Born in pre-Partition Punjab and schooled in Punjabi, Amrita Pritam’s words stand witness to the upheavals of the 20th century wherein she was born. Destined to be poet, the main concerns of her writing were love, freedom, justice and togetherness.
She brought Punjabi the glory it had never received before, as far as modern writing in the language goes.
Although she wrote in a regional language, Pritam enjoyed an iconic presence that was not just pan-Indian but international. She authored 100 books in different genres—poetry, fiction, essays, biographies, memoirs—as well as a famous autobiography titled The Revenue Stamp (Raseedi Ticket, 1976).
She also edited a Punjabi literary journal called Nagmani for 36 years. Immensely popular, she nurtured two generations of writers, including well-known names like Gurdial Singh, Dalip Kaur Tiwana and Shiv Kumar Batalvi.
The daughter of Nand Sadhu (Kartar Singh Hitkari) and schoolteacher Raj Bibi, a Khatri Sikh couple, Pritam was born with a verse in her heart as her father was a spiritual poet in both the oral and written traditions.
At the age of eight, she helped her father compose poetry. She was only 11 when her mother died. Poetry and daydreams became companions to the lonely child. Tutored by her father in rhyme and metre, she came out with her first book of poetry, Amrit Lehran (Waves of Nectar), written in the spiritual tradition, at age 13.
However, it was at 16 — with Thandiyan Kirnan (Cool Rays) — that she received critical acclaim and became the first modern poet of Punjab, eventually being considered a pillar of Punjabi poetry. After that, there was no looking back.
As 2019 heralds her centenary celebrations, we remember the poem that immortalised her, the first dirge to Partition by a Punjabi poet writing in any language: Ajj Akhan Waris Shah nu (‘Waris Shah, I Call out to You Today’). She wrote it during a train journey from Delhi to Dehradun in 1948, as a 28-year-old refugee from Lahore:
Today Waris Shah I call out to you
To speak out from the graves
Rise today and open a new page
Of the immortal book of love
A daughter of Punjab once wept
And you wrote many a dirge
A million daughters weep today
and look up at you for solace
Rise o beloved of the aggrieved
just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods
Chenab river overflows with blood
Someone has mixed poison
In the Five Rivers of Punjab…
Faiz Ahmad Faiz later read it in jail in Pakistan. When he was released, he found many people had a copy of the poem in their pockets. Writer-journalist Khushwant Singh was the first to translate it into English. He said, ‘Those few lines she composed made her immortal, in India and Pakistan!”
The violence she witnessed at the time of partition, in which millions were killed in communal riots, remained etched in her mind all throughout her life and formed the substance of a large part of her work, especially at a time when very few women were educated and accounts of women during the freedom struggle and the violence during partition was recorded nowhere.
My Guru 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.
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.
The other Partition work that came out some years later was Pinjar (The Skeleton), which was made into a well-received Hindi film. It relates the story of a Sikh girl who was abducted by a Muslim because of a land feud, as his aunt had earlier been abducted by Sikhs.
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.
He had been married for a few years when she met Sahir at a mushaira and fell in love with him. According to Trilok, (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), 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.
When the Sahitya Akademi Award was announced, she exclaimed, “Oh my God, I did not write Sunehade for any award. If the person for whom it was written has not taken note of it,what do I care if even the whole world has seen it”. She writes somewhere that she went out to make a phone call to Sahir, but just as she was about to dial Sahir’s number, she noticed a news article and a photograph in Blitz, a popular weekly of those times, which read: “Sahir has found his new Love”. Amrita mentions her hands stopped in midair and she returned home from the telephone booth.
She later wrote Sat Baras (seven years) on the silence between her and Sahir. If Sahir’s popularity was its peak, Amrita was touching new horizons with her sensitive writing, expressing the anguish of women of this planet. She was a progressive writer and wrote extensively about the exploitation of the poor. And then walked in a Sufi of a lover in Amrita’s life: Inderjeet, a Punjabi painter who illustrated the popular journal Shama brought out by Dehlavis (Yunus and Yusuf). Popularly known as Imroze, Inderjeet, ten years younger to Amrita, was, as if waiting in the wings to come and hold her during her worst days of loneliness. Imroze soon became her Man Friday, so much so that when Amrita was nominated to Rajya Sabha, Imroze would drive her to and from Parliament. He was her lover, companion, adviser, errand boy and man about the house all rolled into one. Here was this Neo-Heer meeting his Ranjha, thus quenching the thirst of an ever-wandering soul of a mystic poet, writer of an era when fractured humanity was looking for answers to the madness around them. One could write volumes about Imroze and Amrita, but it suffices to say that such lovers are beyond the physical.
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.
Pritam had many firsts to her credit; not only was she the first female Indian writer to receive the National Sahitya Akademi Award for Sunehade (Messages) in 1956, she also received the Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan awards as well as a nomination to the Rajya Sabha.
“The most gruesome accounts of marauding invaders in all mythologies and chronicles put together will not, I believe, compare with the blood curling horrors of this historic year,” Pritam wrote in her autobiography.
Though her work was often criticised by the conservatives, today she is equally celebrated as a poet that paved way for modern day feminism in India as well as in Pakistan. Shah adds “I can’t think of a better way to pay tribute to her legacy and bid adieu to Pritam, than in her own words dedicated to her partner Imroz- Main Tainu Phir Milangi.”