Gulzar Says His Book 'A Poem A Day' Reflects Mood of the Nation

Selected and translated by Gulzar, A Poem A Day is a collection of 365 contemporary poems.

6 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Gulzar speaks about his labour of love, <em>A Poem A Day</em>.</p></div>

It’s an elegantly-mounted, boxed set of 365 contemporary poems, sourced from 279 poets in 34 languages of India ever since the nation attained its independence, selected and translated by Gulzar. His labour of love, which took nine years of “disciplined homework”, as he puts it, is already into its second edition.

Gulzar saab, as I address him, assents to a phone interview considering the pandemic ‘stay-at-home’ times. His voice, at age 86, is as mellifluous as ever and he’s quick to pick on a faltering Urdu pronunciation or a wrong choice of word, of which I make many. “Why call the ocean a dariya when you have an Urdu word for it – samundar?”

Over the decades that I’ve known him, anchored in Boskyana bungalow on Bandra’s Pali Hill, he has retained his playful, puckish sense of humour while alternately exuding the sobriety of a strict judge.

From 11 am to the evening hours, Gulzar saab is at his home-cum-office at a desk cluttered with pyramids of books, topped by a lamp in case the sunlight filtering through the windows plays tricks.

Right off, I ask him about the collection titled A Poem a Day, which suggests that the poetry is to be savoured daily instead of just a quick scan. His foreword and preface emphasise, “I was riding the social waves that washed over the country since 1947, discovering how the times had been depicted, what responses they had elicited, in different languages.”

Some excerpts from the interview:

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Gulzar took 9 years to work on&nbsp;<em>A Poem A Day.</em></p></div>

Gulzar took 9 years to work on A Poem A Day.

Could you elaborate on the inception of a such an ambitious project?

Gulzar: It was at the Jaipur Literary Festival when Karthika VK who was with HarperCollins then, suggested that let’s do a book, and she had a title for it. However, she felt it would have to be done in English, which is not my language of core-competence. So the idea fizzled out.

The concept would return to me. I felt since the eternal, classic works of Rabindranath Tagore, Muhammad Iqbal, Mirza Ghalib and so many more whom I’d grown up on, are already quite familiar. At which point should I start? I’ve always been disturbed that school and college students essentially know about poetry in two to three languages from the translations in their textbooks. To bring about relevance, the collection would have to be in sync with the conditions of today, our immediate yesterdays, and presented in many more diverse voices.

Gratifyingly, AJ Thomas of the National Sahitya Akademi cyclostyled issues of their bi-monthly magazine, ranging from the 1950s to the new millennium, which was in English. Moreover, Gopi Chand Narang, President of the Akademi, knew many poets, some young and some in their advanced years, who helped me access their original works. Believe me, it’s an infinite pleasure for a writer to learn other languages. In fact, the collection starts with a poem in Sambalpuri by Haldhar Nag from Odisha, whom I could talk to extensively. I became so involved that I didn’t worry about which publisher would take up the project.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Poet Haldhar Nag.&nbsp;</p></div>

Poet Haldhar Nag. 

How did you time-manage, given your schedules of writing your own stories, poems and lyrics?

Gulzar: Time-management is a corporate word, I have no use for it. Even right now I’m translating the poems of the Baul saint, Lalon Shah Fakir, who is often compared to Bulleh Shah of Lahore, into Hindustani… and of Kazi Nazrul Salaam, the poet laureate of Bangladesh. Fortunately, I knew Bangla even before my association with Bimal Roy and my marriage (with Raakhee).

The most creatively satisfying thing was grasping languages, in transliterating say, the sound of the sun. And if I was ever stuck in reaching the accurate nuance, there must have been hundreds of writers whom I must have bothered, if I may say so, to get it word-perfect.


To return to A Poem a Day, how did it fructify eventually, see the light of day?

