The unspoken passion of Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam

Silence defined the association between the celebrated writers, like it had ‘occupied the adjacent chair and then gone away’.

The great Punjabi poet and writer Amrita Pritam once told Uma Trilok, who authored Amrita-Imroz: A Love Story, of the following conversation involving Sahir and her:

Sahir happened to ask Amrita, ‘Why don’t the two of us go and live in China?’

Amrita, puzzled by Sahir’s sudden suggestion of moving to China, sought an immediate explanation. ‘What will we do living in China?’

‘We shall write poetry,’ replied Sahir, rather vaguely.

Amrita shot back, ‘We can write poetry here without going to China.’

‘Yes we can, but if we go to China we will never come back,’ said Sahir.

It was, as Amrita told Uma, Sahir’s idea of proposing a lifetime together with her.

Amrita met Sahir sometime around 1944 in Preet Nagar, a village between Lahore and Amritsar. She was at this time married to Pritam Singh, who was an editor, but theirs was not the best of marriages. Amrita, in her mid-twenties at the time, had come to Preet Nagar to attend a mushaira which was being attended by Punjabi and Urdu poets. It was here that she saw and heard Sahir for the first time. She was immediately smitten by him. ‘I do not know whether it was the magic of his words or his silent gaze, but I was captivated by him,’ writes Amrita of the moment.

The mushaira ended only after midnight following which the guests bid goodbye to each other. The next morning they were supposed to go to the neighbouring township of Lopoki, from where a bus had been organized to take them back to Lahore.

However, the following morning they discovered that it had rained the previous night and the road they had to take to reach Lopoki had been rendered slippery and hazardous. Apparently, the sky had turned cloudy during the mushaira itself and it had started drizzling by the time the mushaira had drawn to a close. Amrita saw the hand of fate in all of this as she recalls, ‘Now, when I look back on that night, I can say that destiny had sown the seed of love in my heart which the rain nurtured.’

Desperate to go to Lopoki, the guests made their way ahead cautiously. It was in these circumstances that Amrita experienced her love blossoming for Sahir. She writes:

Walking at some distance from Sahir, I noticed that where his shadow was falling on the ground, I was being engulfed by it entirely. At that time I didn’t know I would spend so many years of my life in his shadow or that at times I would get tired and seek solace in my own words. These poems were written in Sahir’s love, but I never revealed the inspiration behind them publicly.

Over the course of attending several such mushairas, the acquaintance between the two grew into a mutual affection. It was by all reckoning a most unusual relationship. The two hardly ever spoke to each other, preferring instead to let silence define their association. ‘There were two obstacles between us – one of silence, which remained forever. And the other was language. I wrote poetry in Punjabi, Sahir in Urdu.’

‘Smoking gave me the feeling that he was close to me’

Even in her autobiography, Raseedi Tikkat (Revenue Stamp), Amrita writes of the eloquent silence that characterized their relationship:

When Sahir would come to meet me in Lahore, it was as if an extension of my silence had occupied the adjacent chair and then gone away . . .

He would quietly smoke his cigarettes, putting out each after having finished only half of it. He would then light a new cigarette. After he would leave, the room would be full of his unfinished cigarettes . . .

I would keep these remaining cigarettes carefully in the cupboard after he left. I would only light them while sitting alone by myself. When I would hold one of these cigarettes between my fingers, I would feel as if I was touching his hands . . .

This is how I took to smoking. Smoking gave me the feeling that he was close to me. He appeared, each time, like a genie in the smoke emanating from the cigarette.

She also gives Sahir’s side of the story. ‘Sahir also told me, much later in life, “When both of us were in Lahore, I would often come close to your house and stand at the corner where I would sometimes buy a paan, or light a cigarette or hold a glass of soda in my hand. I would stand there for hours together watching that window of your house which opened towards the street.”’

Then, when the country was partitioned, Amrita moved with her husband and eventually settled down in Delhi. Sahir, as we already know, had established himself in Bombay a few years after Partition.

Amrita hit upon a novel idea to bridge the geographical distance between the two. She began to include her experiences with Sahir in her literary endeavours. His character featured prominently in the anthology of poems ‘Ik si Anita’ (A Girl Named Anita), the novel ‘Dilli Diyaa Galiyaan’ (The Bylanes of Delhi) and the collection of short stories ‘Aakhari Khat’ (Final Letter). Her poem ‘Sunehray’ (Messages), which fetched her the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1956, was also written for Sahir.

An interesting anecdote regarding their relationship can be found in the short story ‘Aakhari Khat’ in the eponymous collection. It was in the year 1955 that the weekly Urdu magazine Aayeena was launched from Delhi. When Aayeena requested Amrita to write a story for them, she decided to use the publication as a conduit to get through to Sahir. She wrote of her first meeting with Sahir in the form of a story and called it ‘Aakhari Khat’… Yet, many days passed with no response from Sahir.

Then, one day, Amrita ran into him. And he said: ‘When I read “Aakhari Khat”, I was so delighted that I wanted to take the magazine to each of my friends and tell them – look this has been written for me, but I decided to keep quiet. I thought if I told friends like Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Krishan Chander, they would chide me and threaten to take me to the asylum.’

It is indeed a travesty that the relationship between Amrita and Sahir, two doyens of literature, couldn’t mature into anything more substantial, something that mirrored their beautiful individual contributions to prose and poetry. Yet, it is probably with Amrita that Sahir came closest, at least in his mind, to a long-term relationship, as revealed in a telling conversation he had with his mother.

Maaji, yeh Amrita thi, janti ho na? Yeh aapki bahu bhi bann sakti thi,’ (Mother, that was Amrita. She could have become your daughter-in-law) Sahir is said to have told his mother in reference to Amrita once while they were in Delhi with some of Sahir’s friends.

To which his mother replied imploringly, ‘Bete, bahu banao toh sahi kisi ko.’ (As long as you make someone my daughter-in-law.)

Excerpted with permission from Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet, Akshay Manwani, Harper India.

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