#DesiBooksReview 4: Seventy-plus Years Later, Gulzar is Still Watching the Trail of Partition

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Suswati Basu is a journalist and literary specialist, running the How To Be… podcast to promote reading for self-care. Click through for the full bio and contributions.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 4

Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition by Gulzar | HarperCollins India | July 02, 2018

Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition by Gulzar

With a vast body of work spanning various media over decades, Gulzar is a household name in India and beyond for his romantic song lyrics, haunting poetry, groundbreaking screenplays, TV and film direction, and more. With Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition, a collection of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction on the Partition, the virtuoso artist has joined countless other writers in exploring personal and communal histories. Several of the stories here have appeared in other collections like Raavi Paar, but this is the first time they have been assembled thematically in a single volume. For the acclaimed author and screenwriter, “Time has not been able to blow off the footprints.” This is clear in his evocative prose as he moves between being a survivor and narrator, clinging to a past that has left him psychologically and physically displaced. The effects have been felt decades later when he was startled into confronting that past, came to terms with his own nationalistic hubris, and witnessed new levels of the divisiveness that still plagues the region.

Known for his six-decade award-winning movie and music career, Gulzar’s writings suggest a far humbler beginning, where he wrote on the walls of Dina in Pakistan “with a piece of coal.” Dina, a city in the Jhelum District of Punjab province of Pakistan, is one of the oldest towns in the region, and one of the border areas of India. Following the 1947 Partition, Gulzar and his family, along with millions of others, were forced to settle across the frontier. But it is in Dina, to which this collection is dedicated, that we see the origins of Sampooran Singh Kalra, as he was known then, and his desperate bid to find solace back in his childhood home through faint recollections and meandering dreams. 

The first poem, ‘Zero Line’, describes the international boundary that separates India and Pakistan at the Wagah border. The lyricist states that his body still belongs to the other side despite leaving the country at the age of eight. After all, “dreams have no borders.” He describes how, standing at that ‘Zero Line’ on the Indian side, his shadow falls in Pakistan. And that shadow “whispers from behind me, / “When you give up this body / Come back to your home / Your birthplace, your motherland.”‘ From the games that he played as a young boy such as stapoo, to kisses that he stole as a six-year-old with his sweetheart, Dina is the place where time has stood still for Gulzar.

Many of his flashbacks are based on youthful play, such as dhaiyya chhoona, when a predetermined spot has to be reached and the player has to touch that spot before running back. It is hardly surprising that the lens through which he remembers his past life makes it appear, as he asserts, like a “silent film” in itself. But there is something unsatisfactory about his experience of returning to that same place seventy years later in 2013. He calls it “desolate” with “only a whiff” of his former life remaining. The sense of disappointment is palpable as the 88-year-old writes, “The millstone of Time goes around only once / Grinding everything fine in that one cycle.” Especially as he mentions in the poem, ‘If Possible…’, that even though Pakistan had been his motherland, it was no longer his country due to the endless bureaucracy of having to provide proof of belonging in the form of visas.

As the book continues, we see a young Gulzar become increasingly untethered and disconnected from that motherland when he recounts the first deaths at the border and the moment when he understood they were refugees, escaping their home amid blood, fire, and smoke. The loss of childhood is reflected in the separation of family, leaving him with only a couple of small toys as glimmers of his former existence. In ‘Bullet’, the Mumbai-based filmmaker describes the violence of a gun wound with cinematic precision: “And the blood splattered on the wall / as though someone had spat a mouthful of paan.” We see a turning point in his innocence and experience, and how the Partition has been tormenting him throughout these decades. 

