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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

amrita pritam by Nirupama Dutt

The girl from Gujranwala

PROFILE by Nirupama Dutt

BI will meet you yet again y Amrita Pritam

I will meet you yet again –
How and where?
I know not.
Perhaps I will become a
figment of your imagination
and maybe, spreading myself
in a mysterious line
on your canvas,
I will keep gazing at you.

Perhaps I will become a ray
of sunshine, to be
embraced by your colours.
I will paint myself on your canvas
I know not how and where –
but I will meet you for sure.

Maybe I will turn into a spring,
and rub the foaming
drops of water on your body,
and rest my coolness on
your burning chest.
I know nothing else
but that this life
will walk along with me.

When the body perishes,
all perishes;
but the threads of memory
are woven with enduring specks.
I will pick these particles,
weave the threads,
and I will meet you yet again.

This poem was written from the
sickbed to her partner Imroz

Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt

* * * *

It is a pleasant December morning. The day is Thursday. The bus I take from Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi, drops me at the Phool Mandi in Mehrauli. Before starting on a day’s work in town, I venture into the flower market. Gardeners from farmhouses and nurseries gather there to sell flowers to the kiosks, florists and others who wish to buy the blooms on a bargain. There are roses aplenty in myriad hues, tall stalks of tuberoses and gladioli, small bunches of carnations and narcissuses. Of course, chrysanthemums in varying sizes and colours seem to have taken over the market. There are the snow-white big blooms with curling petals and smaller ones in pink, yellow and red. A gardener offers me a big bunch of blood-red blooms, flecked with orange for a few rupees. I just cannot resist the temptation and I find myself with the big bunch in my arms along with the bag and books that I am carrying. What will I do with them? It occurs to me that they must go to the girl from Gujranwala, which was famous for its blood-red malta oranges.

And who is this girl from Gujranwala? She is none other than Amrita Pritam, the celebrated Punjabi poet. Her poem, ‘Aj akhaan Waris Shah noon, kiton qabran wichon bol’ (‘I call out to Waris Shah today to speak from his grave’), written after the Partition, is loved across India and Pakistan:

I call out to Waris Shah today
to rise from his grave and
open a new page of the book of love.
Once a single daughter of the Punjab cried out,
and you wrote many dirges.
Today a million daughters weep
and look to you for solace...

Amrita wrote these lines to the poet to immortalised the folk heroine Heer a few months after Partition and the poem became a symbol of the catastrophe on both sides of the border. The story behind the writing is even more heartrending. Looking back, Amrita once told me: “Uprooted from Lahore, I had rehabilitated myself at Dehradun for some time. I went to Delhi looking for work and a place to live. On my return journey in the train, I felt the wind was piercing the dark night and wailing at the sorrows the Partition had brought. I had come away from Lahore with just one red shawl and I had torn it into two to cover both my babies. Everything had been torn apart. The words of Waris Shah, about how the dead and parted would meet again, echoed in my mind. And my poem took shape.”

Amrita is a poet of many seasons. She was born in 1919 in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan, in a Sikh household. I remember her partner, the artist Imroz, once jesting as she spoke of her birthplace, “You know Gujranwala is famous for just two things, blood-red maltas and Amrita Pritam.” Amrita’s father was a man of letters and encouraged Amrita to read and write. She published her first book of poems when she was just fourteen. However, it was in 1935 in Lahore that she got serious critical notice for her poems with the publication of the anthology Thandian kirnan . Then there was no looking back.

After the Partition in 1947, Delhi became her home. Her talent blossomed in the capital of independent India, and writing in Punjabi, her mother tongue, she was to take the language places. Among the honours she received for her writings are the Sahitya Akademi award, the Padma Shri, Jnanpith Award (the first Punjabi writer to be thus honoured), Cyril and Methodius Award (Bulgaria), and the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France). Besides poetry, she’s written essays, short stories and novels in Punjabi and Hindi, and her work has been translated into thirty Indian and foreign languages. She is also a former member of the Rajya Sabha, upper house of Parliament.

The story of Amrita’s life is one of amazing courage, resilience and achievement. What set her apart was her search for freedom and desire to live life on her own terms. She was reared in an orthodox environment yet dared to write of love. Walking out of a loveless marriage, she made her home with Imroz and their relationship has lasted over forty years. Although she is vocal about the rights of women and has portrayed the sorrows they face in a male-dominated world, Amrita always felt that men and women complete themselves in a meeting of the body and soul.

