Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu, Ve tu qabran vichon bol
Tey ajj kitaab-e-ishq da, Koi agla varka phol
Ikk royi si dhi Punjab di, Tu likh likh marey wain,
Ajj lakhaan dhiyan rondiyan, tenu Waris Shah nu kain
Uthh dard-mandaan deya dardiya, utth takk apna Punjab
Ajj bailey laashaan bichiyaan, tey lahu di bhari Chenab
Ajj aakhan Warish Shah nu…
(Today, I invoke Waris Shah, speak from your grave
And turn, today, the book of love’s next page
Once, a daughter of Punjab had cried; you wrote a wailing saga
Today, a million daughters cry to you, O Waris Shah
Rise! O’ narrator of the grieving; rise! look at your Punjab
Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab…)
Amrita Pritam wrote Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu when she was just 28. The year was 1947 and she had migrated to India just a few months ago. On a train journey, she poured out her heart’s anguish in what would go on to become one of the most significant works on the Partition — a heartfelt evocation of Warish Shah, the 18th-century Punjabi poet and author of Heer Ranjha. Pritam’s poem captured Partition’s deep loss and resonated with people on both sides of the border — people would keep the poem in their pockets, pull it out, read it and weep.
Poet Gulzar, who knew Pritam well and had recorded her Partition poem in 2012, says he finds “the layers very interesting”. “The poem became representative of those times. Many people were reciting it, some were singing it, but as many times as you heard that nazm, it felt as if someone had described the entire Partition in a few lines. There were many who wrote on the Partition and the riots that followed, but this came from the heart. The subject was seen from a woman’s point of view, which was totally missing at that time,” he says.
The turmoil of Partition has been immortalised by poets from Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Yeh daagh daagh ujala (“Subh-e azadi”, 1947) to Ahmad Raahi’s Aithay dub dub moian sohnian, aithay lahu bharay darya (Here Sohni-s are destinated to die and rivers overflow with blood), but few had been penned by women. “Amrita Pritam was writing at a time when not many women wrote. Back then, women were either creating folk songs or writing devotional pieces. At that time, she was the only significant voice,” says Sahitya Akademi Award winning-writer Gurbachan Singh Bhullar, who had a long association with Pritam.
But Pritam’s seminal poem found detractors as well. “When I wrote it, many magazines and newspapers were full of accusations. Sikhs were unhappy over why it was not addressed to Guru Nanak, communists asked why I had not addressed it to Lenin or Stalin. In fact, a lot of people wrote poems against the poem,” wrote Pritam in her autobiography Rasidi Ticket (1976).
Pritam was 16 when she published her first collection of verse (Amrit Lehran) under her maiden name Amrit Kaur in 1936. Her interests in literature grew after she shifted from Gujranwala to Lahore with her father where he edited a Punjabi literary journal. The two had moved after the death of Pritam’s mother — Pritam was only 11 then. With a basic knowledge of the “kafiya-radeef (rhymes and meter)” given by her father, who was rather conservative and wanted her to write only religious poetry, she began to write, mostly to deal with her loneliness. She found herself writing in Punjabi, the language she spoke and thought in, and, in the years to come became one of the most significant figures of Punjabi literature.
A leading voice in the 20th century and considered the first prominent Punjabi female poet, Pritam would have turned 100 on August 31. If Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu was a metaphor for hopelessness, her writings on man-woman relationships showed her as a woman far ahead of her times. Her unflinching gaze at sexuality and her constant quest for liberation and self realisation were almost unheard of in times when women’s roles were clearly defined, which is what makes her poem Kunwari (Virgin) so remarkable: “Main teri seja te jad pair dhariya si/ Mein ‘ika’ nahin san — ‘do’ san/ Ika salama vyahi, te ika salama kunwari/ So tere bhog di khatira/ Mein uss kunwari nu qatala karana si/ Mein qatala keeta si/ Eha qatala jo qanuna jayaza hunde hana/ Sirf ohana di zillata najayaz hundi hai (When I entered your bridal chamber/ I was not one but two persons/ One’s marriage had consummated and complete/ the other had remained a chaste virgin/ To fulfill our union/ I had to kill the virgin/ And kill her, I did/ Such murders are sanctioned by the law/ Only the humiliation accompanying them is illegal).” In this poem, she was speaking of a universal female experience, one which made many uncomfortable. “She wrote passionately on issues she believed in. She dreamed of a free world for women and professed a fearless lifestyle, where a woman would live unhesitatingly and with dignity. The characters in her short stories and novels portrayed the same spirit,” says writer-editor Uma Trilok, an acquaintance who became Pritam’s friend and reiki healer in the ’90s. She later wrote Amrita Imroz: A Love Story (2006).