From the magic of “sunlight / Pouring through the iron grille on the roof” all day long, to “Kites [hovering] over corpses,” the prose shifts to a much darker tone early in the book, perhaps because the author was only a child when the violence began. In the poem, ‘Silence at the Border’, it is in the silence that we hear his despair and his endeavor to peel back the layers of those long-held traumas. He attempts to make sense of the situation, questioning, “Why is everything so still at the border / I am scared of this frozen silence,” because he believes that all Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims share the same sky and belong together. This is certainly relevant to India’s current unyielding stance on the border situation with Pakistan, with tensions being further intensified by political and religious ideologies. At the personal level, however, we see the opposite in Zero Line, where people of all faiths are collectively trying to find a place of belonging.

What makes Gulzar’s verses particularly moving is that he has the benefit of hindsight and the ability to introspect deeply, as mentioned by Rakhshanda Jalil in her ‘Translator’s Note’, however much his consciousness may have transformed and memories waned over the years. While most children have limited language for expressing complex trauma experiences, it is easy to be transported by Gulzar’s own version of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. We see him searching for clarity even though the country itself has struggled to move forward. As Hindu nationalism becomes entrenched in modern-day India, the possibilities of any meaningful dialogue look increasingly bleak. Perhaps works like this one by Gulzar might help open up some alternative conversations about the situation.

Careful to stay true to the original Urdu, Jalil writes that, when you reach the core of Gulzar’s poetry, you can feel its “rawness and its allure in a way that is almost tactile.” One example is her use of the word ‘Punni’ in the first poem, Gulzar’s nickname given by his father, where she chooses not to translate this endearing term. However, certain changes have been made to a few titles like ‘Bullet’ and ‘Millstone’ for a greater impact on the English reader. Both poems had been titled after their first lines in the original. Also, notably, the original poems, in the Devanagari script, have been included alongside for the bilingual reader’s pleasure.

Jalil also mentions in her note that Zero Line addresses how the events of 1947 “continue to affect our lives to this day.” This is especially true in the story ‘Partition’, where Gulzar is bizarrely confronted in the 1980s by a man, Sardar Harbhajan Singh, who claims that the author is his long-lost son separated during the Partition. The family is convinced that he is the youngest progeny, despite his insistence otherwise. When Singh dies, however, Gulzar feels “as though I had indeed lost my Daar-ji.” This shows, again, how the Partition was a continued state of existence even decades later, with some families still searching for answers to this day.

In the appropriately titled story ‘Search’, the writer finds himself on the opposite side of the ideological divide during a visit to Kashmir as a Hindustan Times reporter, when he realizes his own arrogance in assuming Kashmir belonged to him and to India. It is a story that most are familiar with, given the violence in the region. Gulzar writes: “I sat there, covering my face with my palms. Never before had I felt so ashamed of being an Indian,” as he describes locals claiming Indian soldiers had turned the grass from green to red with their ongoing killings of young local men. As we know, things have only gotten worse from India’s unilateral decision in 2019 to rescind the special autonomous status of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. With the ruling parties of India and Pakistan holding fast to their opposing positions, bilateral ties between the countries have continued to deteriorate, creating the deepest impasse ever between the countries than even Gulzar might have seen in his long, storied existence.

 ‘Kuldip Nayar and Pir Sahab’ has a similar sense of despondency but it presents a cross-border story of hope and shared belonging. Nayar had been an Indian journalist, human rights activist, author, and former High Commissioner of India to the United Kingdom. His family originated from Sialkot, Pakistan. Pir Sahab, a dead holy man, had been a kind of guardian angel who brought Nayar back to the border every year to celebrate his connection to the other side. In this, as with some other such experiences, Gulzar reveals how, as a community, they had never experienced tension, much less communal riots.

Gulzar was only thirteen when he had to leave Pakistan for India. Yet, his writing on the Partition goes beyond a need for catharsis from unhealed wounds. More than anything, Footprints on Zero Line shows us a world that is largely unchanged—mired in a brutal past or tracking through the same old battlefields.

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Website | Bylines

Suswati Basu is a journalist and literary specialist, running the How To Be… podcast to promote reading for self-care. Click through for the full bio and contributions.