The train rolled through the dark night as though it was moving through an endless tunnel in the fall of 1947. A sad and beautiful “refugee” wondered if there would be light at the end of the tunnel, or whether she would keep travelling through the darkness, with her two little children by her side.

This hapless woman was none other than the poetry diva of Lahore who had charmed literary circles with her verses in Punjabi. Amrita Pritam (1919-2005) was born in Gujranwala and brought up in Lahore, the city she had to flee literally in the clothes she was wearing when communal rioting broke out at the time of Partition in the blood-soaked August of 1947.

Brave and daring always, this pioneering woman poet of Punjabi was picking up the shreds of life so that she could take root again. In her autobiography, The Revenue Stamp, she recalls the train journey thus:

“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, echoed in my mind. And my poem took shape.”

This ode to Waris Shah, the Sufi poet who had penned the tragic story of Punjab’s folk heroine Ranjha, written during a sorrowing journey, went straight to the hearts of the traumatised, bereaved and displaced Punjabis both sides of the border, where the land of the five bloodied rivers lay in two pieces, cut off mercilessly by the infamous Radcliffe Line.

Pritam says in her autobiography:

“The most gruesome accounts of marauding invaders in all mythologies and chronicles put together will not, I believe, compare with the blood curling horrors of this historic year. Tale after tale, each more hair-raising than the last, would take a lifetime to retell.” 

Unpublished, the poem reached Pakistan and was translated into English and published. Faiz Ahmad Faiz read it in jail. When he came out, he found many people had a copy and wept on reading it. Sadly, in India, Pritam had to face the ire of her community on why her poem was not addressed to Guru Nanak, while Left-wing writers felt it should have been addressed to Lenin or Stalin!

Khushwant Singh, who was to translate the poem as well as Amrita’s Partition novel Pinjar (The Skeleton) was taken up by her “stunning beauty” and not so much by her literary prowess. Yet of this poem he conceded: “Those few lines she composed made her immortal, in India and Pakistan”.

A call to Waris Shah

Waris Shah I call out to you today to rise from your grave
Rise and open a new page of the immortal book of love
A daughter of Punjab had wept and you wrote many a dirge
A million daughters weep today and look at you for solace
Rise o beloved of the aggrieved, just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods, Chenab overflows with blood
Someone has blended poison in the five rivers of Punjab
This water now runs through the verdant fields and glades
This fertile land has sprouted poisonous weeds far and near
Seeds of hatred have grown high, bloodshed is everywhere
Poisoned breeze in forest turned bamboo flutes into snakes
Their venom has turned the bright and rosy Punjab all blue
Throats have forgotten how to sing, the yarn is now broken
Friends are lost and the spinning wheel has gone silent
Boats released from the harbor toss in the rough waters
The peepul has broken its branches on which swings hung
The flute that played notes of love is now forever lost
Brothers of Ranjha have lost the hero’s devotion, his charm
Blood rains on the earth, even the graves are oozing red
The princesses of love are now weeping midst the tombs
Today all have turned into Qaidon, thieves of love and beauty
O where on earth do we go to look for a Waris Shah once more

— Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt