He went to Chamba in Himachal Pradesh to listen to Dogri poetry. He called up friends for the right sound of a word in a particular language. He went through reams of poetry, in search of a collection. And now, after almost a decade, poet-lyricist Gulzar is ready with a compilation of the works of 272 poets writing in 32 Indian languages and dialects. The poems, translated into Hindustani by Gulzar, will come with an English version.

Gulzar has added a formidable array of books to the bibliophile’s shelves in the last eight or nine years. Not just volumes of poetry, but also a novella, Do Log , which he translated into English and published as Two . But all this while the poet, who can spin a song in the time it takes a butterfly to open its wings, was also working with quiet dedication on this weighty tome of poetry that not just brings to fore his talent as a translator, but also presents the genius of countless contemporary poets from across India. For the first time, perhaps, poets known and unknown cutting across languages will be brought between one set of covers. The volume is expected to be out in November.

“There are no borders in poetry and language,” Gulzar tells BL ink . So, along with the works of poets from India, the volume includes writings in Tamil in Sri Lanka, Bangla in Bangladesh and Urdu and Punjabi in Pakistan. “My fascination became my study,” the director-writer-poet says. Excerpts from the interview:

Do tell us something about the poetry compilation.

The volume will present 272 poets from 32 Indian languages in translation (into Hindustani and English).

It sounds like a mammoth project. When and how did it start?

I think I started it some eight or nine years ago. And I have been steadily working on it, in between other work. Of course, there were gaps.

It started when [editor VK] Karthika was still with HarperCollins. She floated the thought, suggesting that we compile a book that would offer a poem a day. It was a good idea, but I baulked at the idea of only choosing poems in English. To me, that looked like an editor’s job — there was no creativity in it. There was also nothing new in it for the reader, besides the concept of having a new poem for each day of the year. I said, “Let me think about it.” A year passed. Then she asked me again. That was when I said, “Let us give a poem from all the languages of India.”

But there are already many translations of well-known poets writing in Indian languages.

Yes, I realised that. We would again be translating textbook poets — Ghalib, Tagore and so on. So I said, “Let us find contemporary poets, though it would be a difficult task.”

Wow! What an assignment to give yourself. How and where does one even begin to find the poets?

Being in the Sahitya Akademi, I did know quite a few poets — Jayanta Mahapatra, Sitakant Mahapatra, Sunil Gangopadhyay, to name a few. There were many poets. That is when I decided to scan only the poetry I had been exposed to in my life.

I started by scanning old issues of Sahitya Akademi journals. AJ Thomas, editor of Indian Literature , the Sahitya Akademi’s bi-monthly journal, helped me immensely at this point.

It must have been fascinating...

It was. The poetry of India can be truly known only through scanning the poetry of all languages. I was so fascinated by the task, and by what was opening up to me in the work I was reading, that even the fact that the publishing industry was going through changes did not deter me. When Karthika left HarperCollins and did not let on what her next move was going to be, I wondered if the project was off. It could well have been. But I could not stop. I continued, telling myself, koi toh publisher dhoond lenge (We will find some publisher).

I was riding the social waves that had washed over the country since 1947, trying to discover what happened in which language. In the process I found many languages without scripts of their own, with poetry written in the scripts of nearby languages. That is how I ended up with 32 languages!

Could you share some examples with us?

Languages in the North-East, for example. I found the poetry very dynamic, because life there is so complex, and the poets articulate that. Or tribal dialects. My fascination became my study.

It must have taken up all your time...

Quite a bit. But in the middle of all this, I also translated Tagore’s poems from the original. Not from his own English translations, which I believe are actually improvisations, a twin to the original poem, but from his originals in Bangla. Tagore was too creative a poet to be a mere translator; he created new poems in the process. I had read him in Bangla, and wanted to capture the ras (essence).

Meanwhile, I was told that HarperCollins was still interested in the larger poetry project. So I started working even more earnestly. I want to say here that I acknowledge the CEO Anant Padmanabhan for his courage in publishing such books, as well as publisher Udayan Mitra, for his dedication and work on the book.

So all the poets are from India and write in Indian languages?

There are no borders in poetry and language. So, along with poets from Gujarat, Punjab, Kerala, Goa, Odisha and others, I have also included poets writing in Tamil in Sri Lanka, Bangla in Bangladesh and Urdu and Punjabi in Pakistan. Then there are tribal poets from Gujarat and MP and elsewhere too.

How do you work it out with the poet?

If the poet is available, I get in touch and discuss the work with him or her. I can manage in six languages — Marathi and Gujarati, in addition to Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and Bangla. For the South Indian languages, I take the help of [Malayalam-English poet] K Satchidanandan and get the sounds right, understand the meaning and rhythm, and then translate.

I follow a similar pattern with the dialects and other languages. There is a lot of back-and-forth, many stages of comprehension, understanding and work.

Actually, I have become a headache to writer friends who know their language well. I am constantly asking them for names and meanings... But one has to depend on friends to help find important poets and poems.

So, many of the poets came as recommendations? And you made your choice.

It did not always work, though. Padma Sachdev, a fine poet herself, suggested some poets in Dogri. I did not like their work, so I roamed around Chamba listening to poets, and found the ones I wanted to include.

Will the book have all the original scripts too?

That is not possible. Perhaps it can be done for the online version. The book will have an English version and my Hindustani version of every poem.

Who is doing the translation from the original into English?

Either the poet provides it, or I get it done and get it approved [by the poet]. And, yes, the volume includes Indian poets writing in English, too.

Who is the reader you have in mind for this book?

Anybody who likes poetry, words, language. My choice of poems is not highbrow. I am presenting the poetry I passed through in the process... in my journey... of becoming a poet.

Is the manuscript done then?

I have completed it; it is with the publishers. I stopped looking for poems in 2017 — that was my cut-off line. Then a stray poem which was too beautiful to miss out was added. Like when I found one by Mamta Kalia, a prose writer whose poem just could not be left out. I think the book will be out in November this year.

You must be really happy...

Working on these poems, Tagore’s translations — all this is for my own learning. But I am not working as much with children. I need to write more for Samay, my grandson, and children of his age. When Bosky [his and actor Raakhee’s film-maker daughter] was growing up, my books for her kept pace with her age till she reached her teens. Now I need to continue the series I started for Samay. My last book was Samay ka Khatola (Samay’s cradle). I need to do the next one.


Small print: The poet-lyricist wants to write more often for his grandson Samay and other children of his age


What will it be about?

I have asked Scholastic, who publish my children’s books, to get 25 questions kids want to ask me. Instead of my telling them things, I want to address their questions. “Why do you wear white instead of a striped jersey”, things like that; (I want to) be a child among children. Of course, the answers will be in a poem form. Children love poems.

Surely there is more...

In a way, yes. [Writer] Rakshanda Jalil is translating the poems in that huge, black volume on that shelf [points to it]. It is a collection of my poems published in Pakistan, in Urdu. The title is Balu Par Sare , you can call it Fur and Feather All in English. It is a huge 700-page job and she should be done by next year. I am looking forward to it.

Sathya Saran i s a journalist and editor based in Mumbai