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Always Amrita, Always Pritam: It is her 100th birth anniversary

She put Punjabi literature on the world map. No other writer is as synonymous with Punjabi literature as Amrita Pritam (1919-2005), a familiar name even for those not acquainted with Punjabi. She cocked a snook at convention and defied social norms. There was no split between life and literature for Amrita because literature was her life. Gulzar Singh Sandhu on the Grand Dame of Punjabi letters

Your life could be contained on the back of a revenue stamp” was Khushwant Singh’s cynical remark about the autobiography Amrita Pritam was planning to write. A writer of uncommon passion, Amrita responded to the provocative challenge with an aptly titled Rasidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp). The account of her life became so popular that it was translated into half a dozen Indian languages. This much-maligned story of a Punjabi rebel is adored for the manner in which she says what her readers may decry from the core of their hearts. Reading the story one feels that in the male-dominated world, a woman is more sinned against than sinning.

Ajj akhan Waris Shah nu

Kitte kabran vichon bol

Te ajj kitab-e-ishq da

Koi agla varka phol

k royi si dhi Punjab di

Tu likh-likh mare ven

Ajj lakhan dhian rondiyan

Tainu Waris Shah nu kehan

(I call out to Waris Shah today

To speak out from the grave

And open another leaf

From the book of love

When one daughter of

Punjab had wept

You wrote a million dirges

Today a million daughters

are weeping

And they are looking up to you, Waris Shah, for solace)

The novelist in Amrita Pritam was at her best in Pinjar (The Skeleton). The younger generation was introduced to Amrita’s work through this novel which was made into a film sometime back. It is the story of a Hindu girl, Pooro, abducted by a Muslim boy Rashid. Her parents refuse to recover a ‘defiled’ woman. Unable to resist the circumstances she was thrown into, Pooro settles down as a bride and bears Rashid a son. In 1947, nostalgia for the life missed by Pooro makes the couple save Hindu and Sikh women from their Muslim abductors and send them to the security of evacuee camps meant to take them to their kith and kin.

Born in a traditional Sikh family of undivided Punjab in 1919, in Gujranwala and brought up in Lahore, Amrita was the product of the other side of Punjab and she religiously remained so till her end. It was from there that she had been drawing her strength and symbols with all the sublimity embodied in the works of great Sufi poets and saints. It is no wonder she was known in the present-day Pakistan much move than her contemporaries i.e. Mohan Singh and Shiv Kumar Batalavi.

Her attitude to worn out social norms and traditions was so candid that she earned the wrath of many an established institution but never faltered from the path she chose. She rose to be the voice of the entire Indian womanhood and sowed the seeds of rebellion in the minds of her readers against values that were wrong and unjust, according to her.

She started writing poetry in her teens under the influence of her father Kartar Singh Hitkari and became the proud author of a collection of poems Amrit Lehran in 1936. Such was the grip of the muse in her soul that she churned out half a dozen collections of poems in as many years between 1936 and 1943. The tone of her poetry was ethical, didactic and romantic, clouded in platonic overtones, with a degree of elasticity in form and diction.

It did not take her long to jump on to the band-wagon of the Progressive Movement and her very next collection titled Lok Peed and published in 1944 spoke of the war-torn economy born out of Great Famine of Bengal of 1943 which threw out millions yearning for loaves and love.

This was the time that she took to attack the old social fabric questioning the morality of traditional love and even that of conjugal rights and duties. She did not hesitate to term the husband as a mere bread-winner who wanted nothing but physical pleasure.

Amrita presenting a programme on Radio Lahore.

Amrita was married to Pritam Singh in 1939. That made her change her name from Amrita Kaur to Amrita Pritam. Life was thrown out of gear by the Partition of the country in 1947. So fierce was the trauma of the holocaust on her poetic mind that she had to charter out an entirely new path for herself and her people embracing the sorrows of the community as a whole. So heart-rending was the cry in her Ode to Waris Shah that she earned the title of The Voice of Punjab. She emerged as one who had the mind and the power of the pen to record the sufferings of Heer as she could fathom the depth of trauma undergone by the hundreds of girls in Punjab at that time.

