A recent book on Gulzar reveals how well the lyricist-poet remembers details from the past

As we grow older, our memory often starts acting as a sieve. The incidents we could relate with passion until a few years ago suddenly begin to fade. Only some of us are blessed with a memory that is more like an adhesive, every little moment, every incident is retained, and related at a moment of choice. I felt this about Gulzar while going through Nasreen Munni Kabir’s In The Company Of A Poet where the seasoned lyricist-poet-writer talks of the incidents more than half-a-century ago as if they happened just the other day. Every bit is retained, every little experience of pain and pleasure recounted with integrity and accuracy. Gulzar hides little in the book, shares a lot with Nasreen. His endearing honesty makes for breezy reading.

It is the same glue-like memory that enables him to express his deep feelings for his father. When Gulzar talks of his father, there is a ring of affection, even anguish to his words. At the beginning of the book, there is a little epistle to his father where Gulzar expresses his sorrow at his going away. “Father, There is much to say that is left unsaid / If you were here I would speak / You were so despondent on my account / Fearing my poetry would drown me some day / I am still afloat, father”, he writes. Indeed, then Gulzar comes across like a little boy sitting on his papa’s lap, playing with his wrinkled fingers, stroking his white beard. There is so much love, so much that is unsaid.

For instance, just sample Gulzar’s take on his father as a specimen of his photographic memory: “He was a tall and handsome jaat, a lower middle-class man. His name was Sardar Makhan Singh Kalra. My paternal grandfather was Nihal Singh. Both my father and grandfather were born in Kurlan, a village about a mile from Dina. Grandfather was a gwala (cowherd)…. My father had studied Persian and Urdu till the fourth standard… Knowing how to read and write was a big deal for the son of a gwala, so my father thought of himself as an educated man. He found a job as a cook to a sahukaar…. Whenever he left the village, the family would say, ‘Munda Hindustan chala gaya’. Delhi seemed so far away that it was considered another country. My father struggled a great deal…. The day he was leaving for Delhi, he saw me crying inconsolably at the railway station as his train pulled out… I decided it was best that I should live with him in Delhi.”

When Gulzar “decided” to shift to Delhi from Punjab, he was seven and admitted to a municipal corporation school. He remembers every tiny detail. “I used to sleep in the storeroom. I worked at my father’s topi-thaili ki dukaan.” Out of this hardship arose the ambition to rise higher in life. So Gulzar started reading. Newspapers, magazines, anything. Then came Urdu novels, mostly detective. “I would devour a crime story every night by the light of a lantern,” Gulzar recalls in the book. This novel too he would borrow from a local book stall for a few annas for a night! He was soon to improve his taste significantly by laying his hands on The Gardener, a collection of Tagore’s poems translated into English. Then he “stole” his brother Jasmer’s book Mohammed Iqbal’s Bal-e-Jabrail. His literary journey had indeed taken a flight. On a sound reading of Urdu literature. And a memory that retained all experiences.

The world of Munshi Premchand, Iqbal and Tagore left a deep imprint on him.

Apparently, Gulzar has done so well to retain every ounce of that knowledge that often less-informed people tend to mistake his work to be inspired from that of the great men of the previous centuries! Yet it is the same indelible memory that makes Nasreen’s book a fine read. Whether Gulzar talks of giving his daughter Meghna her pet name Bosky on the name of a fabric or he recalls the heady days of Meena Kumari, there is no dilution, no exaggeration. Of course, he reserves his best for Bimal Roy under whose baton he started his film career.

He even manages to laugh at a few follies of people — such as many cine-goers mistaking him to be a Muslim! Then, of course, he remembers to credit his Class IV-passed father for inculcating in him a love for languages!

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