Tuesday, June 28, 2011

When Gulzar meets Eliot: Poets in the shadow of urban angst

I take a line from Thomas Stearns Eliot, and remark, casually in Tweet that his lines are Gulzaresque. Friend wants me to explain. I have no real clue. Just the imagery, I suppose. At least initially. Here is that line.

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.

Those lines are clearly Gulzaresque to me, but I had no easy answer. And hours later, something stirred within, as this song started playing in the head.

It kind of fell into place.

"Ek Akela Is Shahr mein" -- on a lonely man in the city, an angst-ridden song. Bhupendra's gravitas-laden, somewhat muffled voice, giving a sombre shape to Gulzar's lyrics.

So I look at the first lines of the same poem by Eliot ( The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock). I have read and admired snatches of this poem before, but never really asked myself why, apart from being taken in by the sheer dexterity of the expression and the feelings embedded.

And so it begins.

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets.

I now look at the lyrics of Gulzar's song for the film "Gharonda" -- an arthouse film about a couple's anxious search for a home of their own in Big Bad Bombay.

Din khaali khaali bartan hai, aur raat hai jaise andha kuan
in soonee andheree aakhon mein, aansu ki jagah aataa hain dhuan

(The day seems like an empty vessel/And the night like a bottomless well
In these vacant, dark eyes/In the place of tears out comes smoke)

So I look at Eliot's lines again.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

The imagery is stark. You can feel the city. And Eliot, suddenly, with his American accent, is kind of telling you, "Ek Akela Is Shahr Mein."

In umr se lambi sadkon ko, manzil pe pahunchte dekha nahi
bas daudte firte rahati hain, hum ne to thhaharte dekhaa nahi
is ajnabi se shahar mein, jana pahchana dhoondhta hai

(In these streets long as life/one's never seen destinations reached
they meander and run for ever/one's never seen them pause
In this stranger of a city/one looks for the comfort of the familiar)

So here is Eliot, in the same poem again.

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

Streets that flow like an argument -- Eliot

Street long as life - Gulzar.

Sounds familiar?

And then Eliot goes..
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

By now, I am certain that Mr. Prufrock is the Akela in the Shahr. And I look at the "mukhda" --the starting refrain -- of Gulzar's lyrics.

Ek akela is shahar mein, raat mein aaur dopahar mein
Abodaanaa dhoondhta hai, ashiyana dhoondhta hai

(A loner walks in this city/At night, and in the afternoon
Searching for morsels to munch/And a sanctuary to rest)

I now see the imagery of a day, snatches of urban angst, and loneliness gripping the London-influenced Eliot and Bombay-honed Gulzar intertwining with full force as I read these lines.

For I have known them all already, known them all:--
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

Then Gulzar goes:

Jeene kee wajah toh koi nahee, marne kaa bahana dhoondhta hai

(There is no reason to live/And one looks for an excuse to die)

If there is any doubt left in me, it is cleared by the following passage in an introductory remark on the Eliot poem, published here.
"The poem displays several levels of irony, the most important of which grows out of the vain, weak man's insights into his sterile life and his lack of will to change that life. The poem is replete with images of enervation and paralysis, such as the evening described as "etherized," immobile"

And I realise the immense commonality of two poets in urban angst -- continents and languages apart and separated by three quarters of a century.


  1. superlative... double whammy of two ABSOLUTE favorites...

  2. though Gulzar is the only reason I fell in love with words, and yet the question stings.. "what if he was too inspired by Eliot."
    Possible and yet not..

  3. Very well-explained. A wonderful read. Gulzar might be inspired by T S Eliot. Or it might be the similarity of angst they went through which brought commonality in their writings. Two different persons, of course, may think and feel alike! ~Nur

  4. awesome! I'm a HUGE Gulzar fan (even have a blog dedicated to him), but thanks for re-introducing me to Eliot. :)

  5. Great blog post, Sir. The analysis is superlative but the way to stitched your thoughts is no less.

  6. Love the song & Gulzar's poetry.The analysis appears to be quite imaginative & good.

  7. How fun! It's cool that you saw it that way. Though I think everything actually connects with everything else if we only look. But this is well-done. And you have done so much justice to the translations too. I love them both. This made me happy.

  8. The fun part is that Gulzar, in a recent interview, has attributed a phrase in his opening nazm to his legendary serial "Mirza Ghalib" to Eliot's "streets that follow like tedious arguments". He has been an avid reader and has also been very transparent in mentioning his influences. Khusro (zeehal-o-miskin), Ghalib (fursat ke raat din) and now Eliot! I think he immortalizes a few phrases and that is his way to pay obeisance to some greats! Nice post this, sort of completes a circle for me! :)

    1. I agree.. Shahshank. The interview was something that struck me as well when I read this piece. In fact I probed a little more and the nature of poetry that Eliot wrote borrowing and juxtaposing images of daily life with the a deeper meaning is evident in most modern and contemporary poetry. Gulzar sahab was equally influenced by this, not because it was a method adopted by Eliot but more so because such images helped the poet to shake the reader of the complacence of his regular vision. Such imagery's lend a kind of meta physical element which was more pronounced in the poetry of Donne and Marvel. So when Gulzar Sahab writes in a song from 'Kameenay' - "Humney Gilhari ke Jhoothey Matar khaye the," I cannot help, but draw a parallel with Donne's "The Flea," where the latter speaks of being united in love because both the lovers have been botten by the same flea. Incidentally Eliot also speaks highly of the metaphysical poets. Contemporary era requires this treatment and I would not be surprised if we can draw many more such instances in Gulzar's poetry. :)

  9. @shashank - Just noticed your comment...had never realised Gulzar's open acknowledgement when I wrote this piece.