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Gulzar: this would probably be my last chance to visit Pakistan

Updated May 01, 2013
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.