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Wednesday Dec 18 2019

The Oscar winner from India who was born in Pakistan

Sampooran Singh Kalra, also known as Gulzar. Photo: Yasir Iqbal

Sampooran Singh Kalra was born in Dina, Jhelum District, of present day Pakistan. The year was 1934, and the infant Kalra did not as yet know about the series of events being set in motion that would force him to abandon his birthplace, start a new life, and have greatness thrust upon him. The partition of the sub-continent — which birthed Pakistan and Hindustan — was more than a decade away.

Ever since he was a child, Kalra was obsessed with books. Reflecting upon that innocence years later, he would often talk about how that childhood obsession turned into a lifelong profession. According to Kalra, when libraries in the sub-continent used to let readers borrow books for a measly few paisas, Kalra would read so many that librarians grew tired of his presence.

One day, in typical fashion, Kalra was at the library, asking the librarian to lend him a book he had not read before. Since the librarian was busy, he handed Kalra the first book sitting on top of a pile next to the counter at the library. With that one act, Kalra's fate was sealed, he would later say. The book, Gardner, by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, would inspire Kalra to pick up the pen and write.

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Rohtas Fort near the city of Dina in Pakistan. Photo: Discovery News

As the tensions over the partition of the sub-continent flared, Kalra's family decided to leave present-day Pakistan and move to Hindustan. They took up residence in Mumbai, the port city on the eastern coast. Kalra was enrolled in college and forced to take up a minimum wage job. In his spare time, Kalra would read Tagore and translate his works.

Mumbai was the cultural capital of Hindustan. Writers, poets, film directors, musicians, composers and painters were all flocking to the port city to work in the film industry. As Kalra transitioned from mathematics to professional writing, he became known as Gulzar. Eventually, his friends convinced him to take up writing for films.

As fate would have it, the two were a natural fit. Beginning in the 1950s, Gulzar started working his magic, and, in the six decades since, has become one of the most famous songwriters of Hindustan, winning numerous accolades in the process. In 2008, he was even honored internationally, winning an Oscar and a Grammy for the song Jai Ho.

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The coveted Grammy and Oscar awards. Photo: File

Hindustan had given Gulzar what he had not imagined in his wildest dreams: money, fame and the respect of a billion people. However, the man from Dina still longed for his birthplace. The events of Partition had left their mark on him, but tensions between Pakistan and Hindustan had grown worse over the years.

Over the years, he gave up his dreams of visiting Pakistan, instead choosing to write about the traumatic events of Partition, recreating the Dina of his childhood while in Mumbai. Recently, Gulzar was spotted in the United Arab Emirates, at the Sharjah International Book Fair 2019, where he conversed at length with journalists about his life and works.

The News met the Academy Award winning author and asked him about his early days in the Indian film industry, the influence of local languages on his writing, and the joy of translating from one language to another. A condensed version of a long conversation with the author at a book-signing ceremony is reproduced below.

In the interview, Gulzar talks about his birthplace, leaves a message for fans in Pakistan, and speaks about the importance of speaking up for the oppressed people in India. A short review of his book, a collection of writings on the partition, follows the conversation.

In conversation with Gulzar

Academy-award winning songwriter Gulzar. Photo: Bollywood Hungama

Do you like book fairs?

I am just disappointed that I cannot attend more events like these. I wish I could have come to this book fair earlier. The thing that I adore about being here is the beauty and meaning this event brings. It is my first time here, and I intend to enjoy every moment of it.

There is also another reason that I like book fairs. They protect the sanctity of the written word. When the VHS and DVD were introduced years back, there was talk that home-based video would kill cinema. But that has not happened. Similarly, books will continue to flourish.

What message do you have for young readers, especially from Pakistan?

For readers in Pakistan, I have just one advice: read. It does not have to be only my books. The beautiful language Urdu is the language of your country. Read as much as you can.

In fact I often tell young people to never stop reading. Reading inspires writers. However, as you write more, it may cut into your reading time. Reading is, no matter how much you write, the fuel for your writing.

What are young Indians reading?

The dynamism of poetry from different parts of the country in India is truly inspiring. Some of this has to do with the translations from one language to another that are helping preserve the original work.

I, for one, always try and learn from the young generation of Indians. Writers have to adapt, be creative, and fearless.

Can you tell us about your childhood?

Back in my childhood, an old man used to run a lending library near my house. For just a few paisas a week, you could read as much as you wanted. I read so much, and so quickly, that I ran out of books.

I was given a book penned by British-Indian Nobel winner Rabindranath Tagore to keep me busy. That books changed my life, and I have never looked back. It was titled The Gardner.

The joy of translating is also special. I am hooked for life. I learned Bengali to read Tagore, and the language would later help me court the Bengali girl I fell in love with.

Is the younger generation more vulgar in their choice of words?

Society reflects the mindset of the people. In the Indian parliament today, foul words are used freely. The language used by lawmakers in Delhi is not parliamentary.

Young people use vulgar words because that is what they hear in the society around them. Back in my time, anyone using vulgar language would have been reprimanded. Nowadays, it is not the case.

Can you tell us about future projects?

I have a project with Harper Collins Publishers that is going to be published soon. In the project, I aim to amplify the dynamism of young poets in India.

The book, titled A Poem A Day, will be a translation of 279 poems in 34 different languages, so that people can consume it in modern English, perhaps reading one poem per day.

What responsibility do artists have to speak up in the India of Modi?

I am not a political person, and I refuse to answer political questions.

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Book review: Writings on the Partition

The cover illustration of the book titled Zero Line, penned by Gulzar.

Zero Line is a collection of short stories, poems, retelling of dreams and facts from the events of the 1947 Partition of the subcontinent. In the book, Gulzar aims to recreate the memories of an historic independence from British rule by exploring it in different settings and mediums.

The actual reasons for Partition, sharp divides along ethnic, psychological, social, and political lines, underlie each retelling of the event. Gulzar is the observer in most of these stories, writing from a third-person perspective in the different poems and stories.

The titles given to the collection of stories are intriguing on their own. There is a story on Line of Control, the border region between Pakistan and India, stories about the scents of specific areas (that is all one can remember from places left behind), and poems on longing in exile.

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The collection of poems included in the book touch on several themes, but prominent among them is the eternal struggle between reason and emotion. Set against the background of Partition, where several million people were forced to migrate, these poems are a must-read.

Since Gulzar is a master of several local languages, and is an established translator, the poems penned by him are for a varied audience, and instead of focusing on language, tend to focus on particular universal images that may invoke feelings in people belonging to a wide variety of cultures.

In some of the poems, Gulzar goes back to Dina, in Pakistan. He portrays his childhood city through different symbols, the games children play, the dreams he had as a child, and the feeling of things in his hand when he touched them, like chalk for writing. It all makes for a fascinating read.

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The short stories included in the book are in a class of their own. Gulzar writes about Partition, but since he wrote the stories years later, he also looks at the relationship between the people of Pakistan and Hindustan in context of all that has happened since.

The portrayal of characters is raw but empathetic, and compared to other authors, Gulzar's stories seem rooted in exploring human lives affected by Partition. The award-winning author seems to epitomize the age-old maxim: time heals all.

Throughout the book, readers on both sides of the Line of Control are reminded of the fact that the shared love between individuals trumps even the bloodiest feuds between peoples. The book is raw, emotional, but deeply introspective.

Originally published in The News