In the middle of the 20th century, Pritam was not just exploring taboo subjects such as a woman’s desire, extramarital relationships and illegitimate children, but also translating the works of lesser-known writers from the world over, widening the purview of contemporary Punjabi poetry. Travelling for writers’ conferences to Russia, Bulgaria, Italy and other European countries, she became relevant abroad and, slowly in India.
It was in 1950 that Pritam wrote Pinjar (The Skeleton), one of the finest novels on Partition. The story centred around Puro, a Hindu girl abducted by a Muslim man, who somehow manages to make her way home, only to be rejected. Puro then becomes Hamida and marries Rashid, her abductor, but grows to hate the foetus growing in her womb. “In reality she was neither the one nor the other. She was just a skeleton without a shape or a name,” wrote Pritam.
When filmmaker Chandra Prakash Dwivedi decided to make a film on Pinjar in the mid-nineties, he was nervous about approaching her. He sent one of his assistants to seek her permission. “He told her that I had made a serial called Chanakya. Seconds later she told my assistant, ‘Unko jaakar kahiye Pinjar unka hua (Go tell him Pinjar is his)’. When I met her, there was only one question, ‘Aapne hi Chanakya banaya hai?’ The film released in 2003, two years before Amrita died. “She was full of appreciation,” says Dwivedi whose film won a National Award.
Before she wrote Pinjar, Amrita had already become a member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and had written Lok Peed (People’s Anguish, 1944), which criticised the war-torn economy after the Bengal famine. In 1956, she became the first woman to win the coveted Sahitya Akademi Award for her long poem, Sunehe (Messages). She went on to win the Padma Shri in 1969, Bharatiya Jnanpith in 1981 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2004, a year before she died. In that year, she also received India’s highest literary award — the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship. In her over six-decade long career, she produced over 100 works that included poetry, essays and novels. “She rose with her writings from nowhere and just stayed there forever, shining brightly. Punjabi writing and poetry cannot be the same without her,” says Bhullar.
In 1935, Amrita married Pritam Singh, the son of a leading hosiery merchant of Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar. She was 16, had just published her first anthology of poetry and didn’t want a life bound with a man she was engaged to when she was four. She didn’t want it but she didn’t resist it either. In the next few years, she began reading a lot of her poetry at the All India Radio, but her husband was not happy. He told her he could give her the money that AIR gave her. “I wasn’t doing it for the money,” she wrote later.
Amrita, who had two children from this marriage — Navtej and Kandla — wrote extensively on marriage, family and the unequal man-woman relationship, raising many an eyebrow within and outside her family. In one of her stories, Garbhwati, she imagined the feelings of Guru Nanak’s mother when she was expecting him, earning the ire of many. “Society attacks anyone who dares to say that its coins are counterfeit. But when it is a woman who dares to say this, society begins to foam at the mouth. It puts aside all its theories and arguments and picks up the weapon of filth to fling at her. A woman who has suffered an attack can understand it; this attack is not against a particular woman, it is an attack on all of womanhood,” she wrote in Kala Gulab.
In 1986, one of the entries in Amrita Pritam’s diary read: Aaj mera khuda mar gaya. Writer and poet Sahir Ludhianvi had died at the age of 59. She was in love with him. It was a relationship as complex as it was intense.
She had been married for a few years when she met Sahir at a mushaira and fell in love with him. According to Trilok, Amrita did not believe in compromises. “She didn’t want to lead an incomplete life. She did what she did with honesty and courage. She did not want to conceal anything about her personal life from people. She believed that a relationship which did not generate happiness and fulfilment need not be retained unnecessarily,” says Trilok.
