Culture & Society

The Mona Lisa Effect In Gulzar’s Writings On Soil And Society

‘The Moonsmith Gulzar’ by Shailja Chandra revolves around Gulzar’s writings on some of the greatest themes of existence. It is a homage to the way he writes about the intricacies of our inner lives, the inextricable connection with nature, and the inexplicable dimensions of our existence such as god, time or death.

Shailja Chandra with Gulzar.

The Moonsmith Gulzar: Orbiting The Celebrated Words
By Shailja Chandra
Hawakal Publishers
pp. 152, Rs 450

The ability to share vulnerabilities lends Gulzar’s voice rare authenticity and persuasiveness. It bestows him with a rare authority to write on our shared existence, our Sanjha Rishta. 

Jab tak mere saamne waale ghar kii battii jaltii hai, us ghar kii saarii parchhaiya’n merii deewaar par paDti hai’n – hamaaraa rishtaa to waisaa hai….sanjhaa rishtaa hai!  (So long as the light is on in the house opposite, its shadows keep moving on the wall of my house– that’s the nature of our kinship... it is a shared bond.) 

In an interview, when the suggestion was made that his method for liberation rests in individuality, the anguish was evident in Gulzar’s voice: 

Kaise individuality? Individuality me kaise? Mai’n jalte shehar me baiTha shaayar iis se zyaadaa kare bhii kyaa? Jab wo kahta hai to wo poore shehar kii baat kar rahaa hai – to wo akela raastaa nahii’n Dhoond rahaa hai akele ke liye, wo poore samaaj kii baat kar rahaa hai”…”Khoon dekh kar Taap ke door ho jaataa hoo’n….nau-gyaarah kii gaadi pakadni hai…mai’n aisaa behis huaa hoo’n…” “mai’n apne akele kii baat to nahi’n kar rahaa hoo’n – mai’n us poore samaaj kii baat kar rahaa hoo’n, jise mai’n dekh rahaa hoo’n…” (Rajya Sabha TV, 2012) (How? How ‘in individuality’? What more can I, a poet in a burning town, do? When he expresses, he is alluding to the whole town – thus he is not seeking a path alone for himself, he is talking about the whole society…“On seeing blood, I leap over to distance myself….I have to catch the 9-11 train…that benumbed have I become.” So, I am not talking about myself only — I am talking about the whole society that I am observing.)

I had to rewind this part many times and the question that continued to spool on my mind was: Writing with intimacy and writing about the collective — are these mutually exclusive? On my way to Boskiyana in 2012, I knew that this must be on the top of my list — the topic of collective Vs. individual: 

Kyaa muktii akele nahi’n paayii jaa saktii? I ask him. Can one not get salvation on one’s own?

Hmm…akele bhii payii jaa saktii hai, aur aapke saath jo ju’D jaaye’n unhe’n bhii mil jaayegii. Hai’n naa? Haa’n…wo itnaa akelaa bhii nahi’n hai…itnaa akelaa bhii nahi’n hai.  (Hmm…one can, and those who join you will also get it. Isn’t it? Yes…one is not that alone…not that alone.)

Indeed, it is an intriguing paradox that the more intimacy and vulnerability Gulzar imbues his words with, the more universal and collective his voice becomes.

No, they are not mutually exclusive!

Khoon dekh kar Taap ke door ho jaataa hoo’n….
Nau-gyaarah kii gaaDi pakaDni hai…
mai’n aisaa behis huaa hoo’n

(“On seeing blood, I leap over to distance myself….
I have to catch the 9-11 train…
That benumbed have I become”).

A private, intimate reflection such as this is indeed the genesis of any meaningful kinship with the collective. Without perceiving the pain on a personal level, it is not possible to write authentically about the collective. Without this, only shallow pity or preaching can be expressed, not the sensibility and sentience these lines carry: 

kooe’n ke aas paas ab kuchh nahii’n hai 
zaraa se faasle par ik puraanaa ped jaamun kaa 
ab us par phal nahii’n aate



..wo to keh gaii thii, ke phir se louTegii 
mai’n chhoDe hue kooe’n kii maanind wahii’n Thehraa huaa hoo’n 
utarne lag gayaa hoo’n, khushk hotaa jaa rahaa hoo’n !

