The Poet Who Belongs to Everyone: Finding Gulzar Wherever I Go

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The Poet Who Belongs to Everyone: Finding Gulzar Wherever I Go

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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alking through Old Delhi’s Ballimaaran area means that you have to brave crowds, over-enthusiastic shopkeepers, an onslaught of cycle rickshaws, guarding your purses and your senses equally. The overcrowded, overpopulated streets continue to bustle with so much life that their energy threatens to dent the deteriorating chajjas overhead. But that’s not the Ballimaaran I continue to go back for. I’m not interested in the watches or the bangles, the juttis, jalebis, or jhoomars either. All I want to do is walk the very streets that Gulzar walked to get to Ghalib ki Haveli in Gali Qasim Jan, over and over.

If it weren’t for Gulzar, I wouldn’t know Ballimaaran; I wouldn’t even know Ghalib. I would’ve never made the effort to explore the layered, complex mithai that is Puraani Dilli. Without Gulzar, I’d never have learnt the art of reading between the lines and finding beauty in the mundane.

I had my first brush with Gulzar (or Sampooran Singh Kalra) when I was four. Grown-ups in the family would flock to watch Mirza Ghalib on DD National and my father would always say, “Kamaal kar diya Gulzar ne.” Over the years, the poet would remain a part of my household – only I was unaware of him. I was jumping to “Lakdi ki kaathi” at birthday parties, singing “Jungle jungle baat chali hai” at home, trying to understand the meaning of “Yaara seeli seeli,” bobbing my head to “Sun sun sun didi” and performing to “Chappa chappa charkha chale” at my school’s annual day function. And while I never understood a word of it as a 10-year-old, I had memorised “Humne dekhi hai,” which is what I’d belt out whenever someone said “Beta, gaana sunaao”.

My fascination for Gulzar – as that of a certain demographic of this country – really began with Dil Se.. (1998). Mani Ratnam’s film was a little too complex for the 14-year-old me, but I immediately fell in love with the songs. It amazed me how something as simple and matter-of-fact as “Do patte patjhad ke pedon se utrey the” could find their place in a song, and still hypnotise you with its turn of phrase. Fuelled by a library card that gave me access to books and CDs, and dial-up Internet, I began to spend all my free time discovering the master poet.

That of course, was a rabbit hole. Because with Gulzar, the more you discover, the more you crave. Even when I didn’t know it, Gulzar was all around. That is how enmeshed his works are in our lives – and how our lives are reflected in them.

While I was busy making playlists, burning CDs and watching Gulzar films, I didn’t know that I was yet to make the greatest discovery. As 2002 ended, Saathiya came along with a fresh perspective on love. Until this point, I didn’t have a favourite Gulzar song – now I had “Chupke se”. I’d never heard a song that seemed to personally speak to me. “Doston se jhoothi moothi dusron ka naam leke, phir meri baatein karna”… Heck, I was doing it!

The one thing that Gulzar and the poets who found a place in his lyrics have in common is their ability to express without sounding complex. There is a familiarity to their words.

“Chupke se” also makes a mention of that other famous Dilli poet – Mir Taqi Mir. Armed with this fresh information, I started revisiting Gulzar’s songs. Not only did I find lines where the mundane had morphed into poetry, I stumbled upon couplets from Urdu, Persian, and Punjabi poets interlaced and interpreted with Gulzar’s own lyrics.

I found a slightly varied version of Ghalib’s “Jee dhoondta hai phir wohi fursat ke raat din” placed next to “Jaadon ki sard dhoop aur aangan mein let kar” (Mausam) and “Ishq par zor nahi, hai ye woh aatish ‘Ghalib’/jo lagaaye na lage aur bujhaye na bujhe” woven into “Satrangi re” (Dil Se..). I discovered Amir Khusrau when I set out to find a translation for “Zihaal-e-miskeen mukun ba-ranjish, bahaal-e-hijra bechara dil hai” (Ghulami) and then again when “Aye hairat-e-aashiqui” (Guru) prompted me to seek out the lyrics.

Yet, I’ve never been as excited as when I heard strains of Baba Bulleh Shah resonating from my screen, in the verse “Ranjha Ranjha kar di ve main aape Ranjha hoyi” woven into a song from Raavan. As a student of Punjabi literature and someone who grew in Punjab, I’ve always had a strong affinity for Sufi poets. From Baba Farid to Waris Shah, I love them all. For me, the most appealing aspect of Pujabi Sufi Kalaam is its simplicity and sincerity. You never have to struggle to understand it because the imagery is all around you.

The one thing that Gulzar and the poets who found a place in his lyrics have in common is their ability to express without sounding complex. There is a familiarity to their words. They took everyday things and conversations and turned them into fine poetry. With Gulzar, it works the other way around too. I read a signboard that says “Mehrauli” and all I can think of is “Chalta hai Mehrauli mein par ghoda apna Arbi hai” and I can almost never pick up a newspaper without humming “Akhbaar ki sab surkhiyaan hum gungunayenge”. Even a simple gesture of putting a hand over the eyes brings to mind “Moondi moondi akhiyon se dekhna, haath ki aad se”. A dear friend and fellow Gulzar follower, never fails to remark “Dil ki baat na poocho, dil toh aata rahega” whenever matters of love are discussed.

It is this simplicity, this everydayness that makes his work so easy to relate to, quote, and discover.

“Let’s go to Ballimaaran tomorrow,” I implored a friend recently, and on being rebuked, once again decided to walk the narrow streets alone. As I walked on, I hummed what I’ve hummed every time I’ve stepped foot in the area since 2005:

Tujhse milna purani Dilli mein

Chhod aaye nishaani Dilli mein

Ballimaaran se Daribe talak

Teri meri kahani Dilli mein

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