity. He can present the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts:

Kitne masoomo’n ke ghar dango’n me jal kar malbe kaa dher hue jaate hai’n Gujrat me...

... Aur ye hai, Ek Toote hue rauzan me ise Tinke sajaane kii paDi hai!

(How many homes of innocents

Keep getting reduced to heaps of ash In the riots of Gujrat…

…And this bird

All she cares about is how to array twigs

In the broken skylight.)

“To create literature, you have to live in a cave ... and that cave is nothing but you,” he said during a visit to Sydney in January 2018. The process is both lonely and painful.

Marne se pahle koi nazm nahin hoti kabhi dost

Marne ke baad hi karta hoon main har nazm hamesha

(‘It’s impossible to write one before you die, my friend.

I die a million deaths for every poem I write.)

He says in an interview: “The meaning and thought behind a poem are more important than the need to justify a rhyme.”

“Us se kehna…”

Itna kaha…aur gardan neechee karke

Der talak wo pair ke angoothe se miTTi khod-khod ke

Baat ka beej thashayad, dhundh rahii thii

Der talak khamosh rahii…

Naak se siskii ponchh ke akhir

Gardan ko kandhe pe Daal ke boli,

“Bas…itna keh dena!”

(“Tell him…”

She whispered, head bowed,

Her toe scraping the earth

As if searching for

The core of what she wanted to say…

She kept silent,

Stifled a sob

Then lifted her head and looked away

And said once more:

“Just tell him this…”)


Bhushan Vanmali wrote about Gulzar’s ability for self-transcendence: Shayarii apne shayar to tang pinjare me’n qaid kar letii hai magar baDii shayarii apne shayar ko astitva ke bade pinjare me aazaad kar deti hai – Gulzar azaad ho gayaa.

(Poetry enslaves its poet in a tight cage but great poetry liberates its poet in a greater cage of the existence – Gulzar got liberated.)

[Texts from 'Pluto', 'Yaar Julahe', 'Green Poems', 'Suspected Poems' and 'Neglected Poems']

(All translations of the Pluto collection © Nirupama Dutt. All translations of the Suspected Poems, Green Poems and Neglected Poems collections © Pavan K. Varma)

[The poem from the ‘Yaar Julahe’ collection is translated by Shailja Chandra, a writer, radio broadcaster and sustainability practitioner based in Sydney, Australia. The book has been published by ‎Hawakal Publishers Private Limited (November 2021)].

(This extract was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 16 Jan 2022, 3:30 PM