Gulzar: About five years ago, I talked about the collection I had in mind with Anant Padmanabhan, CEO of HarperCollins. He was all for it, and assigned Udayan Mitra as its editor. Although the volume –with English and Hindustani translations of each poem -- is priced at Rs 3,999 a copy --it has done exceedingly well I’m told. Perhaps more people would have known about it, if its release hadn’t coincided with the lockdowns. Sales figures apart, it has been a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience. Like I have no hesitation in saying that I have learnt that Jayanta Mahapatra of Odisha is among the greatest living poets of today.

Didn’t you face the dilemma of omitting some poets? For instance, I find the English language poets Adil Jussawalla and Dr Gieve Patel missing.

Gulzar: Look, with due respects, it was just not humanly possible to include every significant poet. I’m afraid you’ll have to bear with my choices. And perhaps I can make amends in my next volume, inshallah. The aim was to articulate the mood of the nation through a selective process in tandem with the publishers.


How would you describe the mood of the nation today?

Gulzar: From 1947 to today, only one or two languages had been reflected in out literary culture. Amazingly, the poems of North-East - in Manipuri, Adi and Khasi – have largely gone through the cracks beyond that part of the country.

On another note, to express it more generally, after 1947 poems moved away from the romantic and the escapist, to the reality. Amrita Pritam lamented the bloodshed in the wake of the Partition. Faiz Ahmed Faiz underscored the pride of being independent. Umashankar Joshi spoke of the spectre of unemployment and yet stressed on hope and the vitality of struggle. There was a relentless strain of maayusi (sorrow). And such elements came exactly to the fore in our cinema as well. The point being communicated was to keep moving, keep the truth at the core which is apparent in the poems written during the Naxalite movement in Bengal, Maharashtra, and in the Punjab, most notably by Gaddar.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Amrita Pritam.</p></div>

Amrita Pritam.

"Struggle and protest became expressions of optimism, be it during the Emergency or under Dictatorship: We shall overcome. Take the documentary on the plight faced by migrant workers because of the coronavirus outbreak by journalist Vinod Kapri of New Delhi. He followed them with a camera right from Ghaziabad to Orissa, and I was humbled by the fact that he used some of my poems on migrant workers, which were then composed for his documentary, 1232 Kms, by Vishal Bharadwaj."
<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>1232 Kms&nbsp;</em>on the plight of migrant workers had lyrics by Gulzar and music by Vishal Bharadwaj.</p></div>

1232 Kms on the plight of migrant workers had lyrics by Gulzar and music by Vishal Bharadwaj.

To come to your oeuvre of poems, what is your primary statement today?

Gulzar: You should know that I don’t make didactic statements. I speak through the diary of Murarilal, the quintessential Common Man, with an affinity to RK Laxman’s. Murarilal has been in circulation for quite a while, you can detect him in the film Anand, too. Whatever affects the everyday citizen – the law, the problem of locating a home, the galloping inflation – affects Murarilal, who may be helpless but never defeatist.

With shrinking attention-spans, are today’s young generation truly interested in poetry?

Gulzar: On the contrary, poetry is flowering among today’s generation. They are far more aware of poetry, which reflects their inner turmoil. For instance, there was a band playing on Bandra Bandstand some years ago, their music and lyrics forcefully appealed for inclusiveness and social egalitarianism.

Which poets of the West have you been reading lately?

Gulzar: Spain’s Marin Sorescu and Turkey’s Nazim Hikmet and of course, one always re-reads Pablo Neruda and WH Auden.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>"Poetry is my lifeline," says Gulzar.</p></div>

"Poetry is my lifeline," says Gulzar.

What does poetry mean to you?

Gulzar: It’s my lifeline.

Lastly, how has the pandemic been treating you?

Gulzar: Not well. Solitude, for over a year, has been demanding. I miss my normal meetings, my friends, and my children whom I now talk to over Facetime. There was a time when I’d play tennis every morning, but I don’t think I will return to it. Age is catching up. So I guess, right now poetry is my only companion.

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