The girl from Gujranwala
PROFILE 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.
A poem by Amrita Pritam
Main tainu pher milangi
(I will meet you yet again)
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 lineon your canvas,
I will keep gazing at you
Perhaps I will become a rayof 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 elsebut that this lifewill 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.
Translated by Nirupama Dutt and published in The Little Magazine
Ik si Amrita, Ik hai Imroz
A love story revisited by Nirupama Dutt
People are trying to explore live-in relationships and society is trying to learn to accept such unconventional ties. But more than forty years ago there was this gutsy girl from Gujranwala and a dreamy boy born in Chak No: 36, near Lyallpur, who defied all convention and chose to live together in a brick-and-stone house lined with dreams just because they loved each other. What is more, this bond of love stood firm in the face of storms and it retained its intensity and beauty until the dying day.
No, I am wrong here for even death has not the power to do them part. One is talking, of course, of Punjab’s celebrated poet Amrita Pritam and her lifetime companion painter Imroz.
Pal Kaur, Ambala-based Punjabi poet, says: “It was the ideal relationship of our times. It was a coming together of two souls who complemented each other and it was a spiritual bond if there even could be one.”
For Amrita it was the realisation of the dream of finding true love. The lady of letters had recorded the experience of finding Imroz in the second volume of her autobiography called “Shadows of Words”, which is a sequel to her famed life story title “The Revenue Stamp”. She wrote that there was once a shadow in her dreams of a man standing by a window and painting a canvas. This dream would return night after night for long years. In her own words: “Then something happened. Someone suggested that an artist called Imroz design the cover of a book of mine. The shadow turned into a man. Love may be a cup of poison but I had chosen to sip it again.”
Those, who have seen the two live together in bliss day after day in their Delhi home, K-25 Hauz Khas, know that it was not poison but nectar divine that the two had tasted together. In that house with gray stonewalls on which bougainvillea trailed, they lived out their dreams. Patiala’s Punjabi poet Manjit Tiwana says: “Their relationship surpassed even that of Sartre and Simone. For one Amrita and Imroz shared the same home and unlike Sartre Imroz showed greater devotion till the very end. Every Punjabi woman writer longed to be loved by an Imroz but perhaps you have to be an Amrita to get an Imroz.”
True! The “Haar-Singhar” tree in their patch of green was witness to the blossoming and ripening of their love. Poetry had met painting, woman had met man and two souls had come together to belie the oft-repeated cliché that there is no true love in this world. Amrita and Imroz were born to the land of doomed love a la Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal and Mirza-Sahiban but they defied the shackles of society and realised their love. I recall what Punjabi fiction writer Ajeet Cour said when she visited her older sister of letters perishing on the sick-bed: “There was Imroz pressing her legs to relieve her of pain and attending to every little need of hers. It is so rare! I have yet to see such devotion from a man for a woman. She must have done many good deeds in her past lives.”
No Imroz came to her not as a result of past deeds but the deeds of this very life of this gutsy Gujranwala girl who was Lahore’s celebrated poet when she was just sixteen and later she won fame home and abroad with her gifted pen. The two gave each other complete space and freedom in their home together. Amrita cooked the meals and Imroz made those endless cups of tea for the stream of writers visiting them. Theirs’ was an open house and I had the privilege of staying there ever so often and eating the saag and chapatti cooked with love by one of the greatest poets of our times and drinking tumbler after tumbler of tea that Imroz made with the same involvement as he made his sketches.
How does the male world react to this relationship all against the established macho order? Fiction writer and editor of Sankh literary weekly Sidhu Damdami says: “The relationship was path-breaking. They became a role model and many tried to experiment thus to be together but few reached the heights that these two amazing octogenarians did. It was love that held them together.” Well-known satirist Bhushan, who was close to the two, says sans satire for once: “It was an example of complete surrender by Imroz who was an admirer of her writings. What is remarkable is that he was by her side till the very end. It can only be described as spiritual.”
And how does 80-year-old Imroz, for he was six years younger to Amrita, feel now that Amrita passed away on the Diwali eve? Is he shattered and lonely that she is now gone? However, he surprises their admirers by saying, “I am not sorrowful at all and not lonely either. Only her ailing body is gone, she is till with me. Even death cannot do us part.”
Obituary: The true daughter of Waris Shah
Chandigarh, October 31The news of the passing away of the grand dame of Punjabi letters, Amrita Pritam, spread like forest fire through the literary circles in Chandigarh and Punjab as telephone calls started coming from Delhi minutes after her demise.
She rose like a meteor with her verses in Punjabi in Lahore in the Lahore of the 1930s and ‘Thandian Kirnan’ published by her in 1935, when she was just 14, brought her serious critical notice and there was no looking back after that. In a literary career spanning seven decades, she did Punjabi proud by bringing it the highest of national and international awards and honours. Not only was her contribution great in poetry and prose, she also provided a platform to young Punjabi writers in her magazine ‘Nagmani’, which she edited for 33 long years.
As writers recalled her and her times, the lines from her famous poem ‘Ajj akhan Waris Shah nu…’ was on many a lip. This poem made her the indisputable Punjab’s Partition poet on both sides of the border for she had summed so well the sorrow and loss that Partition had wrought on human lives.
Born in 1919 at Gujranwala in West Punjab in the rather orthodox Sikh society of the times, she showed rare courage in coming forth with what she believed in both her verses and life. This pretty and petite woman reigned over the world of letters and was a path-breaking writer in her language. It was she who brought to Punjabi the prestigious Jnanpith Award for the first time for her anthology of poems called ‘Kagaz te Canvas’ and the only other Punjabi writer who got the award after her, shared with Nirmal Verma, was novelist Gurdial Singh. When asked to comment on the award, she had replied in a line of her own verse — ‘Maan suche Ishq da hai, hunar da daava nahin…’ (I am proud of my pure dedication and I make no claims to artistry).
Among the other awards she received were the Sahitya Akademi Award, Cyril and Methodious Award from Bulgaria and the Ordre des Arts des Lettres from France. The Delhi Government declared her Poet of the Millennium at the turn of the Century. Interestingly, the same title was bestowed upon her by Punjabi Academy, Lahore. However, what made her most happy was when Illias Ghumman and other Punjabi writers of Pakistan sent her in recent years three ‘chaddars’ from the tombs of Waris Shah, Bulle Shah and Sultqan Bahu saying — "You are the true daughter of Waris Shah and thus the Waris of our Waris. Frail and weak as she was in her latter years, she got herself photographed with the green silk ‘chaddars’ edged with gold. Of her own poetry, her comment in all humility was: "I have just returned what I had absorbed from reading the poetry of the great Sufi and Bhakti poets of my land."
The story of Amrita’s life is one of amazing courage, resilience and achievement. What set her a class apart from others was her very romantic search for freedom and the desire to live life on her own terms. Walking out of a loveless marriage, she made her home with artist Imroz and the relationship lasted over four decades. It was Imroz who answered the telephone at their home as he was getting her ready for her last journey. He said in a choked voice, "She has not gone, only her body has perished. She will be there in her poems and my paintings."
In her lifetime, Amrita authored over 100 books of poetry, fiction, biography and essays. In one of her last poems written from the sick bed, she consoled her love Imroz by saying, ‘Main tainu phir milagi…’ (I will meet you yet again). This is the promise she made to her soul mate but she will yet meet us all again through her writings. For today on Divali eve she has passed out of history into legend to stand in the row of poets like Meera Bai, Rabia and Lal Ded.