Her love for Sahir was overwhelming. Often long after he would leave her room, she would sit and smoke the cigarette butts he would leave behind. “It felt as if I was touching him,” she later wrote in Rasidi Ticket. The book, published in 1976, evoked calls for a ban from the Sikh community, of which she was a part, for the account of her smoking. But Sahir never committed to her. “Amrita loved Sahir ardently but Sahir was probably comfortable living in the world of fantasy,” says Trilok.
Author Akshay Manwani, who wrote Sahir: The People’s Poet (HarperCollins, 2013) says, one has to read Sahir’s poetry to understand his life and the reasons he did not commit to Amrita. “A lot of Sahir’s poetry talks about him getting over the experience of a failed romance because of his deep involvement with the problems of humanity. Tumhare gham ke siva aur bhi toh gham hain mujhe, nijat jinse main ek lehja paa nahi sakta is the line from one of his poems he wrote in college for Ishar Kaur, whom he is believed to have loved. Here was a complicated individual who felt that his empathy for the sorrows of the world, for the oppressed, might get diluted if he had to give space to love in his life,” says Manwani. Another reason, he adds, why the Amrita-Sahir story didn’t work was because of a significant figure in Sahir’s life: his mother. The poet had a troubled childhood — his mother had separated from his father, a despotic zamindar, who married over 12 times. “If his mother was upset, Sahir wouldn’t rest till the matter was resolved to her liking. Any other woman in his life would have compromised the space that was reserved for his mother,” says Manwani.
During this period in the ’50s, Amrita met an artist called Indarjeet Chitrakar, better known as Imroz. He was seven years her junior, admired her work and, like quite a few men of the time, was in love with her. Imroz, who illustrated for the Urdu magazine, Shama, also designed posters for films — he worked for Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa in 1957 which had lyrics by Sahir. He also designed most of her book covers. A year later, she began living with Imroz. “For Amrita, Sahir was the sky towards whom she gazed in admiration and sought inspiration, whereas Imroz was the roof under which she rested and enjoyed the comfort of security and solace,” says Trilok.
Both the love stories contributed to Amrita becoming the writer and the person she was. “Imroz loved Amrita passionately and unconditionally. I once asked him if he was jealous of Sahir. He replied, ‘No, not at all. A person who is loved by Amrita is dear to me, too. That is why you will see a picture of Sahir in my room’,” says Trilok.
It was an unusual love story. Imroz would drop Amrita at the AIR building, pick her up after her programme and drop her home on his scooter. Sitting behind him, she would trace Sahir’s name on his back. “How he bore the weight of these words on his back I do not know. I only knew he accepted me, my madness,” she wrote.
Actor Deepti Naval, who starred in Ek Mulaqat, Saif Hyder Hasan’s play about a meeting between Sahir and Amrita, was introduced to Amrita in the ’80s through filmmaker Basu Bhattacharya, who was planning to make a film on Amrita’s novella Nagmani — the story of a painter and his protege, a young girl. She began visiting Amrita’s Hauz Khas residence regularly, and observed her mannerisms and used them in the play in which actor Shekhar Suman played Sahir.
According to Naval, the love story between Amrita and Imroz is greater than anything she has ever seen. She didn’t feel the need to marry him. She was married to her husband when she began living with Imroz. Things weren’t moving with Sahir. “Imroz sahab is a great man. If he made tea and brought it to the room where Amrita was sitting with her guests, unlike most men, he wouldn’t feel awkward about it. He never had those complexes. I admire him. He was his own person. He would never get worried about the adulation she received from people because he himself had so much adoration for her. Theirs is my ideal love story,” she says.
Amrita gave Imroz her swan song, Main tainu pher milangi/ Kithe? Kis tarah? Pata nahi/ Shayad tere takhiyl di chinag banke/ Tere canvas te utrangi/ Ya kore teri canvas dey utte/ Ik rahasmayi lakir banke/ Khamosh tenu takdi rawangi (I will meet you yet again/ How and where? I know not/ Perhaps I will become a figment of your imagination/ And maybe, become a mysterious line…On your canvas, I will keep gazing at you).
Pritam died in October 2005. She was 86. “If she had been dreaming about her next poem, she would have discussed it up there with the gods she never really believed in,” says Bhullar.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘How to Build a Woman’