The book thief

Gulzar has an old connect with Rabindranath Tagore. The poet-filmmaker — and now Tagore translator — tells Upala Sen that it all started with a book that he stole from a library in Delhi

  • Published 17.04.16
Gulzar at the book launch
Pic: Anindya Shankar Ray

''Bengalis have been too possessive about Tagore," says Gulzar, with a bit of steel in his otherwise velvety baritone. "They have not let his works flourish outside Bengal. My ambition is that Tagore should reach everybody in India," he says, settling down at a corner table in the coffee shop of a five-star hotel.

The author, poet and filmmaker was in Calcutta for the launch of his translations of Rabindranath Tagore, titled Baaghbaan - The Gardener and Nindiya Chor - The Crescent Moon.

The first is a collection of poems such as Atithi (Mehman), Kobir Boyesh (Aankhbat) and Dui Bon (Do Behne), while the second draws from Shishu. "The compilation reflects my own emotional experience. I am not going to psychoanalyse it. There were suggestions from others, but whatever my psyche is attracted to, is in here," he says.

Gulzar's Bengal connect, it seems, began with Tagore. He writes in the Translator's Note to Baaghbaan, how an Urdu translation of Tagore's poems from The Gardener, borrowed from a library in Delhi, was the very first book he "stole". I tell him I am intrigued by his confessions of being a book thief, and repeat my father's take that in the pre-Flipkart days, "flick art" was the mantra of litterateurs.

He laughs till his eyes disappear behind his glasses. "Yes. I have stolen books. Most of them during my school days from my elder brother's bookshelf. Books of Urdu poetry, romantic poetry, the kind they (elders of the family) thought I was not old enough to read. Some of these are still with me."

What was it about The Gardener that drew a 10-year-old boy to Tagore? An image? A line? Or was it just a good translation? He takes the last question first.

"Not at all," he says with as much vehemence as his gentle demeanour will permit. "Of course, I realise that now. At that time something about the work clicked emotionally. Something remained." I can see, wordsmith that he is, he is wracking his brain for the right word fit, and so I wait. And he continues.

"I had to sleep in the shop (run by his family) at night, away from my siblings. I would go home during the day to eat and shower, but I had to be back in the shop at night. I think it made me slightly lonely. At that time I didn't analyse, I couldn't. But I think the poems from The Gardener with their tint of loneliness resonated with me."

That accidental introduction to the poem not only led him to more of Tagore in the coming days, but also to Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and the bigger world of Bengali literature. "My choice of literature became better with that."

Another thing happened to him - "Bangla kept on pouring into me."

Poet’s poet: Gulzar’s translations of Tagore 

At school in Delhi, he explains, he had a host of Bengali friends. "So there was constant aanaa jaana. I remember they would tease my younger brother Lochhan, saying 'Lochhe, daal bhaat khachche.' Now when I look back, I realise it was this subconscious fascination with the language that kept growing," he says.

Later, as a young man at the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), Gulzar met more Bengalis - including director Basu Bhattacharya and musician Salil Chowdhury.

"When I look back, my first films were all with Bengali directors. Much later, I worked with my first non-Bengali director, Harnam Singh Rawail, for Sunghursh (1968). But once again there was a Bengali connect; it was based on the short story, Layli Asmaner Ayna, by Mahasweta Devi."

The outsider-insider position equipped Gulzar with just enough know-how about the "culture of a language", which he stresses is crucial to translation.

But in literary circles, isn't translation considered low art?

"I don't agree. I have done it with a lot of devotion. I also learnt Marathi and knowing Marathi culture, I translated [Arun] Kolatkar with a lot of care. I don't think anyone has translated his works like I have. The main thing is the sense of sharing."

The two new volumes comprising 60 poems have been underway since 2010. "It was not continuous work. But yes, you can say it took me five years. I did not want to miss any line, distort any image," says Gulzar, while stressing that he can read Bengali.

But surely, translator poets also need some elbow room, some poetic licence? Gulzar picks up Nindiya Chor to show me something, and watching him, book in hand, I cannot resist asking him if he uses reading devices. He looks up for a split second, "No. The printed word seeps more into me," and returns to the pages, rhythm undisturbed.

"See, how we have arranged the poems," he says. Every poem appears in all three languages. First is the original poem in Bengali, next is Gulzar's Hindi translation and finally, there is the English version by Tagore himself.

Gulzar says the decision to keep all versions was deliberate. "I have kept the Bangla original. I wanted to tell the readers that Tagore had been unkind to his own poems, the way he translated (his original works), edited them mercilessly. I wanted to tell the readers, when you want to know Tagore, don't go to him through his English translations. To compress a line of Tagore's original would be to maim his poetry."

Gulzar emphasises it was the same attention to essence that prompted him to maintain the same metre and the choice of language - Hindustani, instead of Urdu. "The colloquial strength of Hindustani was crucial." Sample this stanza from Lekhak (Shamalochok): Baba baithe pustak likhte rehte hai, khud hi/Kya likhte hai mere to kuchh palle nahin padta/Us din padh ke suna rahe the tumko - Ma/Ma sach kehna, kya kuch samjhi tum/Ye sab likhne se aakhir, kya milta hai?

I point out that the handsome and bulky volumes (published by Harper Perennial) might be suitable for an adult audience, but Nindiya Chor needs a child-friendly avatar. "Of course, of course. All that will happen. This is just the beginning," replies the book thief.