Reading the contents of Footprints on Zero Line, in no particular order, perhaps you will feel as I did when I first read this selection that for Gulzar sahab the partition is not merely an act of severance, a historical event located in a certain time and place; for him it is an opus de profectus, a work in progress. The partition of 1947 seems to rise above its time and circumstance and speaks to him, and not just once or twice but, to borrow a metaphor from cinema, as a “voice over”.

This initial impression is reinforced when one takes into account this volume in its entirety. In story after story, Gulzar sahab revisits what has been left behind, sometimes through dreams, sometimes in actual fact, occasionally through a retelling or a remembrance. Sometimes he re-examines the consequences of the partition – consequences that range from the political to the emotional and psychological. And it is in his keen grasp of the consequences of partition that you see the sharp political understanding behind the poet’s eye. The old adage of “The Personal is the Political” acquires a new meaning when you read a story such as LOC or Scent of Man, or a nazm such as Bhameri or Eyes Don’t Need a Visa.

The poetry

Let us first look at the poems included in this collection. Here, we find ourselves faced with a peculiar dilemma: should we respond with the head or the heart? In Gulzar sahab’s poetry images are as important as content. He cloaks his poetry in a many-splendoured robe of words, words that have a mesmeric spell of their own. As a reader, and especially a critical reader, you have to wrench yourself away from their insistent, inward pull to look again at the image; once out of that tilismic enchantment, you look at the beauty of the image conjured up by the play upon words. It shines through the many layers of meaning in all its crystal clarity, its freshness and poignancy.

My experience, both as a reader and translator of Gulzar sahab’s poetry, tells me that is when, maybe, you have reached the core of his poetry, felt its rawness and its allure in a way that is almost tactile. That is also the point when, perhaps, you have prepared yourself to feel the full import of the nazm.

The taste of last year’s gur on one’s lips, the sight of boys holding watermelons as they float on a river somewhere in the Punjab, the memory of a little boy with a school bag slung from his neck scouring alleys as he searches for pebbles in drains, the haunting loss of a little girl whose hand slips from her brother’s as they flee for their lives across a newly-demarcated border, the thought of leaving behind a paper boat on the sea at Karachi in the hope that one day, when the winds change, it will find its way to is images such as these that say far more than any set of words – no matter how beautifully put – ever can. However since these images are as fragile as they are evocative, they are just as difficult to translate.

It is a truism much acknowledged that translating any Urdu poetry into English is a task fraught with peril for, quite apart from the differences in literary culture and sensibility, there is also the matter of syntax and natural pauses peculiar to Urdu but alien for the English reader. And so, more often than not, what is incredibly beautiful and tremulously evocative in the Urdu original can come across as clumsy and pedantic, if not outright banal in its English translation. And when the images, motifs and symbols are culled from the minutiae of memories and real, lived experiences they become all the more personal, even idiosyncratic.

The challenge then is to carry the image, like a quivering will o’ the wisp, cross the barrier of one language and attempt to tiptoe into another language and literary culture with at least some of its suggestiveness intact. It may be unfamiliar, even startlingly new, to the English readers but that seldom matters; what does is its ability to conjure up a sight that moves both the head and the heart. And that is what Gulzar sahab does in poem after poem as he takes his reader by the hand and draws them into a world that is highly individualistic and yet welcoming.

Dina, the home of his childhood, the one he left behind, figures in several poems as does the experience of going back to Dina, be it through dreams or memories save for that one time when he actually does go back – seventy years after leaving. The closest he can get to describing that experience is through a game he played as a child: Dhayya chhuna, when a predetermined spot (agreed upon by all the children playing the game) had to be reached and the player had to touch that spot, however briefly, before running back:

It has taken me seventy years
To return to Dina and touch the dhayya
How much I have run in the wasteland of Time
How long I have played hide-and-seek!

Other bits of flotsam and jetsam, washed ashore by the tide of memories, find the most poignant expression in the poems chosen here: the rustic toy Bhameri that a little boy had once tucked in his waistband as he had fled through a dark night leaving his childhood home for ever; the top he had once played with that has been turning ceaselessly in his mind ever since; the creaking sound of a Persian wheel that is still churning out sweetly-scented cool water from the innards of the earth; the big girl who had once stolen a lump of clay from his schoolbag, nibbled at it and planted a kiss on his cheek; the wall on which he used to write in Urdu with a piece of charcoal; the little wooden stump he had once thrown on a neem tree laden with plump neem berries; the madrasa in the village school where he used to sit on a piece of sacking as he memorised his lessons; and many more besides.

The millstone of Time goes around only once, as he tells us in one of his poems, grinding everything fine in that one cycle. Gulzar sahab has poured a lifetime of experiences, memories, dreams and desires in the grinder; the result is a fine dust of memories that settles over this collection like sepia-tinted particles glimmering with wistfulness and hope.

