Echoes of Partition in Gulzar’s Poetry

by Dr. Vaishali Sharma

On the occasion of Gulzar Saab’s birthday, we delve into the poignant works of the versatile lyricist, poet, screenwriter, and director. In the pages of “Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition” we traverse his poetry and short stories, as Gulzar’s artistry reflects his personal connection with the Partition – an event that reshaped his life and turned his homeland into an estranged terrain. Born in the part of undivided Punjab that now belongs to Pakistan, Gulzar’s journey to Mumbai was spurred by the upheaval of Partition, which displaced his family and disrupted his education. Amid his strides in the film industry, he persisted in crafting poetry in Urdu and Punjabi.

In the early years, channeling the Partition’s horrors into the realm of Hindi cinema was a formidable challenge. The cinematic landscape of that era largely focused on providing an escape from real-world politics. The obstacles faced by M.S. Sathyu’s “Garm Hawa” (1973), which required Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s intervention for certification, discouraged commercial filmmakers from delving into this recent and traumatic history. It wasn’t until the 1990s that mainstream Hindi cinema began addressing the Partition.

Gulzar found his solace in writing outside the confines of cinema. Partition permeated his poetry and even found resonance in his novel, excerpts from which reflect the essence of his emotions. His verses captured the sorrow of estrangement and the optimism of belonging to a tribe of artists who defied political boundaries. He masterfully played with the notions of sight and understanding, juxtaposing the closed eyes that revealed the true essence against the bureaucratic borders that separated nations.

आंखोंको वीजा नहीं लगता,
सपनों की सरहद नहीं होती,
बंद आंखों से चला जाता हूं सरहद पार
मेहंदी हसन से मिलने

Excerpt from Aakhon Ko Visa Nahi Lagta

The poem “Karachi” contrasted the political discourse with the cultural commonalities between India and Pakistan. Through symbols like birds soaring above man-made boundaries, Gulzar highlighted shared experiences. He evoked the irony of vultures, representing divisive politics, inadvertently fostering a shared humanity that transcended their divisive designs.

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 urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil

The collection “Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition” doesn’t merely include poetry but also compelling short stories that delve into political and communal turbulence. One story, “Khauf” (Fear), exposes the terror that divides individuals during communal unrest. Another, “Raavi Paar,” uses the river Ravi’s transformation from a bridge to a barrier to symbolize the upheaval of mass migration.

Gulzar’s works offer glimpses into the deep scars the Partition left on the subcontinent’s collective memory. This anthology serves as a bittersweet reminder of the pain, despair, and hope that resonates through his words, offering solace and resonating with the unhealed longing that persists. As Gulzar pens in “If Possible…,” his writings stand as a testimony to the indelible impact of the Partition on lives and art.

It is still my motherland but it isn’t my country anymore
To go there, I have to visit many office of the two governments
Get my face stamped and provide proof of my dreams

Dr. Vaishali Sharma

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