(Now, nothing is left around the well
Just a jamun tree, a little distance away,
That no longer fruits.
When she left she did say she would return
Like the abandoned well, I wait
Beginning to ebb
Shrivelling by the day.)

Only a native voice can be without shallow pity or preaching. Only a native voice can ennoble and dignify shared existence. Such a ‘native’ eternally dwells in Gulzar’s voice. 

Shailja Chandra with Gulzar. (Credit: Samit Chandra)

Lending Voice To The Unseen And The Unheard 

Autumn colours surround my street for several weeks between May and July. In those weeks, I find Gulzar’s imagery everywhere — on the auburn branches and the fallen ochre-bronze foliage. Not even the real living-breathing-falling leaves feel as alive, vibrant, and fecund as his words: 

Khizaan jhaaDan liye patte giraatii phir rahii hai kyoo’n, darakhto’n se
Khizaa’n ko kyaa huaa?
Wo bouraaii huii phirtii hai, jaise piile patto’n par 
likhii koi ibaarat hai,
MiTaanaa chaahtii hai…
(‘Green Poems’, p 106)
(With a duster in hand, why is autumn busy mopping up the leaves?
What has happened to it?
Crazy, it scurries around
As though there is something written on the yellow leaves 
Which it must erase!)

The autumn with a duster in hand and the ancestral jungles; the aged rivers and those rowdy clouds; the magician earth and September’s allergic sky; or February’s frost and the ageing tree at the crossroads — each of these spirited portrayals by Gulzar seem to carry nature’s own fecund life-energy and its healing and transformational capacity. 


His imagery, just like nature, is fresh, fertile, unbound — never stale. We feel as invigorated by his words as we feel amidst the mist of Sanobars or soaking in the sonorous sound of an exuberant dariya. 

Waqt ne apnaa rukh badlaa aur…
Parbat-parbat paa’nv rakhtaa neeche utraa
Raat kii god me shaam paDii thii
Dariyaa lipTaa huaa khaDaa tha peepal se
Aur pahaD ke seene par, pahlii-pahlii ghaas ugee thi!(Neglected Poems, p 30)

(And Time changed its course… 
Climbing down the mountains 
It descended
The dusk was lying in the lap of the night
The river was standing entwined with the peepal
And on the mountain’s chest the very first grass had sprouted!)

Dhundhle dhundhle ‘drawing book’ me’n bane hue kuchh 
charcoal ke khaake se,
Kohare me’n kirdaar ye pedo’n ke kitne achchhe lagte hai’n…

…‘R K Laxman’ ke cartoono’n ke kirdaar,
Shaayad ud kar jhaadiyo’n me’n jaa atke hai’n
Havaa kaa jho’nkaa chhootaa hai, to role badal jaate hai’nin kirdaaro’n ke
Poshaake’n badal kar louT aate hai’n (‘Green Poems’, p 28)

(Like the fading, hazy lines
Of charcoal portraits in a drawing book
How nice the profiles of these trees look in the fog.

Recalling the cartoons of R.K. Laxman,
Takes flight only to get stuck in the bushes.
A gust of wind can change the profile of these characters
They can return with a change in apparel).

I long to reach out and touch the maiden ground cover on the broad torso of that mountain and my time-constrained train journey to work is enlivened and deepened by meeting R.K. Laxman’s cartoons in the bushes of Lane Cove National Park... 


His anthropomorphic work is a truly distinctive and remarkable treatise for the collective. His imagery is not merely about humanising nature, trees, and valleys in charming, spirited characters. His intricate and piercing attention also unveils unseen-unheard-untouched dimensions of the many imperceptible phenomena of nature. And for this, his imagery feels whole, real! 

