“So Niru, any new love?” she asked me.
There she was, the high priestess of love, frail and all wizened with age, but the eyes still twinkled as she asked me this girlie question reminiscent of the many heart-to-heart talks over some thirty odd years. This was Amrita Pritam, of course, the grande dame of Punjabi letters, who nurtured some two generations of Punjabi writers, and was friend and confidante to many.
“Not really, Amritaji,” I hesitated for a moment, as I sat by her bedside, and then went on to confess because lying to her would be sacrilege, “But there was this Malayali painter that I was seeing. He wanted to exhibit at an art gallery and once I tied up with a gallery, he moved on to romance the gallery owner.”
I had thought she may laugh at this but she became a little sad and said sighing, “This is happening often now that if you have work with someone you have an affair. This was not so common earlier."
This was to be my last exchange with her some months before she passed away. Her health was failing. She had closed down the literary magazine Nagmani, which she and her partner Imroz had published for some three decades. She was seeing few people and was usually in pain. But once a month or so the phone would bring the familiar voice saying, “Hello Niru, come over for I have written something and want to show it to you”.
This last time I stopped at Mehrauli’s Phool Mandi en route to my flat in Gurgaon to her home K-25, Hauz Khas, and picked up a bunch of orange poppies with blood-red strokes. The blood red reminded me of her birthplace Gujranwala in Pakistan Punjab.
Imroz had once joked, “You know Gujranwala is famous for just two things, blood-red citrus fruit malta and Amrita Pritam!” On reaching her home I picked up a glass vase from their kitchen and arranged the flowers. When I put them on her bedside table, Imroz was sitting by her side stroking her head that was resting on a pillow. She was obviously in pain. Seeing me enter, Imroz cheered up, propped Amrita’s head on the pillows and said, “Forget your pain and age. Just look at the flowers coloured with the prime of youth and love.”
The precocious poet
Love indeed was the brand name of Amrita, even though she is described by critics as a feminist before feminism, a firebrand poet, or an agnostic. The other labels were justified in many ways, but it was love that led the way in her life. This Gujranwala beauty lost her mother when very young and grew up alone in the home of a scholarly and spiritualistic father who encouraged her to read and write.
She was a precocious poet and as she was to record in her autobiography The Revenue Stamp, she earned her first slap for lines written to an imagined lover she had named Rajan. Ironically, it was a loveless marriage at 16 for this Venus in Lahore, where she lived before Independence, but the heart yearned for a poetic soul mate and it was the verses of Sahir Ludhianvi that drew her to him.
Sahir too responded but he was not the one for commitment even though he fancied some outstanding women of his times. For Amrita it was a passion and also an obsession. Even when the illusion came to a close and a companionship was growing between her and Imroz, she was drawing Sahir’s name with her finger on his back.
Amrita and Imroz were together nearly for half a century and the poet spoke of the glory of love such:
Rall gai si es vich ik boond tere ishq di
Esse layi main zindagi di saari kudattan pee layi
Just because a drop of your love had blended in
I drank down the entire bitterness of life.
The Gujranwala girl and village Chak Number 36 boy chose to be together outside marriage way back in 1958, when living together was living in sin.
Love in Amrita’s literature was not just a narrow man-woman exchange but extending to love for the other, the lost composite culture of Punjab and the great betrayal of the bloodshed of Partition. It was Waris Shah that this woman, who had started her literary journey with Thankdian Kirnan (Cool Rays) in 1935 and never looked back, turned to. For it was Waris, who had written the immortal love legend of Punjab 250 years ago, whom she called out to.
Aj akhaan Waris Shah noon
Kiton qabran wichon bol,
Te ajj kitab-e-ishq da koi
Agla varka phol
I call out to Waris Shah today
To speak out from his grave
And turn today the next leaf
Of the book of love.
Love and defiance go hand in hand, which is why the protagonist of her Partition novel Paro, abducted before the communal frenzy resulting from her uncle’s kidnapping a Muslim girl following a land feud, chooses to stay with her man in Pakistan even when her brother and fiancé come to fetch her. She is hurt too that her parents refused to accept her when she escaped and went back for she was now “tainted”. Her abductor shows her respect and honours her wishes even though he had to do the ugly act. They come together and to return would be to accept the bloodshed, the rape, the sorrow and the prejudice that had marked the great divide.
That day Amrita shared with me one of her last poems, Main Tainu Phir Milangi (I will meet you yet again) to Imroz and is now considered one of the most intense love poems for a tie that even death could not do apart. And I had the satisfaction of translating it and the joy that she read it before slipping into slumber.
Yes, that day when she was asking me whether there was a new love in my life, she was playful even in pain. If her love Imroz went out even to fetch her a glass of water, she would call out a line of a Punjabi folk verse: Maradi nu chhad ke na jaayin mittara (Don’t leave a dying woman, my friend!)
The last of Amrita’s love poems
I will meet you yet again— Translated from the Punjabi “Main Tainu Phir Milangi” by Nirupama Dutt
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 foaming
Drops of water on your body
And rest my coolness on
Your burning chest
I know nothing
But that this life
Will walk along with me.
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.