My relationship with Amrita Pritam is somewhat fresh, one can say. What seems like a life-long association now began only in 2014. I had bought a Rajkamal paperback edition of Pritam’s selected poems, Pratinidhi Kavitaein. I had only heard of her before, as one does – flagbearer of women’s poetry in India and Punjabi literature, Jnanpith winner, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan awardee, a “feminist before feminists”, and so on.
And, of course, of her much talked about romance with the “people’s poet” Sahir Ludhianvi, and her platonic bond with Imroz that lasted more than forty years, until she died in 2005. Main Tainu Pher Milangi – “I will meet you yet again”, she commits. Little did I know that I was in for a rather peculiar and fiercely personal engagement with the poet’s life, writing, and persona, in less than five years – so much so, that I would be desperate to write what follows.
After several years
Suddenly, a meeting
Trembled like a poem
Ahead of us
As an entire night –
While half of the poem
Huddled in one corner,
Sat in another corner
Then at daybreak
We met, like pieces of
I held his hand
In my hand
He took my arm
In his arm
And we— Translated from " Ek Mulakat"
Laughed like a censor
And placed the page
On a cold table,
Casting a line
On that entire poem
I recall reading the dull, flimsy paperback edition all night, and then calling the friend who had inspired me to read her. “You’ll like her,” he was positive earlier. His certainty had surprised me, but he had proven to be correct. “I have never felt like this before,” I told him. What I had also meant was, I had never felt so much at once before. Feelings that were comprehensive, yet incomprehensible. I gazed at her face for long. It gazed back. The calm matched the silence that follows an engrossing, engaging conversation.
While I stood
silent, sober and still
the nearby sea bore a tempest
Then god knows what came onto the sea
It packed the storm
into a sack of sorts
handed it over to me
and stood farther away, amused
I was astonished
But accepted the marvel anyway
I knew that such events
Occurred, if only, once in an era
Thousands of thoughts
Reflected in my head
But I stood still, wondering
how will I carry it to my town?
Each street of my town is narrow
Each roof of my town is low
Each wall of my town backbites
If I could find you
Somewhere, then like the sea itself
We shall convey it over our chests
We shall laugh as would two banks
And shall settle
in the town of
rooftops so low
And streets so narrow
But the entire afternoon was spent
In looking for you
And I had to sip
My fire, all by myself
I was one lone bank
The other bank I had to shed
And when the day was nearly set
I returned the sea’s tempest
To the sea itself
Now that night has started to spread
I have met you
You are sullen, silent, sober and still— Translated from " Ek Mulakat"
I too am sullen, silent, sober and still
Only the outlying sea bears the tempest
To think of Amrita Pritam is to think of romance, love, longing, separation. At times, all at once. I had begun to commit the error of not thinking of romance, love, longing, and separation, of thinking of Amrita Pritam as Amrita Kaur, as Amrita. “Tumhari, Amrita”. “Yours, Amrita”, is how most of her letters to Imroz were signed.
My acquaintance with her romance was merely the beginning of my acquaintance with Amrita. My Amrita, I would think. As she writes her poems, her fiction, or her heartfelt letters and love notes to her lovers and her children, I knew she was also writing to me. Her reader.
I won’t lie, I have made several attempts to relate to and resonate with her life and her writing, but eventually I found myself playing a different role in this relationship. I was a listener. Amrita speaks through her writing. That is how she knows communication – in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Hindustani, and English, languages I too am, coincidentally, familiar with.
So, as I read her, or rather, listened to her, I translated her across these languages. It was a matter-of-fact response to a stimulus. I also read how others translated her: From Khushwant Singh to Nirupama Dutt and Akhil Katyal. I am guilty of comparing the translations. What was Amrita like when she spoke to them? How were they listening to her? She talked to us all, nevertheless, and passionately so. She bared everything and expected the same from us.
A Union With Self
My bed is here— Translated from "Atmamilan"
But like shoes and shirt
Take off your body too
Put it on the stool there
Nothing unusual –
It is a custom of one’s country
After that first copy of Amrita’s poetry, the rest of her work that I now own is all second-hand, used books, found in a second-hand book market of Delhi by the name of Daryaganj. Among others such as Kagaz Te Canvas and Pinjar, I have three copies of A Revenue Stamp, one of her two autobiographies, in Punjabi, English, and Hindi. I have read all three partially and yet wholly: I familiarised myself with her story in all three languages, in parts.
I also own a used, signed copy of Imroz’s poetry, most of it addressed to Amrita through poems and sketches. I was given as a gift, as a romantic token, a copy of Uma Trilok’s translations of the letters between Amrita and Imroz: Amrita-Imroz: A Love Story. And I also chanced upon Dastavez: Amrita Imroz de Khat in the same Daryaganj market on one Sunday. It turns out I was building a small bookshelf that could also be a collection of memories of Amrita Pritam. The margins and covers of these used books bore names, scribbles, and doodles of those who knew Amrita before I could. I was privy to their old conversations.
As I learnt more about Amrita from her other acquaintances, her readers, and her translators, I learnt of her eccentric omnipresence. A strong individualism sparkled from her, paradoxically, through her relationship with her lovers, her children, her country, and her readers. Yet, she was on her own. She survived – and how!
erased my house number, I
the street name impressed upon
the street’s forehead
and wiped off
directions to every road that led to me
But if you absolutely want to find me
then knock on
every door on the street of
every city of every country
This is a curse, a blessing too
and wherever there is a— Translated from 'Mera Pata'
glimpse of a
– know that as my home
Today, I am determined to house Amrita Pritam. How? Probably by imbibing the freedom that she longed for and represented, simultaneously. I shall read Pritam today, at the turn of a century after her birth, not only to understand this paradox, but to spread it. Several thought and still do, that Amrita belonged to them. Such was Amrita’s influence in one’s life. Still is. Yet, to be Amrita, is to be free, and to accept oneself with that freedom. To be Amrita, is to be pure, real, true, and boundless.