Amrita Pritam was at her best in Sunehe(Messages) published in 1955 in which she mixes the romantic and the sentimental within with the progressive callings outside. It was also the time when she was moving away from conjugal bindings. This collection won her the Sahitya Akademi Award, followed by invitations from a host of literary societies. She was also awarded honorary doctorates from more than one university. Her national and international acclamation soared to the skies. At this point, her prose writings, especially fiction, got the better of her mainly because of the instant popularity of this genre amongst the Hindi-reading public.

Awards and honours came her way aplenty

With her seasoned craft of weaving a plot and creating motivated characters, her acceptance as a novelist was all-pervasive among the women. The lustre of her poetic expression in prose was a boost to her receptivity amongst readers of all ages, irrespective of the caste and creed they belonged to.

In her very first novelette, Jai Shri, she made the heroine of the same name reject all young men offering her conventional proposals of marriage to pick up a bridgegroom of her choice in Suresh who turns out to be a sincere and true lover.

Good people becoming the victims of violence and misery is the theme of Alhna (The Nest) and other works of fiction by her. Amrita was a sensitive writer who highlighted the problem of Indian womanhood both in her poetry and fiction.

Amrita incarnates herself, through Pooro, to express her hatred for social conventions and male lust. Resigning themselves their fate is what lies in store for the entire womanhood of India, according to Amrita. Throughout her life, Amrita had been a symbol of liberation for contemporary women writers. Amrita has ardently highlighted man’s disaffection with woman. A poem titled Kumari (Virgin) in her Jnanpith Award-winning Kaghaz Te Canvas depicts the modern girl as follows:

When I moved into your bed

I was not alone — there were two of us

A married woman and a virgin

To sleep with you.

I had to for the virgin in me

I did so

This slaughter is permissible in law

Not the indignity of it

And I bore the onslaught of insult.

Amrita has succeeded in presenting such themes with all the sophistication of a protagonist seeking to change social values. She has been in the forefront when it came to defying all that was outworn and obsolete in society. One may not agree with her solutions but one has to accept that her writings did set the ball rolling in so far as challenging wrongs in society was concerned.

Amrita brought out a monthly literary magazine Nagmani that was profusely illustrated by Imroz, her artist friend and companion in the second half of her life. The magazine made her accessible to the newest of Punjabi writers who flocked to her residence in Hauz Khas in New Delhi, with or without their spouses carrying suitable gifts and souvenirs to be presented to her. She was quick in introducing ever-fresh themes as new columns on such varied subjects as readings from palmistry and star talk.

Of the 100-odd books penned by Amrita, more than a dozen are available in English today. She has been lucky in her translations as well. Khushwant Singh had picked up her novelette Pinjar for translation while he was to travel to London by sea for a change.

He was interested in a shorter work that could be translated in the three weeks that he was aboard the ship. I had suggested one out of Doctor Dev and Pinjar and he had chosen the latter. This was her first introduction to English readers when not many of them were aware that she wrote fiction too. The Indian film industry and Doordarshan did not lag behind in presenting her works on the screen, big and small.

Amrita was a person of many parts. She was an extremely good conversationalist and could hold audiences of all shades. Whether she acquired this art from the stint she had with the All India Radio or she was picked up by them because of this talent in her is a matter of debate.

Amrita felt more at home with the mazars of Mian Meer Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah which were as dear to her as the Taj and Roza of Ajmer Sharif. This did not apply to the places of worship of other religions in her case.

With all her honours and acclaim, the heights she reached in her lifetime, including the membership of the Rajya Sabha, bestowed on her by late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, she carved out a niche for herself amongst the immortals of Punjabi literature. Born in the same year as Indira Gandhi, and perhaps under the same stars, wittingly or unwittingly, she waited for the same date to take leave of the world.

Shy of meeting people and visiting different places, Amrita was fond of cooking at home. Hundreds of visitors from other parts of the country and abroad would remember the lime tea served by her. Those interested in artistic calligraphy may continue to visit her Hauz Khas residence which is full of her writings calligraphed by Imroz on all possible corners.

Four decades of her companionship with Imroz has enabled him to master the art of tea-making and one can be sure of Amrita’s legacy being carried on by him.

Amrita Pritam did not confine herself to the limits and boundaries of this Punjab. She did not belong to either side of the Wagah border or even both sides put together. She was the voice of Punjabis all over the world and hence the voice of humanity.