Gulzar on A Poem a Day, his collection of translated poetry chronicling India's history since 1947
The compilation of translated poems by Gulzar has been over eight years in the making, traversing through the length and breadth of the country, with works of 279 poets in 34 languages featured in the book.
"Let the seven seas
across the world
yield only nectar.
Let the moon in the sky
Let the elixir of life
drip from the
Let the nectar flow down
from within the noble act
of human goodness.
Let the nectar
trickle down also from
the poet's soft words."
These words, translated from poet Haldhar Nag's Sambalpuri original, open Gulzar's magnum opus A Poem a Day: 365 Contemporary Poems 34 Languages 279 Poets. Hardbound in maroon leather with light golden lettering, the book stands tall and sits heavy on one's lap, offering exactly what it promises — a poem for each day of the year. The inaugural piece therefore, sets the tone for the collection that flows through the length and breadth of not just the country, but the subcontinent that celebrates its several identities through its myriad tongues, mirroring its indiscriminately colourful temperament.
Gulzar doffs his hat to the tribal poet, a Padma Shri awardee, by addressing a letter to him before taking off on his poetic pilgrimage, by saying:
"ये कवि जब अपने गाँव की ज़मीन पे चलता है, तो लगता है पूरे ग्लोब पर चल रहा है |"
Haldhar's words are amplified by his footsteps, and it is these diverse footsteps of 279 poets that converge in Gulzar's formidable compilation, which has been in the making for over eight years.
Only days before the book's launch, this writer finds herself on a call with the poet on a gloomy winter afternoon that soon turns warm in the company of his musings on life, language and everything in between. I begin our conversation by asking him if this has been his most adventurous literary outing till date.
"It was very challenging," he answers, rather gently and slowly. "Maine kahin suna tha, ki jungle baahar se bohot ghana lagta hai — but when you enter the jungle, jab dheere dheere ped do taraf se dikhne lagte hai, tab woh utna ghana nahi lagta," he says, laughing, allegorising the magnitude of the enterprise he had undertaken.
The idea had been sparked by an editor (who was previously with HarperCollins India, the publisher of the book) who urged Gulzar to offer his readers "a poem a day" — a clever thought, they realised. But said editor had not really mulled over the implications of her suggestion that the poet seemed to have taken a fancy to.
"I asked her in which language (should these poems be)? She said in English, because we are English publishers," — that, however, did not sound convincing enough. He saw no challenge or creativity in reading books and culling out poems, only to arrange, edit and compile them into a collection. It is this hackneyed approach that he sought to evade — one that took him back to his textbooks where he met the classical greats of Rabindranath Tagore, Alfred Tennyson and William Wordsworth, and not the contemporaries who wrote about their prevailing struggles and joys.
"I thought, let's look at the contemporary poetry of India, because when students read poetry in their textbooks, they cannot relate them to their everyday lives...It does not relate to their climate, migrants, Naxalites, strikes, or any aspect of their everyday lives," he tells me. Reading poetry to get good grades in examinations made little sense to him, so he decided on sieving through works he read while growing up, especially those that inspired the poet in him.
The year 1947 seemed like a good point of inception for the project, however, the issue of the anthology's language continued to riddle him. "Choosing (poetry in) any one language does not make it the face of Indian poetry," he says. "If I collect only Hindi poetry and know Hindi, I cannot claim that this is the poetry of India. I should know what is happening in other languages too...The same applies to cinema. Only Hindi cinema can't make Indian cinema — it has to include Bangla, Hindi, and four other major South Indian languages among others." That is the only way one can complete the "face of Indian poetry", he says, "Nahin toh aap kaan pakde honge, ya naak pakde honge, yaa honth pakde honge."
In A Poem a Day, the day of our conversation is marked by a 'Nazm' by Urdu poet Bashir Badr, which resists the onset of winter with its "hand of night stretching silently". A rather exceptional way of remembering otherwise unremarkable days of a year, I think to myself, as it urges me to rewind (or fast forward) to the poem dedicated to my birthday. Incidentally, it happens to be one in my mother tongue, that too by a poet I have grown up loving and reciting — Sankha Ghosh.
A little later in our conversation, I learn that Gulzar is a passionate admirer of Ghosh and his literature, but before that, he takes me through the process of curating his book. "I went year-wise, and explored what was happening in Tamil, Malayalam, Bangla, and literature in other languages in a particular year," he says.
On his journey, he encountered several languages without scripts, and ones that borrowed scripts from more linguistically dominant tongues in the region. "At first, it looked like a big burden, but then gradually when my collection (of poetry) crossed 50, I started getting a little courage. My target was 100, as I thought that once I reach 100, I will have completed (my project) and I will stop. But the day I crossed 100, I realised there were 16...18...20 languages already," he recounts. Eventually, he began collecting poetry in new languages. "In Gujarat, I found that Konkani had three different scripts from three different languages — Marathi, Kannada and Tamil. In the North-East, people use Bangla, Assamese, Odia, and Manipuri scripts, besides other languages and other scripts from the region," he says.
This unrelenting, infinite quest led him to learn about the moods and history of the country through the years since Independence; Gulzar's lessons had only just begun. "Before educating you, I had to educate myself, and that is what I started doing," he says.
Ever since, the man has translated over 450 poems from across India, and he thanks poet AJ Thomas for his selfless efforts in helping him achieve this feat. Editor of Sahitya Akademi's bi-monthly English journal Indian Literature, Thomas spent hours scanning old copies of the publication for Gulzar, who scoured through volumes of writing in every language he stumbled upon.
"There are languages that I didn't know, so I had to get connected to people who are masters in those languages, or some poet whose poem I had selected, and I had to see if I could talk to the poet," he tells me. While some poems were readily available in their English translations, others had to be translated, as English has always been the country's "link language", the poet notes.
