The resonance of Gulzar’s poetry touches everyone, no matter what bhasha they speak

At the conclusion of a session with poet-lyricist Gulzar in The Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai, a woman well past 60 bowed to touch my feet. I had done nothing to merit her obeisance, I protested. The woman, barely able to stand up with a walking stick, though was undeterred, and touched my hands too. “This is not for you. This is for Gulzar. You hosted the book release session with him. You are so lucky. For years I have waited to see him. Today also, I tried to get across to him but there were so many people around him, I couldn’t reach him. Please tell him I read all his books. I love his poetry even though I am not very familiar with pure Urdu,” she said before leaving.

I tried to tell Gulzar. In vain, as it turned out that he had checked out of the hotel. I was sad at not being able to pass on the message of a faithful fan to the legendary poet. After all, such adulation is rare to find for Urdu writers-poets in a place like Chennai. Not for long though, as I reasoned with myself. Translations have opened a bridge to newer territories, newer people now. You don’t have to speak the language of the local people to be accepted. Translations not only take Bharat to India and vice-versa but also help people get familiar with writers in other Indian languages. Human emotions are universal, the change in the language is but a cosmetic exercise. The translations may not always carry the soul of the original but more often than not they carry the spirit — Pavan Varma proved it handsomely at the live session, happily and ably translating Gulzar’s poetry on stage. Truth be said, our authors-poets are being lapped up in all corners of the country. Gulzar himself is a living proof. He had found takers in Bhutan during a lit fest there. And his new Urdu-Hindi bilingual book, Pluto, which contains his pure poetry, was launched in front of a thousand people in Chennai, supposedly not a place where very many people are familiar with Urdu. The next day, Saba Bashir’s book on Gulzar elicited a niche but passionate audience who wanted the poet to recite his works!

Never mind that many who attended his sessions did not understand the difference between ‘mehboob’ and mistress, between ‘chanda’ and ‘chakor’. However, thanks to translations, non-Hindi-Urdu speaking people were more than familiar with Gulzar’s art. Of course, most had heard his film songs. That helped. Importantly, some had even read his work on Ghalib, most though were youngsters for whom Gulzar became a reality thanks to his books such as Selected Poems and Neglected Poems!

As men and women, young and old strained to catch the poet’s ear, and many jostled for the poet’s autograph, I quietly smiled at the power of translations. If Gulzar had been published only by Urdu publishers or if he had used only the Devanagari script, I doubt if he would have had such an overwhelming response, never mind his super hits songs in Hindi cinema. His poems, nazms, ghazals, his triveni, all published in both Hindi and English, and only occasionally in Urdu, widened his readership considerably. As it does with any work of translation. After all, how many people learn Bengali to understand Rabindranath Tagore — incidentally, something Gulzar did back in the 50s!

However, as all the fans of Gulzar queued up to get his autograph on their Gulzar title, most thanked him in English. “Sir, I have been reading you for a long time. Thank you very much,” was an oft-heard refrain as I sat next to the poet. Only five readers out of more than a hundred people who got his signature on their book, said ‘Shukriya’ to him. And only one used the word, ‘Dhanyawad’. All part of the brigade that has taken to translations like never before. They are fuelling a still growing industry. And making writers household names beyond their geographical zones of origin. Hardly a surprise then that I met the old woman who wanted to touch Gulzar’s feet. Maybe obeisance too can be transferred.

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