They go to die there, where there is lifeby HUMRA QURAISHI July 31 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 37 secs
Humra Quraishi veers to the bard, Gulzar’s verse written by him in the times of the pandemic.
Come August and it’s Gulzar saab’s birthday. Born on 18 August 1934 in the Undivided Punjab, he’s going strong. That grace, attractive-poetic-romantic look hasn’t ebbed. He looks and converses like a gentle shayar.
Everything is so different about Gulzar saab, that it’s difficult to describe him in a few lines. It’s not just the way he dresses so elegantly in the white cotton kurta-pyjama, but the manner in which he observes the happenings before documenting them in prose, lyrics or verse.
Gulzar saab’s prose and verse focusing on the partition of India are hard hitting to such an extent that till date the pain and turbulence can be felt when reading his works. He witnessed the time of partition and experienced upheavals, and the impact and imprints they’d left on him is writ large in his writings; that pain seeps into each one of those words.
Just before sitting down to write this column I re-read one of Gulzar saab’s earlier published volumes, Footprints on Zero Line-Writings On The Partition (Harper Collins), which he has dedicated to his birthplace in Pakistan, Dina. He dwells on Dina, and also on the masses going through turmoil. To quote him, “I have witnessed the Partition. I have experienced the Partition. Standing on Zero Line I am still watching the trail of Partition. Seventy years have passed. Time has not been able to blow off the footprints. I don’t know how long it will take for them to sink into history and be the past.”
Tucked in this volume is his very touching verse:
Walking up to Wagah with measured steps/When I came to stand at the Zero line/My shadow fell in Pakistan!/The sun was behind me/And my abbu was standing in front/He saw me/Resting his stick on the ground/He smiled and said,/‘When I had left my body there/I came back home, Punni!’/Abbu used to call me ‘Punni.’/‘I had hoped you would come,/For you had not received the news of my death/I knew you would come to bid me farewell!’/Startled, the moment paused/He tapped the ground with his stick/Stretching his hand, he said:/‘Come, let us go to Dina!’/My friends who had come to receive me at Wagah/Held me by the hand and took me to Lahore/In the din of the city no voices came back to me/But I could see a trail of silence/That led to Dina…
And now comes the latest from Gulzar saab. In fact, during this entire lockdown he has been writing prose and also verse. In fact, the latest issue of the Indian Literature carries three poems of Gulzar saab - Migrants, COVID-19, A Death in COVID-19, A Day In Lockdown, and also one of his short stories, Online, on the Coronavirus times we are trying to survive.
I spoke to Gulzar saab earlier this month to get his permission to quote his verse in my column and he agreed and then gently added that I must make sure to mention the name of the translator of his works, Rakhshanda Jalil. She is one of our finest translators and has translated his recent writings, from Urdu to English. Though I’m tempted to quote a paragraph from his short story, more so as he uses real names of well-known characters from real life, but space constraints come in the way. So I’ll write here Gulzar saab’s verse instead - his verse titled, ‘Migrants, COVID-19’:
The pandemic raged/The workers and labourers fled to their homes/All the machines ground to a halt in the cities/Their hands and feet moved with the machines/For, they had planted their lives back in the villages/The acre or two of land, or perhaps five acres/The sowing and harvesting were all back there/Jowar, wheat, corn, bajra - all of it/Those divisions with the cousins and brothers/Those fights at the canals and waterways/The strongmen, sometimes from their side and sometimes from this/The lawsuits dating back to grandparents and grand uncles/Engagements, marriages, fields/Famine, flood, fear: will the skies rain or not?/They will go to die there - where there is life/Here, they have only brought their bodies and plugged them in!/They pulled out the plugs/‘Come let’s go home’ - and they set off/They will go to die there - where there is life!
And another of his verses titled: A Death in COVID-19
Coronavirus had caught hold of him/He was in the General Ward/The window was in the wall near him/Like in the Allan Seager story/From where he could watch his village all day long/The road going towards his village/The bus racing own the road in the evening’s glow/Trailing a cloud of red dust/Like a Spiderman/His house was in the village Beechak, zila Palamon/Only two capsules/A bottle of water/Half-sucked lime - This was all the wealth he left behind and moved on!
Moving on from Gulzar Saab, and before I take your leave, I’ll share with you the experience of meeting a young attractive person, the Delhi based social activist, Yusra Khan, who has been working with street children and also for all those from the disadvantaged groups. Her outreach programs have been expanding as many more children are being affected in these Coronavirus times.
Although these times have been challenging for Yusra and her team at Yellow Streets, there’s no stopping her from reaching out. In fact, all through the summer when the virus peaked, she and her team not just fed the hungry but even distributed rations for families and reached out to the virus affected with medicine and oxygen cylinders. And when I asked her what got her to undertake this task, she told me that seeing the rising numbers of children and teenagers from disadvantaged segments, she made sure she reached out to them by involving them in vocational and recreational activities and also providing them with the basic skills. Today she is involved with her work to such an extent that there have not been any halts, even when she was faced with personal tragedies.