However, the peculiarity of languages meant local idioms and expressions that could never quite be accurately translated. As a result, Gulzar wrestled with capturing the 'Indianness' of certain terms and phrases. "For example, it is very difficult to explain 'mangalsutra' in English," he says. So, in order to address this conundrum, the poet zeroed in on 'Hindustani' — the lingua franca of North India — as the native link language he would employ to holistically complete his endeavour. It allowed for the transcreation of cultural commonalities that are underlined by a shared history and legacy, irrespective of the local tongues spoken in different parts of the country. After all, explaining the import and meaning of 'lakshmanrekha' to a foreigner might prove to be quite the task.
Our conversation soon steers in the direction of India's North-East, when I ask Gulzar about translating Manipuri poet Robin Ngangom's Flight/फ़रारी, dedicated to the 146th day of the year.
"Words like the end of history
will not resonate anywhere in their lives;
they do not have meat and drinks left
to offer to embedded scribes.
As newspapers have died on them. Like before
their fates will go unreported, arousing
only a shred of curiosity somewhere."
— reads the concluding stanza of the poem's English translation. It silently carves a pitiful hollow in my gut. I ask him, unsurprisingly, if poetry from the North-East was among the more difficult ones to translate. Theirs were the most "dynamic" in the country, he answers. "One has to understand their protests, and if you do find the protest in the poem, then the poet has done his job. It is the reader or the one who is interested, who will now have to find out which city or area is being talked about (in the poem)," Gulzar says. It is silly of a reader to expect the poet to provide directions to the place; the reader has to participate in the poetry — a living, throbbing art form.
"If you've not been reading the newspapers, you are not a literate or educated person," he states matter-of-factly, before adding that people who "pick up" poetry are the ones who have reached or sought it knowing what to expect from it. "If you are asking for details, then poetry is not the medium because it can only give you the essence. You will then have to work back and find out about the history of the place; you have to know and understand why they (people) are so agitated." Poetry, therefore, is a two-way street, and barely lends itself to complacency.
However, the most interesting part of this decade-long journey for Gulzar was the astonishing revelation that poetry of a certain time travelled unperturbed through terrains, underlined by a largely uniform sentiment and mood. "The whole country reacts the same way, no matter what language they speak," he trails off over the phone.
It took nearly seven years to cross the '365' mark, and by that time, it had become Gulzar's second nature to collect poetry from wherever he roamed. He, along with his publisher Udayan Mitra — a most "conscientious" professional — refrained from arranging the collection according to poets or language, as that would mean skipping and missing periods. The idea was to reach out to the youth through their expansive range of contemporary voices, and Gulzar is pleased to inform that said goal has been accomplished.
His misgivings about satisfactory translations have also been addressed through the process, as he believes that a lot is not lost in the rigmarole if one can commit themselves to the images and thoughts embedded in the original. His experience in the field predates this project, as he had translated Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay, and Marathi poet Kusumagraj's works as a budding littérateur. "Banalata Sen (by Bengali poet Jibanananda Das) has been quoted in almost all major languages of India. So how has it travelled? Through translations," he points out. "The one who is reading it will know which is the original. Bangla se aya hai na...kisi ko pata nahi hai toh woh poochh lega — if they are interested that is. Everything does not have to be served on a platter; the reader has to participate finally, and when they participate, they will get it."
Ultimately for him, these creative pursuits were all in the spirit of learning — exercises he undertook for himself, and no one else.
At its core, translation is an act of cultural and social assimilation of ideas of a people foreign to another, leading to a better understanding of the world we inhabit. It is a political statement, one that defies borders and fences segregating people and places. The arts have inherently transcended such manmade boundaries throughout history, and A Poem a Day is no exception to that rule. "I call them 'Indian' contemporary poetry', but we are sharing the same language with Pakistan, that is Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. We share Bangla with Bangladesh and Tamil with Sri Lanka. Nepali is being taught and written in India, and we have poets from Tibet too," says Gulzar on including poetry in languages from beyond India's borders.
It is at this point that I am reminded of a particularly poignant line from his foreword, where he writes about the politics of lesser-spoken languages in India: "Inn zabaano ke likhne aur padhne waley kam zaroor hue hain, lekin woh zabaanein chhoti nahi hui". (These words come at a juncture in Indian history, when a homogenous identity is being sought in the country, riding on the wings of a singular religion and tongue.) Really, how can anyone imagine languages such as Bangla, Malayalam, Tamil, among others, as merely 'regional', when they have been conferred the titles of 'major' and 'national'?
"Just don't push them to the margins. Bangla is a language of the old culture — it came from the east. So maybe a smaller region speaks Bangla, but it is a national language. The language is not small, only the number of people speaking it may be smaller than Hindi. Hindi is only a link language," he says, before adding that Hindi too does not sound the same across the country. "Similarly, the way you speak Bangla in Bengal, is not the same way in which it is spoken in Bangladesh, even though you are speaking in Bangla. So the language may change region-wise, but languages can never be 'regional'; it's not true. That way, you put them in the margins."
Soon enough, we round up our conversation with Gulzar's thoughts on his primary muse, Ghalib — the bard he has been serving all his life. He was the 'common man's poet', a man who divorced himself from the royalty, unlike his peers.
In order to explain his modesty, Gulzar unexpectedly breaks into Bangla over the phone: "Jerokom adda bole na Bangla te? (You know the term 'adda' in Bangla?) He used to have addas, which no one from among his contemporaries ever had. He even lived in Kolkata for a year-and-a-half," he tells me, with a hint of delight in his voice, as I wind up my 'adda' with the poet who writes for and about the common man of our times.
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