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Indian poet, lyricist and director, Gulzar. —Photo (File) AP
Indian poet, lyricist and director, Gulzar. —Photo (File) AP

Gulzar sahab’s recent visit to Pakistan turned into a national controversy even though, in reality, it was a visit that was extremely personal and emotional. Born in Dina 78 years ago, he visited his native place for the first time 70 years later.

Being an Urdu poet himself, he had kept in touch with many writers and poets from Pakistan and would often meet them outside India. Pakistani director and friend Hasan Zia invited him to the Karachi Literature Festival and he was only too happy to accept the invitation. Vishal Bhardwaj, who he also considers his son, went along as he wanted to record a qawaali with Pakistani qawaals for his upcoming film. The artists were not being allowed to come to India, so Gulzar sahab felt that their work should be represented in our films. It was decided that they would record the song in Lahore, then visit Dina and finally go to Karachi for the literary festival. There were many stories circulated on him cutting short his visit and returning to India, but Gulzar sahab never spoke. He opens up to TOI for the first time in an interview.

Could you share details of what actually happened during your visit to Pakistan in February this year?

I left Pakistan with my father at the age of eight. During these 70 years, I had flown to Lahore only once earlier in 2004 on an emergency visa for four days to meet my mentor Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi sahab to see him in hospital as he had suffered a heart attack. But going to Dina, my birth place, was a desire I held for a long time. I had felt like going there many a times, but did not want to wash away the images in which I had lived and always feared that just like other cities of the world, there would be changes even there. I am 78 and I knew that this would probably be my last chance and I may not be able to go there again. Doing that would complete the circle for me.

I wanted to cross the Wagah border on foot. Walking on that soil I felt like I was walking to my homeland, my birthplace. The feeling was extremely intimate. Instinctively, as soon as I reached the Pakistan border, I took off my mojaris (shoes) and wanted to put my feet on the soil.

It might sound childish, but I wanted to feel the ground. My friend Hasan Zia had come to receive us from Pakistan and we could see him waving at us, while our passports were being checked. With them we first went to Lahore, where Vishal and I recorded over two nights.

During the day, we visited the streets of Lahore, but I realised that being who I am, it had become impossible for me to just walk across the street and have a bhutta (corn) with a common man. While people there love me, I was always crowded around by friends and their relatives, who had come from all over to just meet me. I was always ghira hua (surrounded) and that started disturbing me. I was lonely inside, but I could not explain that to anybody. I wanted to just have some bhutta (corn)and ask the cobbler kay mere jootay ka naap zara theek kar dein (please fix the size of my shoe). I wanted to get my shoes polished, but was not being allowed and felt the suffocation till I decided that we would go to Dina the next day.

It was a five-hour journey to Jhelum and we set out in two cars. Vishal and Rekha were in the other car and Hasan Zia and a poet friend were in my car. I enjoyed the landscape of Pakistan and stopped en route to finally have bananas. People in Pakistan show their love to you through food and our car was filled with all kinds of non-vegetarian edibles.

My friends had a lot to talk about, but I just wanted them to not talk and let me be on my own. I had not seen so many Urdu signboards in my entire life and wanted to read each of them on the way. I was silently sitting in the car , reading and reading and had never read so much Urdu in one day. We reached Jhelum and from there, Dina station.

It was exactly the way I had left it 70 years ago, except for one small brick room now built for women. Next to the station, there were open fields, looking at which brought back many memories. I remembered one about my father when he used to go to Pahar Ganj in Delhi to bring sauda (groceries) for his hatti (shop). I wanted to go with him, but four people were holding me back and I could see just his figure standing in the train and going away. Whenever I would hear the whistle of the train or see the train, I would go to the station and wait for him. Thinking about it, I started getting more and more choked up. As it is, people around me were all talking and I was not getting a chance to be alone. The only thing I wanted at that time was silence.

It was difficult for me to explain my feelings to my gracious hosts, who had prepared food for me, that I had no appetite and would not be able to swallow anything. I took water a few times. It was close to sunset and I wanted to visit the main bazaar, where we had lived. It used to be on a straight road from the station. To my surprise, I found that the bazaar had been left untouched and a new bazaar had come up on an adjacent road. Both the bazaars meet at Daata Chowk, where we parked our cars and started walking into the old bazaar. Everything came alive. I was walking ahead of everyone and could straight away, without help, reach the gali where we lived. Except a few windows here and there, everything was the same. People knew that I was coming and they all surrounded me. A few shopkeepers recognised me and started talking about my family — my sister, older brother, even my mamu.

