On a Sunday morning in New Delhi, across the spring expanse of Lodi Gardens, I am about to meet Gulzar at the India International Centre. I am early to the interview, and in the time that I have before I see him and the editor of his latest collection of poetry, Pluto, a little bit of my equanimity is shaken away.

It has been replaced by a sense of wonder transmitted to me over the phone from my mother, who is a lifelong fan of the legendary poet, lyricist, and filmmaker. It seems apt, because this is the kind of near-reverence he evokes from millions of Indians, from my mother’s generation, and mine. As I walk in to see him, I feel connected to all the people who have also loved songs he has written.

Gulzar himself, radiating peace and affection, quickly puts any lingering nervousness to rest. He requests in a deep baritone voice that we sit outside in the gentle sunshine, and answers my questions with cheerfulness and great energy. During the course of our conversation, he laughs often, quotes lines and lines from Urdu poetry, and turns sombre when struck with a particularly troubling thought, such as the subject matter of his poem on farmer suicides.

It’s clear that he is deeply excited by Pluto, which is a unique collection for several reasons. For one thing, this is the first time a collection of his poetry contains charcoal sketches by Gulzar himself. Second, it is the result of many decades worth of never-before published short verse that he saved to be collected together. Third, Nirupama Dutt, translator of legendary Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam, has rendered it into English from the original Hindi-Urdu.

Because the length of the poetry has dictated the collection, it contains great variations in theme. There is love poetry, poetry of grief, poetry about poetry and other poets (including Amrita Pritam, Imroz, and Allama Iqbal), poetry about gender and caste politics, poetry about god, and poetry about the poet’s own grappling with the vast fame he has gathered over the years. The poems are short in length but massive in scope, and explore the cosmos, the human spirit, human-animal interactions, social injustice, and personal reflection.

Excerpts from the conversation:

On the length of the poems in Pluto:

All these poems are small in size, and have been written over the years. I could have published them before, but I chose not to. Instead of including some shorter poems in every collection, I started picking them up according to length – three, five, six, seven lines at most – for a new collection. And when I made a collection of small poems, I remembered the smallest planet, Pluto. I’ve mentioned my identification with the exiled Pluto in the book, because you see, I turned out to be a poet in a family of businesspeople.

They may be called short poems, but they are full poems. Poems of any length are inherently complete in themselves.  That’s why I’m happy with the way this book has been produced. I have always said that in print, a poem needs space to breathe, and this is the first time each small poem has been given a full page of its own.

On including sketches in a book for the first time: 

Pehli bar himmat ki maine. (It’s the first time I’ve dared to.) I’m not a painter. But I enjoy sketching with charcoal, and I’ve been doing it for quite some time.

When I scribble and cross things out while I’m writing, I also sketch – like Gurudev Tagore! (laughs) I’m not trying to copy Gurudev. I think every writer does this kind of scribbling, it’s part of the process and can bring a lot of clarity. I began to see absurd faces in these scribblings, and sketched them. Over time I really started enjoying it for its own sake. I have a notebook for it, even though my grandson uses it more than I do!

I’d given a couple of sketches for 100 Lyrics, but I told the publishers of that book not to mention they were mine. And for this work too, when I first added the sketches, I didn’t add my signature at the bottom. But then they seemed to look good when the dummy of the book came out – and Shantanu, my editor, asked me to put my name on them. So I did.

On whether socio-political spaces have shrunk since his time with the Progressive Writer’s Association:

It was a very interesting time, very beautiful. And it is growing in its own way now. We had different pains and pangs of growth in our generation, and now yours is going through its own… Your struggles are bigger, more complex. They inspire me to write.

I have one little complaint with the younger generation. They always look at the present as very shrunken and defective. It’s no good. The older generation may live in its past, in nostalgia. The streets were small, then. The homes were small. Life itself was small. Society was small. Nothing was open like it is today. Today is much bigger.

Your films, for example, are much better, in that they reflect today’s times. Ours were mere fiction, romanticised translations of their times. Nobody spoke of the realities of their time. Nobody spoke of Partition – such a big thing happened – and there was not one film about it for so much time.

The first film about Partition, Dharmputra, came many decades later. Today’s filmmakers, my daughter (Meghna Gulzar) for example, made a film about Arushi Talwar. People are making films about Nirbhaya. It’s a much better time in many ways, because people feel that they can be much more straightforward.

On which modern Indian poets he admires:

I love and admire so many modern Indian poets. Ashok Vajpeyi is one of them. He is someone who talks of his time, and talks in a very modern language. Nida Fazli, Jayanto Mahapatra, Joy Goswami, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Sunil Gangopadhyay – these are the great masters of our times, and poets from whom I have been learning.

Translation is a wonderful thing, because it has brought so much work to people who’d never get a chance to access it otherwise. I first read Gurudev Tagore in Hindi and then learned the language in order to read him in the original.

On Gulzar, the poet:

As a poet, I think I write intelligently, but I’m not an intellectual. The poetry is always churning in my mind, and I jot it down. I don’t need any special conditions in order to produce my work. I can write anywhere, because just as life goes on all the time, this process of thinking and writing goes on alongside it.

Everyday life is much more interesting to me than big, abstract theories. Through my poetry, I aim to reflect our times. I don’t want to dwell on the olden days, although it is a period I mention often. But at the moment I’m focussed on writing about today’s time, from different points of view.

For example, I have a whole series of poems from the perspective of birds. What do they wonder when they see us flying? They’ve always flown, for millions of years. So I imagine they pity humans who attempt to fly, they say, “Oh, he is new, he must be learning.” And the point of the poem is to tell the human not to be too conceited, because birds are our ancestors as far as flying is concerned.

On particular themes from the Pluto poems

Fame: There is an image of me that many people have fixed already. They want to see you in that frame, because that’s the frame which they admire. Seedha-saadha kapda pehenta hai! (He wears simple clothes, they say.) I don’t wear simple clothes. I’m not that sophisticated. Kam bolta hain… (He talks very little, they say.) I don’t talk a little, I talk a lot!

The poems on fame are more of a question than an answer. I want to know what people see in me when they put that garland on me.

God: I want him to come and answer. He’s there, right? And if god is responsible for everything, why doesn’t he come and see it? And why doesn’t he answer how it can be his will to kill 150 children in Peshawar? That’s what they said about it, that it is god’s will.

They say he’s watching us from the heavens. If he doesn’t answer, I tell him in this poem that I’m going to pull this curtain of the sky and forget about him. It is a way of expressing my anguish, written when I felt helpless.

We have to question what we’re taught. Prashn toh zaroori hai… (Questions are essential.)

Social injustice: Farmer suicides, and that too in groups! Sometimes five, sometimes ten, sometimes two. Suicide is not all that easy a thing to do... to give up your life. What kind of pain compels people to do this? I don’t know what word to use in English... it’s horrifying that a human can be in this condition. What have they provided them with?

Ek taraf kehte hain ki humne badi tarakki ki hai. (On the one hand they say that we have progressed a lot.) But what about the basics? Munshi Premchand was writing in the 1920s and 1930s. An entire century has passed since then. And those farmers are still there. It’s bonded labour. Through these poems, I ask, in what ways has society changed, and in what ways has it not?