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.
The serene and tranquillizing lines from Amrita Pritam’s Punjabi poem
Mein Tenu Phir Milangi, later translated into English as ‘I Will Meet You Yet Again’, invokes varied emotions in the hearts of everyone. Though considered to be written before her death for Imroz, her partner, with whom she spent the last forty years of her life, it seems as if the lines are speaking to all those who fell in love with Amrita and her writing. For everyone who felt a void upon Amrita leaving for heavenly abode, the lines act as a source of solace and comfort.
Amrita Pritam was not just an essayist, novelist and poet but a woman who defied all norms of her times and formed an identity of her own, as if she was the revolution personified. Born as Amrit Kaur in 1919 in Mandi Bahauddin, Punjab (present-day Pakistan), she lost her mother at the tender age of eleven. Rejecting adult responsibilities and plagued by loneliness following her mother’s death, Amrita began to write at an early age and published her first anthology of poems
Amrit Lehren (Immortal Waves) in 1936. It was the same year that she got married to Pritam Singh (son of a hosiery merchant of Lahore’s Anarkali bazaar) to whom she was engaged in early childhood and changed her name from Amrit Kaur to Amrita Pritam.
Not long after her marriage, Amrita, who started as a romantic poet, became a part of Progressive Writers’ Movement which was a liberal literary movement in pre-partition India. The effect of joining the movement soon started to reflect in her writings. In 1944, in a poetry collection titled
Lok Peed (Anguish of the Public), Amrita criticized the depleting economy because of World War II, and the disaster caused by the Bengal famine in 1943. She increasingly got involved in social work in the mid-1940s and worked briefly at the Lahore Radio Station too. This broadened her angst at the vulnerability of the masses, especially women, and made her works more rebellious and socio-political.
Pic credit: Wikipedia
The independence of India in 1947 came at the hefty price of partition and communal violence. Amrita too, aged 28, became a Punjabi refugee and moved from Lahore to Delhi. The same year, while she was pregnant and travelling from Dehradun to Delhi, she expressed her anguish of partition in the form of a poem,
Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu (I ask Waris Shah Today). The following lines present a heart-wrenching picture of partition and the violence that ensued:
I ask Waris Shah today to speak up somewhere from the graves
And to turn to a new page of the book of love.
Once, when one daughter of Punjab wept, you had hit out by writing
Today a million daughters weep and implore you, Waris Shah:
Arise, O friend of the distressed! Arise, see the plight of your Punjab
Corpses lie strewn in the fields and Chenab is filled with blood. Someone has mixed poison into the waters of the five rivers
And that water is now irrigating the land.
Later, she also wrote a novel in 1950 titled
Pinjar (The Skeleton) which narrates the story of partition riots along with the crisis of women who suffered during the times.
In 1960, Amrita ended her marriage with Pritam Singh with a divorce. During this time, her works began to turn more feminist, with many of her stories and poems on her unhappy experience of marriage. Also, in her 1976 autobiography
Raseedi Ticket (Revenue Stamp), Amrita wrote about her intense yet platonic relationship with Sahir Ludhianvi, whom she adored as
qalam ka jadugar (wizard of pen). The admiration soon turned into a courtship, but because of Sahir’s commitment phobia, the relationship ended. In her last letter to Sahir, which she handed to him personally, she wrote:
“Maine toot ke pyaar kiya tum se/Kya tumne bhi utna kiya mujh se? (I loved you wholeheartedly/ Did you also love me that much?)”. Amrita and Sahir’s last meeting was later immortalized by Amrita’s dear friend and Pakistani activist Fahmida Riaz. She wrote a piece,
Amrita Ki Sahir Se Aakhri Mulaaqaat (Amrita’s Last Meeting With Sahir) and mentioned the last words of Sahir to Amrita:
“Tum chali jaaogi, parchhaiyaan rah jaayengi/Kuchh na kuchh Ishq ki raanaaiyaan rah jaayengi” (When you leave, your lovely silhouettes shall remain/ Memories and traces of love will smart me time and again). Even though the relationship ended, but Amrita and Sahir could never forget each other. Their lives moved on and Amrita met Imroz and Sahir met Sudha Malhotra. However, when Sahir found out about Amrita and Imroz, he wrote
“Mujhe apni tabahiyon ka koi gham nahin/ Tumne kisi se muhabbat nibaah toh dee (I’m not sad over my losses and ruins/ I’m happy that finally you found someone worth living for)”.
Imroz and Amrita met when the former designed the cover of her book. He was ready to leave for Mumbai to join an ad-firm but he tore up the appointment letter and moved in with Amrita at K-25, Hauz Khas, New Delhi. This decision to be in a live-in relationship happened way back in 1958 and shows how Amrita was always ahead of her times and lived life on her terms. She wrote openly about her life, including the smoking of cigarettes which was considered to be a huge taboo at that time:
There was a pain
I smoked it silently like a cigarette
And a few poems I flicked off
Like ashes from a cigarette…
Amrita wrote a poem
Shaam ka Phool (The Evening Flower) after her first meeting with Imroz. Talking about her relationship with Amrita to a leading national daily Imroz mentioned:
“We made no promises, no commitments. There were no questions, no answers. But love flourished without any formal expressions.” Quite younger than her, Imroz showered Amrita with love, adoration, and commitment, which was missing from both of her previous relationships. Imroz was also well aware of her passionate love for Sahir but he never objected to any of her feelings. For more than 40 years they lived together in a bond of celebration, their only commitment being that of unspoken and unconditional love for each other.
Towards the end of life’s journey, Amrita fell ill and Imroz nurtured her with all his heart and soul. In an interview with journalist Nawaid Anjum, he mentioned:
“She used to ask me to get cyanide capsules every day.” “How could I? Instead, I got her pain killers.” After her death, Imroz published a book of poems
Jashan Jaari Hai (The Celebrations Go On), which reflects his state of mind. Imroz wrote:
Main jab khamosh hota hun
Aur khayal bhi khamosh hote hain
To ek halki halki sargoshi hoti hai
Uske ehsaas ki
Uske shayron ki…
Amrita Pritam rose from humble beginnings to a massive literary figure in not only Punjabi and English languages but many others into which her works were translated. She became the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award for her magnum opus, a long poem,
Sunehre (Messages). Later she also received the Bharatiya Jnanpith, one of India’s highest literary awards.
Amrita left a rich and unforgettable legacy for all her admirers and lovers. Even though she is no more with us in the physical world, the following lines by her are a soothing balm for Imroz, for us, for literature…
When the body perishes
but the threads of memory
are woven of enduring atoms
I will pick these particles
weave the threads and I will meet you yet again.
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