My earliest impressions of Amrita ji are from the meetings of Punjabi Sahit Sabha in Bombay, where I heard her famed poem Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu (Today, I invoke Waris Shah) read by actor and director Balraj Sahni. Balrajji was Punjabi and told me once “You write in Urdu, you go for Urdu sahitya sammelans, you should also come to Punjabi Sahit Sabha. Gurudev (Rabindranath Tagore) had told him once that one should write in one’s mother tongue. Balrajji told me the same thing — that it’s great that you know other languages but you must write in your mother tongue, too. As a young poet in the ’50s and ’60s, I thought it would be an opportunity to learn. And Amritaji’s reference was quite glorious at the time.
I was a member of the Progressive Writers’ Association (in Bombay) and knew writers Sukhbir and Navtej Singh, who edited the magazine, Preetlari. We were reading Sukhbir, Navtej, and Mohan Singh, among others. But even while reading them, one could see that Amritaji’s metaphors were different from others. The way she would create an image was totally unique. Ye utna hi duniyavi tha jitna woh sufiyana tha (It was as earthly as it was divine). “Ajj lakkhan dhiyaan rondiyaan, tenu Waris Shah nu kain” — Waris Shah, your daughters are wailing and calling out for you — it was a unique expression.
Then there is the story of her autobiography, which is just as interesting. Khushwant Singh had told her once, “Hai ki teri zindagi, ik rasidi ticket de pichhe likhi jaani hai (What’s your life? It could be written at the back of a revenue stamp). To me, it wasn’t just beautifully said, it was also beautifully received. She named her autobiography Rasidi Ticket.
Before I knew Amritaji personally, though, I knew Imroz. Back then, he was a painter in Mumbai, and used to make titles for the popular Urdu magazine, Shama. We had a common friend, an artist called Pradyuman. Imroz used to visit him and I’d meet him there often. Later, since he was in a relationship with Amritaji, there was some odd mention here and there. It wasn’t open but we all knew about it. He’d always address her as “madam” and still calls her that. It was a very interesting way of addressing her, a way of describing seniority. She was senior to him and that seniority came through in his reference.
When filmmaker Basu Bhattacharya, a very close friend and colleague, decided to make a documentary on her, he took me along to meet her. He’d record and collect footage on her often. She had heard of me from Imroz and had also read some of my work because she had published some of it in the magazine she brought out — Nagmani. So she asked me, “Hor Gulzar, ki likheya hai? (So Gulzar, what have you written lately?)” So I told her that I can’t write like you on Partition, but there is a nazm.
Subah subah ik khwab ki dastak par darwaza khula dekha
Sarhad ke us paar se kuch mehmaan aaye hain….
Paanv dhoye, haath dhulaye
Aangan mein aasan lagvaye
Aur tandoor pe makki ke kuch mote mote rot pakaaye
Potli mein mehmaan mere
Pichhle salon ki faslon ka gud laaye the
Aankh khuli toh dekha ghar mein koi nahi tha
Haath laga kar dekha toh tandoor abhi tak bujha nahi tha
Aur hoton par meethe gud ka zaika ab tak chipak raha tha
Khwab tha shayad, Khwab hi hoga
Sarhad par kal raat, suna hai chali thi goli
Sarhad par kal raat, suna hai
Kuch khwabon ka khoon hua tha
She went absolutely quiet. The shoot went on. I thought probably the conclusion didn’t work for her. Anyway, there was the lunch break and she said. ‘Gulzar, read that nazm again’. I did. She said in Punjabi, ‘Ayddi vaddi gal tu itni hauli tarah keh gaya (Such a big thing, you said it so gently). Around the time of pack up, she held me by my hand and made me sit and said, “Gulzar, woh nazm phir suna tu (Gulzar, recite that nazm again). I did. It’s the story of my one big meeting with her.
Sometime later, Amritaji and Imroz came to Bombay and met me in my office. At that time, my office was my house. She wanted me to make a film on her novel, Pinjar, and brought some of her notes. I had read the novel, but I told her I’d like to read it again.
The next day, I told her that I’d write my own screenplay, and that, in all honesty, for a director to direct one’s own script is very difficult. She said that she had made a khaaka (outline) of her own. So I said that either you make it on your own and I will help you technically. But if I direct it, then I have to write my own script. I also told her that if I make the film, I’ll make it on the first three chapters and probably use the rest of the story as flashback. I won’t make it chronologically. When a book is to be adapted to another medium, it can’t be conveyed in the way it exists. It is necessary to know the medium. You can’t take the work of even stalwarts such as Munshi Premchand and picturise it the way it has been written. She wasn’t very happy about it.
Sahir Ludhianvi has been known to be a very significant part of her life. As for the relationship with Sahir, I do think that over the years, quite a lot of fiction has been added to it. I knew Sahir sahab well. In fact, we lived together for a few years in Kunwar Lodge at Four Bungalows in Mumbai, where I had a room for Rs 18 in the outhouse while he lived upstairs on the first floor. We met often. He was a veteran in the industry and I was a struggling junior writer.
As far as I know, there was never any response from Sahir sahab, directly or indirectly in terms of Amritaji. Many people say that ‘Chalo ik baar phir se ajnabi ban jaayein hum dono’ was for (singer and actor) Sudha (Malhotra) because she sang it. But it’s not true. A film has its own story. It’s not always related to someone’s personal life, at least that’s what I think. But yes, one can use personal emotion or experience while writing. Amritaji did write extensively about him. Now, I may not be the only one who knows everything. But if you read the poem, Main tainu pher milangi, is meant for Imroz. It’s very clear that she talks of his canvas and his paintings.
It is possible that she may have addressed her poems to Sahir, too. But in the case of Sahir, I haven’t come across anything that was written for her. But that’s my personal opinion. I really respect her fascination and admiration for him. Also, the way she talks of man-woman relationship is very interesting. She was a courageous lady and a very courageous poet. In fact, in the world of literature, her status as a poet is very high. I was once recording a CD as a tribute to her poetry and during the course I managed to memorise many of her nazms. Ek baar Kabir ka khayal zaroor aata hai and Ve main tidke ghade da paani nai rehna, these are at another level.
Towards the end of her life, Gopichand Narang, then president of the Sahitya Akademi and I had gone to give her the Sahitya Akademi fellowship. I remember Imroz trying to show the award to her while she lay in bed. He told her, “Aye lye ke aaye ne tussa de vaaste (They have brought this for you)”. But she was blank. Imroz said that she would have appreciated it earlier. The whole thing pained me very much.
In their story of togetherness, one must credit Imroz’s patience and tolerance. I once wrote a nazm on their beautiful relationship:
Teri nazm se guzarte waqt khadsha rehta hai/ Paanv rakh raha hoon jaise geele canvas par Imroz ke/ Teri nazm se image ubharti hai/ Brush se rang tapakne lagta hai/ Woh apne kore canvas par nazme likhta hai/ Tum apne kaagzon par nazme paint karti ho (While passing through your poem, I fear/As if I’m stepping onto Imroz’s wet canvas/An image emerges from your poem/Colour drips off the brush/He writes a poem on his blank canvas/You, on your paper, lend colours to poems).
— As told to Suanshu Khurana