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Amrita Pritam: Queen of Punjabi Literature


The Tribune, Nov. 12, 2005

Photo: Amrita Pritam, with Imroz

I had known Amrita Pritam for more than 60 years and, besides her live-in gentleman companion and her children, been closer to her than anyone else. I was the first to translate some of her works into English, including her best-known novel Pinjar (The Skeleton) and selections of her verse published in the brochure released by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao when she was given the Jnanpith Award. However, when T.V. and radio channels asked me to pay tribute to her when she died on October 31, I firmly said no. Then I heard and read what others had to say about her. Patwant Singh on N.D.T.V., in his usual haw haw English, spoke about her steadfast adherence to political principles. As a matter of fact, Amrita never bothered about politics and hardly ever read newspapers. Obituaries in newspapers repeated the same things about her life and work loaded, as is their practice, with superlatives. No one dared to mention her human failings.

Amrita's father was a pracharak - a preacher of the Sikh faith from Gujranwala, where she was born. After the death of his wife, father and daughter moved to Lahore. Amrita grew into a pretty girl with almond-shaped eyes, fine features and a fair complexion. She was also petite, barely five feet tall. And precocious. She began composing poetry in her teens. Her earliest work was in praise of Sikh gurus and what they stood for. She was lauded for her work. Among her many admirers was Jagat Singh Kwatra, owner of the leading hosiery store in Anarkali Bazaar. He asked for her hand for his son Pritam Singh. The offer was readily accepted. On marriage, Amrita added her husband's name to her own and became Amrita Pritam. I met her a couple of times in Lahore with other Punjabi writers all of whom were infatuated by her, chief among them Mohan Singh Mahir, then acknowledged as the best among younger poets. He claimed his affection was reciprocated. Amrita assured me it was not.

I got closer to Amrita Pritam after 1947 when we migrated from Lahore to Delhi. She got a job in the Punjabi service of All India Radio. It was about that time she decided to make a clean break from her past. She persuaded her husband to divorce her leaving their son in her custody. She did not formally renounce Sikhism but cut off her hair and took to smoking heavily. It was also around this time she composed her poem Aaj Aakhaan Waris Shah Noo addressed to the Sufi poet Waris Shah, author of the most famous tragic Punjabi saga of Heer & Ranjah.

Utth dard-mandaan dey dardiyaa tak apna Punjab
Beyley laashaan vichhiyaan
Teh lahoo da bharya Chenab

(Sharer of stricken hearts,
Look at your Punjab,
Corpses are strewn in the field
Blood flows in the Chenab.)

With this memorable lament, Amrita Pritam shot into fame in the Punjabi speaking world, both Pakistani and Indian. She never looked back.

My first disappointment came when she won the Sahitya Akademi Award. She was a member of the selection panel. She cast the deciding vote in her own favour. I found it hard to digest but said nothing to her. When she was served with a warrant by an Amritsar Court for something she had written about Sikhism, I agreed to accompany her. Nothing came of it. When Krishna Sobti took her to court for stealing the title of her autobiography Zindaginamah, I appeared in the Delhi High Court as a defence witness. Other troubles came her way, I stood by her.

Amrita was not a highly educated woman, not exposed to good writing in languages other than Punjabi. Nor sophisticated enough to add new dimensions to her own. She was besotted by Bollywood and believed getting one of her novels or short stories accepted by a film-maker was the ultimate in success. All her stories and novels were sob stuff and uniformly second rate.

When I translated Pinjar, I gave half the share of royalties due to me to her on condition that she would tell me her life story and her love life. We had many sessions. She conceded she had been in love with Sahir Ludhianvi and no one else. He came over to Delhi to meet her. It came to nothing. I told her her love life could be written behind a postage stamp. She used it as a title of her autobiography Raseedee Ticket. About Imroz, the one who devoted most of his life to her, she had not much to say. (He is not Muslim as the name might indicate, but a clean-shaven Sikh.) He not only loved her, painted her eyes on doors and walls, designed book jackets for her but in the past few years of her life, when she was unable to move, looked after her to the last. He gave me a line drawing of Waris Shah, which I keep in my studio as an emblem of eternal love.

Related Links:
Amrita Pritam's Novel to Be Rendered on Film, By JEEVAN PRAKASH SHARMA, The Hindustan Times, Aug. 27, 2002