The most iconic photograph of Amrita Pritam, perhaps, is the one of her sprawled across a divan, a pen in her hand, staring thoughtfully into the distance. Even within the constraints of that single photographic frame, she conveys the restlessness of her mind that no photograph can ever capture.
Considered the first prominent female Punjabi poet of the twentieth century, she wrote for over six decades, leaving behind a vast legacy of work that encompasses over 100 books of poetry, fiction, biographies, essays, a collection of Punjabi folk songs and an autobiography — all searing tales of love, loss, redemption, angst and more. She is considered one of the most important female voices in Punjabi literature and was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for her long poem ‘Sunehade’ in 1956. In 1969, she was awarded the Padma Shri, in 2004 the Padma Vibhushan, and the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship in the same year. She was awarded the Bharatiya Jnanpith in 1982 for Kagaz te Canvas.
They say the best thing to happen to a writer is an unhappy life. For Amrita, unhappiness and tragedy began when she was a very young girl. Born on 31 August 1919 in pre-Partition India, in Punjab, she was the only child of Raj Bibi, a school teacher, and Kartar Singh Hitkari, a poet, a Braj Bhasha scholar, a preacher of Sikhism and the editor of a literary journal. The first great tragedy struck her when she was barely 11. Her mother fell very ill and succumbed to her illness soon after. The death of her mother was the moment, she writes in her autobiography, when she lost faith in God and became an atheist. She would remain an atheist all her life.
They moved to Lahore after this tragedy, and she would live there until 1947 when she migrated to India during Partition. Being uprooted from her childhood home, and growing up in a strange city without a mother and with a busy father made her self-reliant. She took refuge in the collection of books in her father’s library. This early withdrawal into the world of words saw her write and publish her first anthology of poems, Amrit Lehran, when she was barely 16. Her father would have preferred her to write religious poetry, but Amrita was fiercely individualistic and she wrote what she pleased and in a language she was comfortable in, namely Punjabi. She had grown now, from the young girl of 11 who’d been bereft when her mother passed away, to a self-contained young woman of 16. This was the year she got married to Pritam Singh, a boy she had been engaged to since she was barely four, as was the custom of the day. While she was not happy about getting married, she did not resist it either. She had now, as Emily Dickinson famously wrote, laid down the playthings of childhood and stepped into the role of wife and mother. She would follow her first book of poems with over six collections of poems published between 1936 and 1943. She would read out her poems on the radio, something her husband wasn’t too happy about. He told her he would pay her the money she earned as a radio announcer in Lahore, an offer she turned down. She wasn’t doing it for the money. What was important to her was the adulation and direct connection with her listeners. While she began as a romantic poet, she would shift her ideologies to socialism and become part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. The result of this shift in affiliation would reflect in her collection, Lok Peed, in 1944, which took a hard look at the misery of the poor post Second World War and the horrors of the Bengal famine of 1943.
A turning point in her writing came with Partition. The horrors she witnessed and heard of, and her fleeing Lahore for Delhi with her family through the tumultuous violence that Partition unfolded had a profound impact on her. What emerged from the crucible of this terrifying experience was the elegiac Punjabi poem, ‘Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu’, which would not only immortalize her as a poet but also serve as a poetic documentation of the horrors of Partition for generations to come.
Written on a train journey from Dehradun to Delhi, the poem was addressed to the Sufi poet Waris Shah, who had given the world the classic love story of Heer Ranjha. He also hailed from the same place in Punjab where Amrita came from, and she felt a kinship with him.
Today, I call Waris Shah, ‘Speak from your grave,’ And turn to the next page in your book of love, Once, a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote an entire saga,
Today, a million daughters cry out to you, Waris Shah, Rise! O’ narrator of the grieving! Look at your Punjab, Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab.
She would often revisit Partition through her writing. Her novel Pinjar — the story of how Partition affected the women who went through it, told through the experience of the central character, Puro — was a poignant, deeply felt account of the times. This book was made into a film of the same title in 2003 and would go on to be critically acclaimed and win the National Award that year.
Some of her other books would also be made into movies. The first was Dharti Sagar Te Sippiyan, which was made as Kadambari and then Unah Di Kahani as Daaku. She was the editor of a monthly literary magazine in Punjabi for years, though post Partition a major portion of her writings was in Hindi. Amongst her works are her autobiographies Kala Gulab (1968), Raseedi Ticket (1976) and Aksharon Kay Saayee (1977).
Amrita Pritam was also the first recipient of the Punjab Rattan Award, the international Vaptsarov Award from the Republic of Bulgaria in 1979 and the Degree of Officer dens, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government in 1987. She was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1986, a term she served till 1992.
