How Gulzar Sahab, My Imaginary Friend, Made Me Fall in Love With Words


How Gulzar Sahab, My Imaginary Friend, Made Me Fall in Love With Words

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

I am convinced that I’m in a relationship with Gulzar Sahab. No, not the kind that Mick Jagger has with women many decades his junior, but the kind where while one half of that relationship worships the ground that the other walks on, the other half is blissfully unaware of said worshipper’s existence, let alone affections. But that’s okay. It’s only a matter of introductions, after all. Besides, when have measly considerations such as a one-sided flow of adoration been successful in stemming the flow of hero-worship? That’s right, never. Like Gulzar Sahab himself has so poetically said, “Dil toh baccha hai jee, thoda kaccha hai jee.” 

I was a kid when I was first introduced to Gulzar Sahab’s genius. But even then, I remember being obsessed with words and the very particular ways in which extraordinary writers arrange them to evoke memories, secret yearnings, and forgotten emotions in their listeners and readers. I was six when The Jungle Book – Gulzar Sahab penned the lyrics of the opening song, “Jungle Jungle Baat Chali Hai” – made its DD debut in 1993. For a whole year, every Sunday at exactly 8:58am, I remember being glued to my spot in front of the TV. 

When you have one TV being shared by 14 family members, you have no option but to adjust and optimise. These were the days of Banegi Apni Baat and Dekh Bhai Dekh; of Tara, Khana Khazana, and Tu Tu Main Main. In such a situation, the battle for the remote was a foregone conclusion – the men and the children of the house didn’t stand a chance. Who was I, a six-year-old, to demand that I be allowed to hear “Jungle jungle baat chali hai, pata chala hai (tu ru ru, tu ru ru)” in its entirety? But being the grandmother’s favourite comes with certain perks. You can trade your Grandma’s Pet card for certain curated favours, if you time them well. I used mine for the pleasure of Gulzar Sahab’s words being immortalised by Vishal Bhardwaj’s music.

Like most unsupervised children of my generation with more imagination than sense, I spent a large part of my adolescent years daydreaming about the fabulous life I was going to lead as an adult. An important part of that dream was developing close personal friendships with the people I admired at that moment. Naturally, Gulzar Sahab was a recurring guest at these imaginary tea parties. I always imagined myself waif-like – roughly 20 kilos lighter than I actually was – dressed in starched, severe white, just like him. He’d come bearing gifts: a rare collection of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s unpublished poetry, some deliciously fragile stationery, or a rare, monstrously thick pen. 

On the other hand, “Chapa Chapa Charkha Chale” was my introduction to alliteration long before Miss Irani introduced us to figures of speech in fifth grade.

We would argue about language – there was a time when I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a bestselling Hindi novelist or a bestselling English author – as he tried to steer me towards Hindi and Urdu. So detailed were these fantasies that I spent weeks and months memorising what I considered obscure Urdu words to impress my imaginary friend Gulzar. I realise how pathetic that might sound right now, but those mood-dampening thoughts didn’t even cross my mind at the time. I’ve forgotten most of them, but Gulzar Sahab is the reason I can, without trying, use words like aabshaar (waterfall), taskeen (contentment), and ruhaniyat (spirituality) when I want to. 

How much more can one fawn and simper over Gulzar Sahab’s prodigious artistry with words? His legacy is sprawled over more decades than I have roamed this planet. I remember my bi-annual high-pitched trill as I attempted to harmonise with the rest of the group singing “Humko Mann ki Shakti Dena” during our school Republic Day and Independence Day performances. What I lacked in singing talent, I made up for in dedication. Even 10 years old, I was aware that I mustn’t let Gulzar Sahab down by enunciating poorly. No one sang “Doosro ki Jai se Pehle Khud ko Jai Karein” with as much gusto as I did. 

Then there are these vivid memories of growing up to Mum getting choked up while listening to “Tujhse Naraz Nahi Zindagi”, “Aane Waala Pal Jaane Waala Hai”, and “Yeh Lamha Filhal Jee Lene De”. On more than one occasion, I wondered, what was this magic, that could turn my tough-as-nails mother into a pile of mush? I remember evenings where I watched her greet Papa after a bad day at work with chai, while humming “Thoda Hai, Thode ki Zaroorat Hai”. It might not have fixed what was wrong, but for a few precious moments at least, all was well in their world again. On the other hand, “Chapa Chapa Charkha Chale” was my introduction to alliteration long before Miss Irani introduced us to figures of speech in fifth grade. And at 15, I couldn’t imagine anything more jarringly romantic than the title track of Saathiya. I mean, a whole song dedicated to describing her laughter? It felt too much, and yet not enough for my head, swimming as it was with ideas of eternal love. 

I’ve carried these songs, memories, and ridiculous flights of fantasies like treasures from my past. They’ve travelled with me from childhood into adulthood, and I hug them close as I navigate a wildly confusing world as a grown woman. I didn’t become a bestselling writer, but I’m still convinced that some day very soon, Gulzar Sahab and I are going to be friends. It is after all, just a matter of introductions.