It was 10 minutes to 10 on a clear Sunday morning. I sat on the sun-drenched lawns of Hotel Crowne Plaza, Bangalore, looking forward to a morning of poetry on the last day of the Bangalore Literature Festival.
Enjoying the breeze on my face, I began reading while waiting for the poets to come on the stageAbruptly, I saw a flash of white in front of my eyes, and looked up. Even before I could adjust my vision, Gulzar sahab sat beside me, reproaching a bunch of people who wanted to accord him a special seat by the stage. “ Mujhe akela chhod deejiye ,” said the baritone. “I am fine here.” For those initial few seconds, I am not sure what happened. Perhaps my eager heart stopped beating. Perhaps a shy smile escaped through my parted lips.
His trademark starched white kurtacomplemented his shiny golden joothi . As he lowered himself on the chair, I sprang up to stand. ‘Aaj kal paaon zameen par nahi padte mere…’ his song filled my ears. Returning his smile, I sat down gingerly, unsure of what to do. Gulzar sahab was the man who had shaped my idea of romance. His words were my company on many a lonely night. And most of all, he effortlessly expressed my repressed thoughts and proclaimed them to the world. And here he was, sitting beside me, a serene smile on his face.
Before I sorted out my thoughts, a swarm of people engulfed him and he got busy signing books, posing for pictures and nodding at the compliments being liberally showered on him. The din, strangely, didn’t disturb me. If it was a film sequence, I would have sung ‘ye lamha filhaal jee lene de’.
But reality didn’t stop me from scanning his personality with my eyes — polite, considerate and fiercely individualistic. He asked for the mob around him to dissipate, as four poets took their seats on the stage. He wanted to listen to the poems and he requested them to return after the session was over. That was that. They were all gone. Now, it was just a besotted me, a beaming Gulzar sahab and blissful poetry.
Nabaneeta Dev Sen, began reciting in Bangla. Gulzar sahab , who is fluent in Bangla, seemed to enjoy its intricacies. I waited patiently for her to read its English translation. Next, the Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi took the microphone. For the next 15 minutes, Gulzar sahab and I blurted out spontaneous wah wahand kya baat hai almost in unison. Just as Vajpeyi was about to finish, Gulzar sahab asked him to repeat the last few lines. When the poet complied, I felt Gulzar sahab jump out of his chair in appreciation. The passion of poetry is so potent that it can make you forget who you are and where you are. Then K. Satchidanandan, the Malayali poet, held our attention with a few of his poems before leaving the stage.
“I request the moderator, Mamta Sagar to recite her poetry,” Gulzar sahab shouted from where he sat. Slightly shy and taken aback at the beckoning, Kannada poet Mamta Sagar took the audience by storm when she began dramatic recitations of her poems on rain and sea. Gulzar sahab visibly enjoyed this, even though he didn’t understand the language. “She is brilliant, isn’t she?” he asked me, after Sagar read out the English translations. I nodded, thankful that people like him inhabit this earth, who understand (and generously contribute to) the value of poetry in a world overwhelmed by commerce.
At the end of the session, when Gulzar sahab rose to leave, I knew this was an experience I would cherish for years to come. A voice within told me that I knew this grey-haired man in big spectacles that made his eyes look smaller than they are. I didn’t need his picture or autograph or to shake his hand. I took back his voice in my ears, his face in my eyes and his memory in mine.
This was originally published in The Hindu (6th October 2013)