The qualities that truly separate Gulzar’s voice from other anthropomorphic works appear to be a result of the following: 

1) He can perceive nature’s cycles coinciding with the cycles of life, day, night; or how imperceptibly, subtly nature’s soul and body change with the cycles of seasonality:

Darakht sochte hai’n jab, to phool aate hai’n
Wo dhoop me Dubo ke ungliyaan
Khyaal likhte hai’n lachakti shakho’n par
To rang rang lafz chunte hai’n
Khushbuo’n se bolte hai’n aur bulaate hai’n …(‘Green Poems’, p 18)

(When trees pause to think, flowers bloom
Dipping their fingers in the sunshine
They write their thoughts on swaying branches
Picking their words in different hues of colour
They converse with fragrances and call us to them.)

2) He perceives not just the spirited state of the muted members of nature but in deep silence he also listens to the restless rustles and ripples of the trees and the rivers — touching the eternal truth and trust in the ancient laws of life that they stand for, tall and deep: 

Khiza’n darwaaze ke baahar khaDii thii
Abhii paushaak se pattaa koii udhDa nahi’n tha
Sunharii surkh hone lag gaye the zard patte
Sabhii ke kaan ‘Gautam Buddh’ jaise lambe lambe
Bas ik awaaz ke sab muntzir the
‘Chalo ab chhoDo shaakhe’n,
Tyaag do bandhan
Sabaa lekar nijaat ab aa rahii hai!! (‘Green Poems’, p 104)

(Autumn stood just outside the door
No leaf had as yet deserted the season’s apparel 
With yellowing leaves turning to burnished gold
Their ears were stretched long like that of Gautam Buddha
To hear that one call:
‘Come, leave those branches
Break your bonds
The wind is coming for your liberation!’)


3) He whispers to their vulnerabilities, scars, and their inner-most fears and turmoil when their flows collide with the growth cycles of the developing civilisation: 
Raat kii khamoshi me lekin Thimphu Chhu
Kuch jaap kiyaa kartii ho tum
Wo kyaa hai?
Saagar sangam kahtii ho yaa
Phente jaane se bachne kii —
Chupchaap duaaye’n kartii ko? (‘Green Poems’, p 26)

(In the silence of the night
There is something that you chant Thimphu Chhu
What is that?
Do you talk of your yearning to merge with the ocean 
Or quietly pray
That you be saved the prospect of being whipped?)

Can the pathos of the Thimpu Chuu River find a more poignant and persuasive voice than this, and Wadi-e-Kashmir?

Gulzar’s humanising portrayals have earned him a rare authenticity and authority to remind humanity to reinstate nature’s role as the tribal head, the eternal teacher, or as the ancient custodian of the truth and values — just like the reminder in these lines: 

Mere Sanobaar dekho 
kitne ooncheoonche qad hai’n unke
Tum se saat gunaa to ho’nge (shayad dus ya baarah guna hon’n)
Umre’n dekho uskii tum, 
kitnii badii hai’n (sadiyo’n zindaa rahte hai’n)
Kah dete ho kahne ko tum
Lekin apne bado’n kii izzat karte nahi’n tum
(Isliye tum logo’n ke qad…
itne chhote rah jaate hai’n) (‘Green Poems’, p 128)

(Look at my pines, how high they soar
They must be at least ten or twelve times your size
Look at their age, how much older they are
You say it for the sake of it
But, actually, you do not respect your elders!
That is why your sizes…remain so stunted.)

(An extract from ‘The Moonsmith Gulzar’ by Shailja Chandra, with permission from the author)

(All translations of the ‘Green Poems and Neglected Poems’ collection © Pavan K. Varma. The rest of the translations are by Shailja Chandra, a writer, radio broadcaster and sustainability practitioner based in Sydney, Australia. Twitter @ShailjaChandra)

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