Then suddenly one of them asked me about Allahditta. My father had a lot of muslim friends and he had brought up one of the sons of his friends as a son. That was Allahditta. I told them how I had lost touch with him after he went to Karachi many years back and now owned a textile mill there. They remembered small details of how my brother’s then father-in-law Makhan Singh Kale Wale shared his name with my father’s name, Makhan Singh Kurlan Wale. Then he said to me, ‘Your father used to collect Rs. 5 rent from me. You my landlord has come now, so take the money from me’. I cried and just held his hand and sat down with him. Then we went to my school, where they were waiting for me. It used to be a primary school when I was there with just two blocks. It has now become a high school with the third block named ‘Gulzar Kalra block’. I became too emotional.

On the way back, I wanted to go to Kurlan, a mile away from Dina, where my father was born, but it was getting dark and Hasan Zia could see my condition and advised me to not go ahead and go back to Lahore with Vishal and Rekha in my car. He could understand what I was going through as I was wiping my nose again and again. It is only when we were midway on the highway that we stopped by at Lalamoosa where I had memories of eating Mia ki dal from a famous shop there. I knew I had kept everybody hungry with me. It was dark by the time we returned to Lahore.

Now, it was time to go back to our recording, but I realised that even with the qawaals singing in the background, I was totally alone. People say you feel happy visiting your childhood. I don’t think so. There is something nice, but sad about it. I was feeling unwell and Vishal realised it first. He said let’s pack up. I did not want you to be admitted in the hospital there and at such times you want to be back to the place where you know the medical set-up. Vishal held my hand and said, ‘Let’s not go to Karachi Gulzar sahab’. There was a lot of responsibility on Hasan Zia’s head who had come to Lahore only to accompany me to the Karachi Literature Festival but I am grateful to him for his understanding. Vishal and I decided to come back to Mumbai and not talk about it much to avoid it becoming a controversy. But by the time we reached Amritsar, everyone knew and it had become just that — A controversy.

Tell us about your father?

My father called me Punni and was a textile trader with an establishment, both in Dina and in Delhi. And that’s why I named my daughter Bosky as that is the name of a famous Chinese silk. We left Pakistan just before Partition. Unlike my brother who was well educated at that time and was amongst the first graduates in my community, my father was not too hopeful about what I would do and that still disturbs me. When my father died in 1960, I was assisting Bimalda (Bimal Roy) in Mumbai. I had not been informed but received a postcard five days later after he died, informing me about his death.

Comments (33) Closed

rashid zaidi May 01, 2013 01:22pm

These are the few folks left on both sides of the border who had connections to their places of birth, memories of their childhood or friends left behind. Now those folks are getting rare. It's shame we have been caught in a endless war of hate all this time. The emotional toll is way too much for some, Gulzar Sahib is an example, there were countless others who could not even experience a visit it was either painful or could not be arranged. Time is running out on those old connections, the newer generations haven't built any relationships across the border and soon those stories of where we came from will be history, that will truly be the division of India. It is time India and Pakistan made an earnest effort to be friends. The average person on both sides does not have a problem with that, we meet each in far off lands and do fine we have so much in common.

Khurram Sharif May 03, 2013 01:15pm

Classic !!!!!!!!!

