At first reading, Amrita Pritam’s autobiography The Revenue Stamp (Raseedi Tikat, 1976) seems like a manuscript that was rushed to the press before the author had a chance to revise and edit. The memories are loosely gathered, written in trailing fragments, more like scattered diary entries or mutterings to oneself, the earliest in 1930 and the latest in 1984, with no concrete narrative strand or device to span the years or the memories.

The impression of an unrevised manuscript prevails on a second, and then on a third reading as well, which is when one begins to rethink: Could this be design and not impatience? When Amrita Pritam writes about love, is she also demonstrating the many ways in which we love? Was her writing an invitation to embrace the heart and its truant ways?

More importantly, the translucence of her narratorial voice, even while it is as iceberg as Hemingway would like (the bulk of the telling in suggestion or ellipsis), reminds us of what it takes, especially for a woman in India, to be utterly unapologetic about her choices in love. This revelation is not about explicitness in the mode of the “confessional poets” (say, Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton), for that would breach an intimacy that Amrita Pritam’s words seek to cocoon and nourish, but the writing is candid and inviting in a way that turns the voyeur in the reader to an ally, a fellow-sojourner on the path of love. The last thing love should do, Amrita Pritam seems to suggest, is be self-righteous or preach. This is therefore an attempt to read her autobiography as she has written it – in fragments – and through the prism of her musings on love.

Love precedes the beloved

Amrita Pritam, who would have turned a hundred this year, led a life that was unconventional in many ways, and devoted entirely to writing. Born in Punjab, in present-day Pakistan, her early years were tumultuous – she was engaged at the age of four, lost her mother at eleven, and was married at sixteen. Her initial creative output seems to have emerged from this need to make sense of a world where she must have felt almost without agency.

She writes of a love affair with “a deep dark shadow” that was layered with “the face of my ideal lover, and mine” – it is this shadow that she claims to have inspired whatever she wrote, “to which I gave flesh and blood, a vague mass in which I sought to reveal something luminous in quality.” This then is the first lesson: One has to believe in love to deserve it, to manifest it. Love precedes the beloved.

When the love did manifest, she tells us, it took the form of the poet Sahir Ludhianvi. “It was like leaping into the flames every day. I was worn out by the effort…” The aftershock of love could only be contained by writing, and even then, barely. The book of poems, Sunehre that she wrote for Sahir won the Akademi Award in 1957. But the relationship would not see fruition despite years of longing and Khushwant Singh, at that time her confidante (and translator), told her in disappointment (this is his version, not hers) that her sparse love story (with Sahir) could be written on a raseedi tikat (revenue stamp) – years later, she appropriated his sarcasm for the title of her autobiography – The Revenue Stamp.

In life and in death

Pritam’s sculpting of specific life moments as short vignettes seems to demonstrate that surface area matters less than depth – stamps have as much to say as epics. This then is the second lesson: Love does not need volume or details, it is epic not in span but in fervour. Love is the cosmos in the grain of sand.

With Sahir, every psychic ache was also a physical memory and poetic impasse. He would visit her in Lahore and leave after hours of silent smoking. She would collect the cigarette stubs, hide them in the cupboard, and light them again one after another, inhaling his absent presence. “Our smoke mingled in the air as did our breath, the words of our poems too,” she writes. Later when she meets Sahir in Bombay, it is again in the realm of poetry:

Strange meeting – after many years
When two lives throbbed like a poem…

At the first Asian Writers Conference in 1956, Sahir playfully pinned his name-tag on her coat and pinned her name on his coat – a memory that Pritam returns to more than once in the autobiography. In 1980, while on a trip to Bulgaria, she felt indisposed and the doctors thought it had something to do with her heart. She wrote two poems that night and the night after, about death and “sprinkling my own ashes in my own river.” Later that month, she received a phone call informing her of Sahir’s death.

Her mind immediately went back to the night of the poems, and then further back to the conference where they had exchanged name-tags. It was a death that had been meant for her but had taken Sahir instead, she felt, for “death had read that tag, the one in my name, pinned on Sahir’s coat.” Even if her love for Sahir were to remain unconsummated (as Khushwant Singh insisted) it was consummated in death for Pritam – “the beginning of this tale was silence, and the intensity of it too was carried out in silence.” This then is the third lesson: Love needs words, but its intensity can thrive, find fruition equally in silence, in death.

An unsummoned appetite

Loss and dislocation turn up repeatedly in Amrita Pritam’s autobiography – the loss of her mother, the end of a marriage (from which she had two children), the great wound of partition and migration – but almost in the form of marginalia, for the central narrative preoccupation remains love and writing. While Sahir represented the unattainable love that she writes of with gilded longing, it was her passionate reciprocal decades-long romance and live-in relationship with the artist Imroz that would, in the words of her biographer Uma Trilok, melt “the cold frost of long lonely years.”

Six years younger than her, Imroz showered Amrita Pritam with tumultuous, lavish adoration, and committed it to language (words, paint, images) without restraint – their private letters have been published and translated to English (In the Times of Love and Longing) and remain a testimony to this impassioned partnership.

Pritam described their romance as “oscillating between merging and clashing…merging like the water of streams and clashing like rival peaks” and insisted that she had no regrets about the path chosen by them. She spells out this next lesson in love: Any disagreements or difficulties with her beloved, she tells us, are “smaller truths” – the great truth is the very existence of the beloved. In love, clearly, one cannot ask for more than the existence of the beloved, for there is nothing greater.

Apart from Sahir and Imroz, Amrita also writes about another friend, Sajjad – at one point in her life, all three loves ran simultaneously together. She shares this in a tone that neither romanticises, nor regrets or sensationalises. Love just is – it is not locked in the lover or the loved, but is an unsummoned appetite, a flowing way of life. It is all-encompassing, contained in itself. Another lesson.

Spirited and faithful

Pritam’s initial forays with the autobiography (they were not more than ten disjointed lines, she claims), which she included towards the end of the text, repeatedly describe it as an “illegitimate child”. To her, the autobiography could only come out of “an illicit union” wont to happen when “the crude realities of my world fell in love with my dreams.” In the pages that follow, she continues to reflect on the genre of the autobiography, and “the concentrated attention” attracted by the writer of the autobiography, for there can be no “compromise with the truth” between writer and reader in this narrative space.

Pritam tells us that there are two kinds of writers: “those who are writers first and last and those who are content to play with writing. Nothing less than the truth as they see it is acceptable to those who are writers first and last.” Here, it is worth noting that the non-linear fractured representation of the writer’s truth (in lived experience) is closer to the memoir than the autobiography, although either genre in itself is not her prime preoccupation. This is understandable considering how seamlessly she employs the “I” voice and the experience of the self across several genres through her writing career.

Amrita Pritam wrote dozens of books in both prose and poetry, her prolific output receiving top honours in the country – the Jnanpith, the Padma Vibhushan, and the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship – apart from several international awards. The autobiography (The Revenue Stamp) includes recollections of her travels, the making of specific books, references to fellow-writers, and fragments of conversations with loved ones, but the bulk of the text contains reflective lines and notes to herself about the lessons she has learnt from her life experiences, the most memorable and sustained being love. For all its seeming shortcomings of craft and clarity, this mirroring of life in language is a rare, spirited and faithful account of a woman, a writer and a lover.