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Ek mood, ek kaifiyat geet ka chehra hota hai’ – it is uncanny how one remembers the exact moment associated with certain epiphanies. A typical summer day in Delhi … my final-year B.Com exams over, the results awaited. I had just completed a week-long summer job for the princely sum of Rs 500! Thrilled with my first income, I returned home with a cassette of songs by Gulzar, accompanied by his commentary: Fursat Ke Raat Din. Settling down to a cup of tea, tired from the week-long exertion under the unforgiving Delhi sun, I put the tape into the recorder. A voice floated in as if from some distant mountainscape aeons in the past, enveloping me in its misty cool folds…

Ek mood, ek kaifiyat, geet ka chehra hota hai

Kuch sahi se lafz jadh do

Mauzu se dhun ki lakeerein kheench do

Toh nagma saans lene lagta hai

Zinda ho jaata hai

Bas itni si jaan hoti hai ek gaane ki

Ek lamhe ki jitni

Haan kuch lamhe barson zinda rehte hain

Geet boodhe nahin hotey

Unke chehre pe jhurriyan nahin girti

Woh palte rehte hain, chalte rehte hain

Sunne walon ki umr badal jaati hai toh kehte hai,

‘Haan … woh uss pahar ka tila

Jab badalon se dhak jata tha

Toh ek awaaz sunayi diya karti thi…’

As the voice faded out, segueing to the plangent strains of Asha Bhosle’s ‘Phir se aaiyo badra bidesi’ (Namkeen), something within me shifted. The weariness seeped out, replaced by a wistful longing for something unnameable.

I have always been sceptical of people saying that a moment can alter the course of one’s life. Surely, life is too unfathomable for one episode to usher in such tectonic changes. Yet, looking back, I cannot deny the transformation that moment wrought in me. And why not? Even Gulzar-ji has been on record about how one episode altered the course of his life. In the days preceding independence, he used to be an avid reader of pulp fiction and jasoosi novels, finishing one every night. Running out of books in the genre, the exasperated owner of the ‘lending library’ handed him a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of poems The Gardener, thus facilitating the metamorphosis of a young boy’s literary pursuit.

Of course, my experience has not led me to any such heights as Gulzar-ji has scaled. It, however, set me on course for a lifelong quest, an enduring love affair, for want of a better expression – one that continues. (I carry the frayed cover of that cassette in my purse even today!) Over the next couple of years, going through the motions of M.Com and ICWA, I immersed myself in the songs and films of Gulzar-ji. I bought every cassette I could lay my hands on. I watched every film I could on the VCR, four of which left an indelible impression: Mausam, Aandhi, Namkeen and Ijaazat.

Then I walked up to him. ‘Gulzar-ji, I am Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.’ He turned to me and said, ‘Haan, Shantanu, aapke khat, nazm aur tarjume milte rahte hain.’ (I keep receiving your letters, poems and translations.) The rest of the evening remains a blur.  

I have never understood why the sense of loss that permeated his work fascinated me so. It was as if relationships were made beautiful only in their unfulfilled longings. He made loss and separation in love appear more attractive than a lifetime together. If parting could be so luminous, who needed a happy ending? Thanks to Gulzar-ji, never again would I be able to fall in love without a part of me fervently wishing for a bittersweet farewell, so that years later I would come across my loved one to the strains of ‘Dil dhoondta hai phir wahi fursat ke raat din’ in the background. Thanks to Gulzar-ji, at the age of twenty-three I was visualizing myself in grey hair and sideburns!

Then came Lekin (1991). Recovering from a long bout of illness, I could not watch the film in the theatres. My folks did and narrated the story to me. Something came over me and I composed a ‘poem’ on the theme. Sourcing his address from an ‘India who’s who’ address book at the college library, I posted the poem with a letter. And to my utter astonishment, Gulzar-ji replied. Commending my effort in encapsulating the film in a poem, he wondered if, as my name suggested, I was a Bengali! For a while, I became a ‘celebrity’ among my college mates!

By this time, I had begun to translate his non-film poems into English and kept sending them to him, along with my own poems. He responded once in a while, always encouraging. Then, one day, Rupa announced the publication of his book of poems translated by Rina Singh, Silences. Gulzar-ji was to come to Delhi for the launch. And needless to say I was in the audience. For the longest time I kept looking at him from a distance, playing out introductory words in my mind. Then I walked up to him. ‘Gulzar-ji, I am Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.’ He turned to me and said, ‘Haan, Shantanu, aapke khat, nazm aur tarjume milte rahte hain.’ (I keep receiving your letters, poems and translations.) The rest of the evening remains a blur.

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Those were the first words I exchanged with him. Over the next twenty-five years, I have spoken to him at length and yet even today I often find myself at a loss for words in his presence. Over the last decade at HarperCollins, I have been privileged to work closely with him on books that remain my most prized achievements, including his translation of Tagore and his first novel Do Log/Two. Fittingly enough, my last book with him at Harper was his daughter Meghna’s biography of him, Because He Is – fittingly because, whatever I am, whatever I was at Harper, is because he is.

Interestingly enough, I have never published anything with him on his cinema. By the time I started working with him, he had left his film-making days well behind. Our conversations have traversed a wide spectrum, including films. For one, I realized how disdainful he is about nostalgia and our tendency to look at the past – particularly when it comes to films and songs – with melancholic sepia-tinted glasses. He never tires of saying, ‘Surely, a girl and boy today will not court each other with “main Ganga ki mauj, tu Jamna ki dhara”. In an era of high-rises, the heroine cannot sing “Main tulsi teray angaan ki” – where’s the tulsi or the courtyard? One can lament the loss of purity of language, but language is not static, and popular culture has to reflect that. The gangster in Satya, unwinding with country hooch at the end of a day during which he has probably shot dead a few people, cannot sing “Dil-e-naadan tujhe hua kya hai”.’ No wonder then that Gulzar-ji has made ‘Goli maar bheje mein’ and ‘aankhen personal se sawaal karti hai’ fashionable in film lyrics!