pradip May 01, 2013 09:42pm
"Then he said to me,
HNY2013 May 02, 2013 09:07pm
Strange but true that boundaries could not divide emotional bonding!.
Mohabbat May 01, 2013 07:04pm
Gulzar sahib should have stayed back in Pakistan and not run away. People like these need to provide the much needed pluralism of ideas that they are capable of. Unfortunately, men of letters usually do not have the courage to match their imagination, other than a few!
Magister Ludi May 01, 2013 07:15pm
Reading this article forces me to read The Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith once more which has a similar theme. My life can be divided into two sections before reading The Deserted Village and after.
Sohail May 01, 2013 11:11pm
I understand his feelings and desire to be alone to absorb all the feelings and emotions. Unfortunately he never got that. I have visited my birthtown after 30 years and I was also looking to be left alone where I can walk to the street, bazaars and places by myself but was accompanied by someone who rushed me through some places in the car. They never understood my desire to leave me alone so I can hear all the local sounds, touch walls, doors and walk slowly on the paths which I remember from my childhood. The place got changed a lot though. I have a chance to go back and I will make sure that I will do it this time. Sohail (USA)
Samia May 01, 2013 09:30pm
Great story! Know how he feels. Some of us brought up in East Pakistan feel the same when we visit Bangladesh. The memories are overwhelming . Come again to Karachi, Gulzar Sahib! You'll love the Urdu signs in Karachi
Karachi Wala May 01, 2013 06:41pm
"People say you feel happy visiting your childhood. I don
Madan May 01, 2013 06:54pm
Such feelings exist in all those persons,like myself, who were forced out their places of birth by partition of India.It is natural and only those affected by the partition can feel and express.
waseem May 02, 2013 04:07pm
So was lollywood's " So called " actors like Nadeem, Mohammed Ali, Noor jehan, Mehdi Hasan Migrated from India. It's two way traffic & very tragic one too !!
Naveen May 01, 2013 07:29pm
I love his work and personality, got emotional reading about his experience of going back to his birth place after 70 years...
khalil May 01, 2013 10:58pm
A true legend!
Jawwad May 01, 2013 08:42pm
And that is how my father felt when he visited New Delhi for the first time in 1980's. He had teary eyes when he told us the stories. Long live Gulzar Sb.
bharat May 02, 2013 05:12pm
Very happy to know that Pakistanis love Gulzar sab.
Nazim USA May 02, 2013 05:49am
Looking to the measures taken by India and Pakistan, can new generation in these countries or a visitor can believe that there was one country just about half century back. Is it not madness and cruelty that people who had been living together for centuries are not allowed to cross border and meet their friend, relatives and loved ones. Through the Aman ki Asha initiative there was some sign of relief. Senior citizens were promised granting of visa at the border and easing of procedure for granting visa to others. The agreement was sabotaged on the first day of implementation. There is no explanation for this action from government of India. It is worth mentioning that there has not been a single case where visiting senior citizen was involved in an unlawful activity threatening security of India or Pakistan. I request Government of India to at least start issuing visa to senior citizens which may be followed by easing restrictions for others. There are many Gulzars waiting on both sides of border.
Different View May 01, 2013 03:55pm
Thank you, Gulzar Sahab, for sharing some of the very personal memories with us.
Ravi Ingale from University of Pune. May 02, 2013 05:22am
Bollywood's most of the talented and famous people migrated from Pakistan (NWFP and Punjab).
Abdul Malik May 02, 2013 05:19am
Gulzar Sahib is so right ! it is sad to visit your childhood and place of birth. It is way too emotional.
Khalid May 01, 2013 07:38pm
Not that it matters but for some reason I always thought Gulzar was a Muslim.
MOHAMMAD May 02, 2013 02:55am
Guest May 02, 2013 01:42am
rafiq meghani May 01, 2013 04:06pm
We love you Gulzar Saheb. You have seen one of our son dedicating his song to you and his parents namely Amanat. We all love you and your family same way.
Nazim, USA May 01, 2013 10:22pm
I don't know about Jawaharlal , I am sure Jinnah would have same feeling if he had visited his Mount Pleasant House at Malabar Hill in Bombay although politicians have brain no heart.
My Pete May 01, 2013 06:37pm
Can't stop crying, this partition has caused so much suffering to so many people.
Akhtar Rizvi May 01, 2013 06:29pm
When the feeling about something or some situation is real or pure or perhaps honest the tears always pour in a situation of sad news or happy news. Gulzar saheb out poured his true self when his father's tenant mentioned about the Rs 5 rent and Gulzar saheb clutched his hands and perhaps wept. It must have been a good feeling after that shower. May Gulzar saheb enjoy good health always. Adabs Akhtar Rizvi Manhattan NYC
ghazala May 01, 2013 05:47pm
People like Gulzar Saheb are rare in this world.This partition has destroyed family,frienship and without any reasons but Muslims-Sikhs and Hindus at each others throat for WHAT? May British suffer the same fate as they wreck havoc on millions in India-Pak and Bangla Desh.
Varun May 01, 2013 06:01pm
Left me in tears - I can only imagine how the frail old emotional man would have felt. Only one word to describe it - Poignant.
Aiza May 01, 2013 05:26pm
Pakistanis are the most generous People I have come over, they meet you with a open heart. Hope you felt the same Gulzar Sahib. Your emotions and feelings while coming back to your childhood ground moved me to tears. Welcome back!
shahid May 01, 2013 05:22pm
these poets are so simple don't know what the war is?search love in the guns
Lakhkar Khan May 01, 2013 05:18pm
Glad to hear your schedule was changed by personal reasons and not political. I am sure the people of Pakistan love you as much the people of India.
Imran May 01, 2013 01:03pm
Clears a lot of misunderstandings. Glad to see people greet Mr Gulzar with such warmth
Shubs May 02, 2013 05:50pm
Very touching, but nostalgia of a handful of people cannot override the complete lack of connection between the current generation of Indians and Pakistanis. Let's not forget, India is a big country. More than 80% of the people of the nation have nothing to do whatsoever with the history, violence and social upheaval of partition. One feels for these emotional tugs of elderly Punjabi gentlemen, but let us put things in perspective. For almost all Indians of today's generation, there are no emotional connections with Pakistan. We view it through the lens of geopolitics, are victims of its aggressive policies, and judge it through the eyes of global citizens.