For all the acclaim her work received, her personal life was conflicted. After moving to Delhi post Partition, she gradually rebuilt her life, working with the All India Radio in their Punjabi service. By 1960, her marriage was beyond the point of repair and Amrita left her husband. Among the many reasons for the failure of her marriage, perhaps the most prominent was her unrequited love for the famous poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi. Her obsession with him can be gauged by a diary entry she made decades later, in 1986, when she wrote, ‘Aaj mera Khuda mar gaya (Today my God died)’. It was the day Sahir passed away.
Theirs was a love story that was not a love story. She first met Sahir at a mushaira in another town when she had been married for a few years. She writes about how she walked that day to the bus waiting to ferry them back home, mindful of the fact that she was walking in his shadow, engulfed in his presence. She wrote unreservedly about her love for Sahir in her autobiography, Raseedi Ticket. In fact, in an interview with the Hindi magazine Kadambini, Amrita would say, ‘Sahir mere Sartre aur main unki Simone thi (Sahir was my Sartre and I was his Simone).’ She wrote this for him in the initial days of their relationship, ‘Tumhare darakht ki tahani ka jo aasra mila/Mere toote hue dil ka parinda wahin ruk gaya (When I found the branch of your tree/The bird of my broken heart perched there permanently).
She was quoted saying, ‘In our relationship, I was the more passionate one, my book of poems, titled Sunehade, was full of messages for him. But they did not melt him. However, my love was not wasted. I got the Sahitya Akademi Award for the book.
She wrote that she went to call Sahir to tell him about the Sahitya Akademi Award, but as she was dialling, she noticed an article in the Blitz magazine on sale at the phone booth. The headline said, ‘Sahir has found his new love’. The article was about Sahir’s new love interest, the singer Sudha Malhotra. She put the phone down and returned home. She would later write Saat Baras on the silence between her and Sahir that stretched for years.
A broken Amrita would then find companionship and love in the artist and writer Inderjeet, who went by the nom de plume Imroz. They moved in together, a radical decision for the time. They were partners for over four decades, he designed all her book covers, and painted her over and over in several paintings. Their life has been documented in the book Amrita Imroz: A Love Story by Uma Trilok. Sahir was the unattainable, the love she yearned for but never received, while Imroz was an equal partner. Her biographer Uma Trilok wrote that this relationship with Imroz would melt ‘the cold frost of long lonely years’. Imroz was almost a decade younger than her and became everything to her: her lover, her companion, her homemaker, her driver, her advisor. Although aware of her obsession with Sahir, Imroz knew the depth of his own love for her and never felt threatened. In fact, Sahir and Imroz would go on to become good friends, and Imroz would design the cover for one of Sahir’s books.
Although she would spend over four decades with Imroz, it was her relationship with Sahir that would define her writing. From the lack of fulfilment and closure arose writing that shook the literary landscape. It was uncertain whether they were in a relationship at all. She wrote, ‘The beginning of this tale was silence, and the intensity of it too was carried out in silence.’
In an interview, she would say, ‘Man has not yet tasted the friendship and company of a liberated woman as an equal partner. Men and women have not yet met as two independent human beings.’ She made no bones about her fondness for smoking, a habit she picked up when she was obsessed with Sahir. He would visit her in Lahore and smoke for hours in silence. She would pick up his half-smoked, discarded cigarette stubs when he left, and smoke them. ‘Our smoke mingled in the air as did our breath, the words of our poems too,’ she wrote. She said by smoking the cigarette stubs he had left behind, she felt like she was touching him. She would write about smoking in Raseedi Ticket, uncaring of the scandal her writing so honestly about it would cause. In one of her poems, she writes, ‘Pain, I inhale silently like a cigarette, and a few sons, I flick off like ashes from the cigarette.’ The years would mellow the rancour between her and her ex-husband, Pritam Singh. In his final days, Amrita would visit him twice a day, and spend a couple of hours with him every day until the day he died.
She herself passed away peacefully in her sleep on 31 October 2005, at the age of 86. Perhaps the most touching poem by her, is a poem to Imroz, ‘Main Tenun Phir Milangi’ (I Will Meet You Again). Her funeral was held according to her wishes, with no speeches, no huge gathering and only her children and her partner Imroz taking her body for the last rites.
She was commemorated by Google on 31 August 2019, her centenary birth anniversary, with a doodle. They wrote, ‘Today’s Doodle celebrates Amrita Pritam, one of history’s foremost female Punjabi writers, who dared to live the life she imagines.’ In her writings and her life, she leaves behind a legacy for women writers in India which urges them to defy social constructs and constraints, challenge them, and to live and write as she did — unfettered.
(Excerpted from Rising: 30 Women Who Changed India by Kiran Manral, with permission from Rupa Publications. Kiran Manral is a writer, author and novelist based in Mumbai.)