On Gulzar’s birthday, we’re revisiting the lyricist, poet, screenwriter and director’s poetry and short stories, through the volume titled Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition. For Gulzar, who was born in present-day Pakistan and whose life was overturned by the Partition, the historic event that gave birth to India and Pakistan would remain a haunting memory that turned his homeland into a foreign country. Born in a part of undivided Punjab that is now part of Pakistan, Gulzar came to Mumbai when the turbulence of Partition uprooted his family and disrupted his studies. Alongside finding a foothold in the film industry, Gulzar continued to write poetry in Urdu and Punjabi primarily.
To find catharsis through writing for the Hindi film industry was difficult in the early years. Channelling the horrors of Partition into the make-believe world of cinema felt impossible and the Hindi film industry steadfastly delivered stories that offered an escape from the real world politics. Later, the hurdles faced by M.S. Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1973) — it took an intervention by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to get the film cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification — served to discourage commercial storytellers from looking at this recent and traumatic history. It would take all the way till the Nineties for mainstream Hindi cinema to approach Partition.
For Gulzar, the subject was one that he explored through his writing outside cinema. Aside from featuring prominently in his poetry, Partition was also a key theme in his novel, Two.
Aankhon ko visa nahi lagta (the eyes don’t need a visa),
Sapno ki sarhad hoti nahi (dreams don’t have borders)
Band aankhon se roz main (with my eyes closed, every day)
Sarhad paar chala jaata hu (I go across the border)
Milne Mehdi Hassan se (to meet Mehdi Hasan)
(Excerpt from the poem)
The Partition sought to impose boundaries and barriers that felt like an unnatural imposition, and in poems like this one, Gulzar explores both the heartbreak of being alienated as well as the hope of belonging to a tribe of artists who refused to be constrained by political boundaries. He plays with the idea of sight and knowing by offering a pointed contrast — it’s with his eyes closed that he’s able to see what is important. In his dreams, the borders disappear and Gulzar journeys freely, dismissing the bureaucratic paperwork of visas and formal national identities. There’s a hint of a sense of pilgrimage when Gulzar speaks of meeting Mehdi Hassan, the legendary ghazal singer who was born in Rajasthan and in 1947, migrated to Pakistan because of Partition. (Hassan would later claim that for decades, he was denied visas to visit India.) For both Gulzar and Hassan, there is a home across a border and the journey is one that can only be made in their dreams.
Kites hover over corpses in your city
In much the same way they do
In my city, on its crossroads.
When bodies fall
Prey to police firing
The vultures begin to descend
In this, our two countries
So much is common among the common people.
(translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil)
In sharp contrast to the political discourse that has emphasised an antagonistic relationship with Pakistan, the cultural set of both India and Pakistan have long emphasised how much is shared between them. In this poem, Gulzar brings together a host of symbols that emphasise sameness rather than difference — birds like the kites that pay no heed to man-made boundaries, the predatory vultures, and the hardships faced by common people. The poem is also a reminder of how Bombay and Karachi were once considered sister cities that stood overlooking the same sea. Separated as they may be now, Gulzar’s poem emphasises the commonality that persists between them. There’s biting irony in the detail about the vultures because they stand for the political set who are held responsible for dividing an undivided people. Yet their need to profit from oppression ends up creating a common ground between those they sought to divide. These lines serve to reflect the shared humanity that transcends the divisive lines drawn by politics.
In addition to poetry, Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition also includes short stories that reflect deeply upon political and communal upheavals. Khauf (Fear) begins with a terrorised youth named Yasin, whom we see against the background of communal riots. He is terrified, travelling in a train scared of being identified as a Muslim and becoming a target. Upon the arrival of another man into the coach, Yasin starts suspecting this man is Hindu and will kill him. Towards the end of the story, a terrified Yasin pushes the other man out of the train, only to hear him scream Allah's name. Gulzar’s storytelling forces you to sit in the discomfort of a terror that reduces a person to an unthinking mess.
In Raavi Paar, the chaos of mass migration creates an extraordinary situation. The story's title refers to the river Ravi, which once was a geographical and cultural connection between two parts of Punjab, but becomes a formidable barrier when the political landscape changes. The story ends with the line, “Hindustan Zindabad!”, and the slogan creates a chaotic, thrilling end that also shows the reader how humanity is overpowered by a rhetoric of frenzy.
Gulzar's writings offer glimpses of the deep wounds that the Partition left in the subcontinent’s collective consciousness. Remembering the trauma and heartache of everyday people and holding up art’s ability to comfort (if not heal), Footprints on Zero Line is a bittersweet volume, rich with rage, despair and hope. It’s a reminder of what was lost because of politics but also of a longing that simply won’t go away. As Gulzar writes in “If Possible…”,
“It is still my motherland but it isn’t my country anymore
To go there, I have to visit many offices of the two governments
Get my face stamped and provide proof of my dreams.”