Millennium Post

Intolerance has reached its climax and now, change is imminent: Gulzar

It was a morning of poetry at the front lawns of the sprawling Diggi Palace as a calm and grave baritone cut across the air.

Ubalti handiyan itni sari
Sab hi ne zindagi chulhe pe rakhi hai
Na galti hai, na pakti hai

With this metaphor of boiling over, of feelings which can no longer be contained or curbed, poet-lyricist Gulzar, in his characteristic inimitable style with his spellbinding poetry suffused the air and left a packed house entranced as the curtains went up on the 10th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) at the iconic venue.

Presenting his latest book of poems Suspected Poems, Gulzar tries to reflect with breathtaking immediacy, the political reality of the country today. His topics this time range from India's political climate, intolerance to the plight of the common man, atrocities against Dalits and the downtrodden, Indo-Pak relations to tattoos, high heels and traffic jams.

The 52 poems are a comment on the present crisis and a map of his emotions on Partition and Pakistan, his birthplace. The poems, originally written in Hindi, have been translated into English by Pavan K Varma.

Speaking to Millennium Post, the author says: "It is my duty to inform my readers what is going on around them. We must think about our country, our nation and about its environment."

On being asked why the name Suspected Poems, he says: "There are elements of humour, sarcasm and satire behind this. It is the first time that my political compositions have come out in a book. Here, I've dealt with topics that I feel are very close to my heart and have left a deep impact on my life. The poems are not exactly what they appear to be but have elements of both suspicion and satire."

Talking about the verse he wrote on Kalburgi, he said that the rationalist's death was not just physical but also the death of an ideology which has been the defining feature of independent India.

The composition on Babri Masjid reads: "From the smoke that rises daily/ A part of the sky/ Now remains black the whole day/ Only pariah kites hover above./ Families of vultures sit/ On some half-charred trees below/ Their stomachs bloated;/ Amidst the heaps of garbage lying around/ Heads on ice-cold corpses smoulder/ As the animals of dusk/ Fight for every bone of rotting limbs/ Whoever can sink their teeth in first/ Has the right over that piece of flesh./ Who was the one who struck the first blow of the axe?/ Yes, this indeed is that piece of land/ Which till yesterday was also a home to some god!"

In the poem "There's Nothing New in New Delhi", Gulzar says: "There is nothing really new in New Delhi/ Except that every five years a new government comes in/ And converts old issues to new schemes./ Opening scabbards anew /They unsheathe again all the rusted laws/ That can cut neither grass, nor necks!"

Another one on news titles "The Same News" goes: "Every day the same newspaper column/ Gulps of the same brackish news/ Every day the same mouthful of promises/ Sentences dissected/ Each word chewed again and again."

On being asked about this composition, the poet says: "What's breaking in it? It is the same old story of bloodshed that they have been showing for the past 60 years. So what's 'breaking'?" He also added that the "roots, music, tehzeeb and zaban" are the same. "A country is not its government. Governments will come and go, but the people will remain."

Stressing on the uniformity and commonness of their thoughts and culture, Gulzar also explains how it is difficult to draw a divide between the two countries, despite constant efforts by those who occupy posts of power and position.

But what cannot be taken away from those who belong to the two countries across borders are the sunshine, air and water that bind them in a unique togetherness.

Talking of satire, Gulzar's poem about a man at a passport office is quite intriguing. Asked for a birthmark as proof of identification, the man stands still, thinks and then taking off his shirt. The Sardar reveals a burn mark from 1984 and says: "That won't go."

A poem that ends in just 5 lines is about a young man with a nilgai tattoo on his shoulder. It reveals that the youth's choice of the tattoo was not just whimsical but seen in the present context, it could prove to be quite a definitive protection for him. In the case of a communal upsurge, someone might just manage to spot the bovine etched into the shoulder and spare him!

Another short composition on an ant moving down the sharp edge of a knife that had just sliced through a mousambi, savouring the smell and juice, is all but ironic. The Dalit man watching knows quite well that the powerless must bleed.

Poised as he is in his ethnic white kurta-pyjama with a shawl wrapped around, radiating peace and affection, the 83-year-old sits composed as streaks of sunlight spread through the courtyard. "I came up with this book after it became unbearable for me to hear the same old political narratives and promises that governments made to the people over and over again.

There is no change in policy. There are no efforts to fulfil the promises that were made before they came to power. It is the same old story again and again. It is the continuous monotonous governance that has forced me to voice my dissent.

The poor are becoming poorer and the rich are getting richer. It has reached a saturation point for me and for the common man and we can't take it anymore. I'm not a political activist but I'm a writer and this is the best way I can narrate my pain. Intolerance has reached its climax. I'm sure change will come. With this generation at it, change is definite. Dalits will get their dues and I'm very hopeful about it. Ek karwat zaroor lega," he says.

Effusive in his praise for the translator, also the main force behind the book, Gulzar says: "It was reading the poems in English that made me think they were very good. I do take a swipe at politicians but it is not as if this is an attack. The poems bark but they do not bite. It was Pavanji who urged me to bring these little-scattered poems together and publish them in a book."

The little vignettes serve as powerful narratives of our times. "Gulzar Sahib writes poetry of an order that has few parallels today. His poems are, therefore, hardly 'suspect.' So when he told me that the next volume of his poems would be called Suspected Poems, I was very excited and intrigued," says Varma, who has translated three other volumes of Gulzar's poems.

"The poems make very powerful statements. Those which have been read in literary functions earlier have received huge applause and have been greatly appreciated. Hence, I thought it would be great to compile all of them in a book."

Speaking on how was the experience to work with Gulzar, he says: "We have mutual respect for each other and we share a very friendly relationship. Let me tell you, he is not an easy poet to translate. And translating itself is not an easy task where you are not really trans-creating but you are actually translating a thought.

It was very challenging, particularly because the poems were laced with chuckle-inducing humour and acerbic observations on the changes taking place in contemporary India.

He is extremely sensitive to those developments, and communal intolerance troubles him very much. These days, it has become a recurrent theme. I think these poems bring out the anger that is dormant or active in society. The manner that he has used makes the poems all the more powerful."

Elaborating on the book, Varma says: "It deals with the present political scenario, the underprivileged, issues on deliberately stoked communal violence, the plight of the Dalits and especially Kalburgi's murder. It moved him profoundly. After the incident, a new form of intolerance evolved where opportunities for dialogue and debate were stifled and arguments came to an end with violence. These are contemporary issues. To my mind, these poems are all part of a specific genre. That genre relates both to larger public issues and to politics."

The godly aura of its rhythmic plots, marked with pointed brevity, enwrapped in sober irony, such is the air of understated drama achieved by these poems. And their creator, with his profound thoughtfulness, delves deep on how the biggest barriers are overcome by a leap of the poetic imagination.

But then again, there's only so much you can read into a Gulzar book.
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