Then there are the images: of a child playing hopscotch and jumping over roughly-drawn squares on the ground as he crosses the bridge over the Jhelum river in a steam engine and reaches Dina where he was born; of going to the border to meet Manto’s Bishan from Toba Tek Singh who is still standing at no-man’s land, his feet swollen, his mind unable to comprehend the enormity of his loss; of country paths redolent with damp earth and moist swings hanging in the rains; of sending a soft breeze, with a thousand floral bracelets tied to its wrist, as a gift to a friend and a fellow poet across the border; of standing on the Zero Line with the sun behind him and his shadow falling forward, in Pakistan; of Abbu who used to call him “Punni”; of being made to bend over like a rooster as punishment by the school master; of crossing the border, time and again, with closed eyes for:

Eyes don’t need a visa
Dreams don’t have a border

The stories

Coming now to the short stories, here Gulzar sahab comes out of the thicket of memories and allows himself to think with both his head and his heart. The 14 stories included here cover the gamut of the partition experience – from the harsh brutal reality of the gory events of 1947, to the wars that were fought between India and Pakistan, to the communal ill-will and mistrust that was bequeathed as a bitter legacy of the batwara, coming up to the consequences of that ill-will that continues to be felt most acutely in the state of Kashmir. Taken together, these stories throw the clearest, strongest light on the long-term consequences of the events that unspooled from 1947. The long shadow of partition has never found such a searing yet deeply empathetic depiction in contemporary Indian writing by any living writer.

Gulzar sahab differs from the “partition generation” of writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chandar in many ways; for one, he has the benefit of hindsight and the luxury of introspection. He is not interested in chronicling the events that led to the division of the sub-continent, or putting them in neat labels of “cause” and “effect”, or even apportioning blame.

Instead, he wants to peel back, layer upon layer, the silence that had settled upon the lives of those most affected by the partition. And it is this unpeeling of those long-held silences that he does in story after story in an attempt to make sense, retrospectively, of the horrors of the partition. Also, the respite of time allows him to examine not just the gruesome acts of 1947 and its immediate aftermath with some measure of dispassionate enquiry but also the consequences.

Eight or nine years old at the time, he has had a fairly long time to mull over the memories, to view and review in his mind’s eye all that he heard or saw, to go over the experiences of others he heard or overheard, to attempt to understand the narratives of loss and trauma his young mind was unable to process at the time. Time, the great healer, also lends perspective and it is this perspective that makes his writings on the partition so different from his predecessors.

Crossing the Raavi is short and sharp, relying on its brevity for its sting. With a few deft strokes, it recreates the havoc of those panic-stricken days of mass migration and the terrible human cost of the madness that engulfed ordinary men and women. Two Sisters, an extract from a novel, tells the story of two sisters, brutalised and rendered homeless by the partition, drifting like dried leaves from town to town, till they settle down in a place far removed from home, and attempt to rebuild their shattered lives only to find the seed of despoiling can only yield a bitter harvest. The subject of raped and abducted women has cropped up in many partition stories.

Manto, perhaps, put it best when he asked: “Whenever I thought of those abducted women and girls, all I could see were swollen, distended bellies. What would happen to these bellies? Who is the owner who lies stuffed in these bellies: India or Pakistan? And what of the nine months of labour? Who would pay the wages – India or Pakistan? Or would it all simply be put in the account of cruel Nature? Isn’t there a blank column somewhere in this ledger?” (Khuda ke Liye, Manto). In Two Sisters Gulzar sahab tells us about two such numbers in this blank column.

A sweet story about the veteran journalist Kuldeep Nayar changes the mood from despondency to hope; it reminds us that the bonds of shared living are stronger than the hurts and betrayals of history and the arbitrary drawing up of boundaries. In Over, LOC, Two Soldiers, and Rams Gulzar sahab takes us to the border and again, in his characteristically humane manner, shows us how humanity may be challenged but can seldom be snuffed out totally by larger, geo-political forces. The personal and the real, never far from the surface in much of Guzar sahab’s writings on the partition, reappears in Partition to testify the lengths people are willing to go to to believe that their loved ones are merely lost, not gone forever.

Make believe is as much a part of coping as mistrust as we find in the next story, Fear. Possibly set in the Mumbai of present times, the Mumbai scarred by communal riots, this story reminds us of the communal hatred that is as much a legacy of partition as independence, and how it simmers beneath the surface of normalcy.

Hope and faith in pluralism and syncretism, that suffuse Gulzar sahab’s writing with a luminous glow, is missing in Smoke. A dark story, it leaves a question in its trail: does individual will have no place before the collective will of the mob? Drawing upon his own childhood in the Sabzi Mandi neighbourhood of Delhi, The Jamun Tree recreates a neighbourhood poised on the brink of disaster as the ill winds of communalism tear asunder the social fabric of ordinary lives.

The Scent of Man and Search, two of the hardest hitting stories in this collection, are both about Kashmir; both show how the situation in Kashmir is a consequence of the partition. The stories also reiterate my impression that for Gulzar sahab the long-term effects of the events of 1947 are a work in progress. He takes no sides and steadfastly refuses to look for heroes and villains; he simply wishes to show the horrific toll of a tragedy of such immense proportion on human dignity.

While much ink has been spilt on the political and historical implications of the partition, relatively little has been written on the human aspect of this momentous event in the recent history of South Asia. Gulzar sahab corrects this anomaly and, with this collection, addresses an old wrong. In foregrounding the stories of ordinary people, be they the foot soldiers who fight the real wars on ground zero or writers and journalists looking for answers and closure, against the hegemonic larger narratives of nationalism and patriotism, he is showing us where the possibilities of healing and redemption might lie – with the ordinary people themselves!

Excerpted with permission from “Translator’s Introduction” by Rakhshanda Jalil, to Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition, Gulzar, translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil, HarperCollins.