“The streets ran with blood and were said to be cluttered with human corpses, with no one to bury or cremate them, the stink from putrefying flesh hung in the air spreading pestilence. In some cities, barricades were put up to divide the Muslim zones from the Hindu...

Hamida’s ears burned with rage when she heard of the abduction of Hindu girls by Muslims and of Muslim girls by Hindus. Some had been forced into marriage, some murdered, some stripped and paraded naked in the streets.

Thus passed August 15 of the year 1947.”

— Khushwant Singh’s translation of Amrita Pritam’s 'Pinjar'.

Amrita Pritam was 31 in 1950 when she wrote Pinjar, a fictional account of the horrors of Partition that came with Independence in 1947. Pritam herself left Lahore for India that year. Her immortal poem, Ajj Akkhan Waris Shah Nu addressed to the 18th-century poet Waris Shah evokes the tragic events of that time.

If the struggle for independence is a story about the heroism of men (and a few women), Partition, its conjoined twin, remains etched on the lives and bodies of women who were victims and symbols alike of the rupture that came in 1947.

Pritam’s novella starkly reflects the violence Partition inflicted on women through its chief narrator, Pooro, a Hindu woman who is abducted right before her wedding by Rashid, a Muslim, as an act of revenge. Soon after, a new name, “Hamida” is tattooed on her arm, and she is married to Rashid. Pooro is wiped off her parents’ memories, her past erased.

Of grudges and skeletons

Pinjar, meaning “skeleton”, was originally written in Punjabi, and translated into English by Khushwant Singh. The novella begins some years before 1947 (the year of Independence and Partition), when violence is already endemic in the streets of Lahore and Amritsar, twin cities of then undivided Punjab. As the cracks and divides take shape, lingering enmities come to the surface as well. Grudges and insults inflicted a generation and more ago find new life again.

Pinjar is about bonds – of parenthood, conjugal and filial, and equally urgently, the ties that bind a person to land. When Pooro’s mother turns her away, the gesture – one of desperation and despair – could be an apt metaphor for what happened in 1947, when the land itself ruptured in brutal, unexpected ways. Homes became places to flee from and people tied to earth for a long time became refugees. The earth no longer gave succour and was a nurturer no more.

Following the negation of her existence and her reduction to a symbol for Rashid’s revenge-seeking family, Pooro makes a life of herself. She feels protective about similarly affected women: Taro, the unwanted wife of another man, Kammo, whom Pooro befriends, a woman whose son she brings up with her own, and Lajjo, her sister-in-law whom she rescues, with Rashid’s help, from her kidnappers.

Pooro’s own motherhood evokes a change of heart on her part: “Out of this conflict of hate and love, love and hate, were born Hamida’s son and Hamida’s love for her husband, Rashida” (Khushwant Singh’s translation).

The maternal instinct, Pritam suggests, makes Pooro more accepting of Rashid. It figures as a wider metaphor that suggests healing and nurturing and reflects actual events. Following efforts by the governments of India and Pakistan in the late 1940s, scores of abducted women were rescued and reunited with their families.

The relationship that evolves between Pooro and Rashid and their shared conspiracy in the rescue of Lajjo emerges as a prominent plot point. The effervescent Pooro of old re-emerges, while Rashid’s support appears an act of contrition on his part.

The novella was adapted into a Hindi film by Chandraprakash Dwivedi in 2003. Starring Urmila Matondkar as Pooro and Manoj Bajpayee as Rashid, the screen version brought back the horrors, memories, and stories of Partition to a new generation.

The somewhat bare characters came to vivid life in the film, epitomised by the emotions that summed them up: the despair on Pooro’s father’s face after losing her; the anger stark on her brother’s every expression; the helplessness on her mother’s part, and the resignation that characterises Ramchand, the fiance she loses.

And most of all, that undefinable loss on every refugee face as they leave the land they once knew as home. Partition, as it unfolds in the movie and in Uttam Singh’s haunting background score has affected them all and will always haunt them.

Pinjar (2003).