Among the abiding memories of working with him are the conversations we have had in the course of editing the books, being privy to the stories behind the poems and the stories. And invariably at the end of every conversation would emerge a new book idea! A number of these took place on the phone, me on my way to office at 8 a.m., his first question of the day being: ‘Have you crossed the river?’ – a reference to the Yamuna which I have to cross every day to go to work.

He never tires of saying, ‘Surely, a girl and boy today will not court each other with “main Ganga ki mauj, tu Jamna ki dhara”. In an era of high-rises, the heroine cannot sing “Main tulsi teray angaan ki” – where’s the tulsi or the courtyard?  

And so it was that I discovered how Vishal (Bhardwaj) and he took off in a car, jumping lights, oblivious to the traffic – and how that gave birth to a poem. Or became aware, over a marathon seven-day session of translating and editing Two, of the real-life people and events that inspired large parts of his novel, narrated with all his film-making and screenplay-writing skills on display. Of his heartbreaking meeting with a couple in Delhi who were convinced he was the son they had lost during the migration of 1947. The pathos of his visit to his birthplace, Dina, seventy years after he had left it. Then there were the moments when he would drop everything to recite a poem he was composing at the time and work on it – even its translation. Sitting across from him in his study overflowing with books, his voice reciting Tagore in the original and then his own translation of the poem … Or a ride down Shanti Path on the way to the airport, looking at the row of Amaltas trees bending over in full yellow bloom, and hearing him compose the first lines of a poem…

These interactions also gave me an insight into his impish sense of humour, his almost childlike engagement with the ordinary joys of life, his ability to connect with children and his indefatigable energy. For all his tryst with poetry and distance from films, audiences at lit fests and book events invariably come up with questions on his films and songs. ‘Once upon a time you wrote words like “Teray bina zindegi se” – kitne shareef lafz thay … what makes you write things like “Beedi jalayi le” and “Kajra re” now?’ If that came as a wholly unexpected non-sequitur after a brilliant session of Tagore’s poems and Gulzar-ji’s translations, he betrayed no discomfiture as he deadpanned: ‘Aap se kisne kaha ki main shareef hoon – why do you assume I was ever the decent sort?’

Or the time I had his song ‘Is modh se jaate hain’ (Aandhi) as my caller tune and he told me: ‘Bachhu, that’s a nice song you have – the guy used to write good stuff once upon a time, didn’t he?’ And my favourite: at the Delhi airport, a man approaching him as we made our way to the baggage claim. ‘Sir, are you…’ (He is unsure if this is indeed the Gulzar.) Gulzar-ji shook his head, ‘No, no, I am not.’ (The man is reassured.) ‘Yes, I just thought you are … but it can’t be, though you…’ Looking at him, Gulzar-ji said with a straight face, ‘I know … people tell me I look like him – but I am not … I am only a translation.’

A dinner in his room at a five-star hotel in Kolkata stands out in memory. As he talked about his early days in cinema, Shantanu Moitra and I lost all track of time. It was well past three o’ clock. Suddenly hungry, Gulzar-ji wanted that quintessential everyday Bengali fare: daal-bhaat-shorsher tel-dim sheddo-kacha lonka (rice and lentils with mustard oil, boiled egg and green chilli). Try telling that to a five-star pantry at three in the night. Thanks to Shantanu’s organisational skills, however, it was arranged – the tastiest of dinners I have had, definitely the simplest I have had in a five-star hotel!

As he talked about his early days in cinema, Shantanu Moitra and I lost all track of time. It was well past three o’ clock. Suddenly hungry, Gulzar-ji wanted that quintessential everyday Bengali fare: daal-bhaat-shorsher tel-dim sheddo-kacha lonka  

That day thirty years ago triggered, among other things, a longing to be in the presence of this most luminous of men. That desire has still not been satiated. It will never be. Thirty years later, as I reflect on that hot summer day, I wonder what it was about that moment that made it so special. Was it just momentary exhaustion from a tedious week-long job? Was it the uncertainty of what I wanted to do – saddled as I was with a career in commerce and accounts? For some unknown reason, that voice, those lines, followed by the song soothed me then, and have enthralled me ever since, stood by me in my darkest hours. Every time I have felt down and out, I have gone back to his words, his songs … to that moment, as if living his song from Seema, ‘Jab bhi yeh dil udaas hota hai, jaane kaun aas paas hota hai’.

At a particularly low point in my life recently, it was his voice over the phone that lifted me as he said: ‘Maybe there’s something at the bottom of the whirlpool, why not leave the false security of the surface? And if that frightens you, hold on to the hand of this old man … he will dive as deep with you as you want to.’

W.B. Yeats’s immortal lines come to mind: ‘Had I the heavens’ embroidered clothes…/ I would spread the cloths under your feet / But I being poor have only my dreams…’ Had I the words, were I a poet, I would have composed a poem for Gulzar-ji’s birthday. But I am not, and I have only prayers in gratitude for what I have been blessed with. I would rather let Buddhadev Bose’s homage to Tagore do the work for me: ‘Your words have I received within me / and so I am not afraid, and know that life will win.’

Thank you for the words, Gulzar-ji, thank you for the memories.

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