Defying the established norms of the society and carving out a special place for herself was not easy but she persevered and helping her along was her special talent for words. For three decades Amrita and Imroz brought out a literary monthly in Punjabi called Nagmani that had nothing short of a cult following. I have a special relationship with Amrita and Imroz dating back a quarter of a century. However, I am but one of a large and charmed circle because their magazine nurtured two generations of Punjabi writers. She brought onto stage the Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi, fiction writer Dalip Karu Tiwana, Mohanjit, Manjit Kaur Tiwana, Gagan Gill and many others. Her address in New Delhi, K-25, Hauz Khas has become a site of literary pilgrimage. She also recorded in the magazine the changes happening in society. Amrita was forced to close the magazine three years ago as her health deteriorated. Recently, Amrita’s poetry reached an even wider audience, through the offices of India’s massive film industry. Pinjar , a film based on a novel she wrote nearly half a century ago, featured her famous poem to Waris Shah.

During her life Amrita has defied conservative society and many times earned the wrath of the Sikh clergy. She rewrote legendary tales of doomed love, and survived some of the most horrifying moments in subcontinental history. It’s no surprise she’s an inspiration to many. Her poem to Waris Shah is engraved on a memorial to 1947 at the Indo-Pakistan border at Wagah, along with a poem by the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Yet she is humble: she says she has merely returned what she learnt from the poetry of Sufi sages, and quotes a line from her own poetry: “I make no claims to talent, but I am proud of my love and dedication…”

And so I find myself outside that hallowed address, K-25, Hauz Khas, New Delhi, clutching the bunch of blood-red chrysanthemums. For the past three years, Amrita has been on a sickbed. Six months ago when I visited her with a small nosegay of orange poppies, she could still talk and once helped to sit up, she smoked a cigarette and inquired if I was in love these days or not. Laughing, Imroz said, “She would be, for the colour of the flowers is one of youth in bloom.” When he left her room to get some tea, she grew grumpy. When he returned she flirtatiously spoke out to him the line of a Punjabi song: Maradi nu chhad ke na jaayin mittara (‘Don’t leave a dying woman, my friend’). Imroz jokingly replied, “You keep saying you will die but you don’t!” Two months ago when I came to see her again, she could not sit up. Lying there she wept and said that it was time her body set her soul free. Then last month, she was deep in slumber, and I did not go to her room.

This time she is sleeping again. I sit down with Imroz to share a morning cup of tea. We’re seated at that familiar black dining table on which Imroz has splashed some colour: bougainvillea vines trail onto it from the windows. All around are sketches and photographs of the girl who won his love. And Imroz talks of his favourite subject – Amrita, of course. They have lived together for nearly half a century. A very open man, he has often talked to me about the love Amrita had for Sahir Ludhianvi, Urdu poet and film lyricist. Amrita, of course, has put it all in black and white. Today he talks about the first holiday the two had in Andretta, as guests of painter Sobha Singh in the summer of 1958. Then he asks me if I have seen the new book of poems and adds, with a murmur, “Her last book.” Everyone knows that the end is painfully near. There is a murmur from her room. He goes there and I follow him with the bunch of flowers in my hand. Amrita is writhing in pain and he caresses her face. I bend down to touch her and for a moment she stops sighing and flashes me that naughty girlish smile. It is Thursday, the holy day of the pir faqir . I put the flowers on the bedside table and the smile of the pir called Amrita falls into my lap as a blessing. The pilgrimage is complete.


Blogger Unknown said...

Amrita made me cry with her poem "I will meet you yet again'. Fabulous translation.

April 07, 2007 3:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dear mam,
it was wonderful reading about amrita ji. mujhe bhi unke ghar jana hai ,mattha tekne. i am dying to do that. is it possible? imroz ji se milna hai. ek poem amrita ji ke guzar jane par likhi thi. wo sunani hai unko.

August 08, 2007 2:42 AM  
Blogger Questions unaswered said...

If not for u lots of us who dnt understand the inticacies of urdu and hindi wud hav never known the bliss of Amrita's feels as if she pours her soul in each word....
i wish someday we cud translate all her works in lots of languages and spread her divinity....
god bless u.
charu sharma.
ps: is anybdy having :lal dhage ka rishta's soft copy..pls send me.

August 30, 2007 11:49 PM  

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