This article was published in the July 2015 edition of Identity magazine.
An enigmatically popular and proverbially ‘pretty-petite-poet’ of the partition-poisoned five rivers of the historic Punjab, Amrita Pritam - b. Aug. 31, 1919; d. Oct. 31, 2005 - had indeed enjoyed a larger than life image as one of the most prominent literary personalities of modern India. She was widely recognised as a pioneer, powerful and an authentic voice of feminine protest in expressing the horrors of the Partition of her beloved Punjab and the eternally atrocious gender discriminations in the globally patriarchal social orders.
She had subtly succeeded in cultivating and nourishing a significant constituency of readers and a large circle of influential individuals surpassing divides of languages and national boundaries. She had been conferred the most sought after honours including the Padma Vibhushan and the membership of Rajya Sabha, not to speak of Jnanpith Award and dozens of honorary Doctorates and other prestigious distinctions in India and abroad. She had indeed been deservedly hailed to have lived her life to the fullest as the ‘grand lady of letters’ - on her own terms - both in her literary accomplishments and the ultimate fulfilment of her socially unconventional love.
And, yet there were deeper perceptions among both her ardent admirers and determined detractors of an apparently vast void in her life. It was something of the agonisingly soulful kind - her wounded and bleeding feminine destiny and an unfathomable anguish over implied disapproval of her way of life among her dearest and nearest. Amrita’s life could certainly be categorised as the ‘mysteriously volcanic and an eerie dreamy stuff’ of which strange tales of romance, triumph and tragedy are made of. Her enormously large literary output - 21 anthologies of poetry, 10 collections of short stories and, surprisingly, 25 novels, not to speak of three titles of autobiographical writings, have all been hugely interpreted in terms of their excruciatingly experienced personal emotional overtones.
Amrita had indeed played a uniquely inspirational role for decades in spotting and grooming so many budding and promising Punjabi writers, providing them the forum of her popular monthly Nagmani
- Serpent’s Jewel. The Punjabi Lekhak Kosh
, 2003 - A Directory of Punjabi Writers, edited by the venerable scholar Prof Pritam Singh - has more than three pages of the entries of her writings in original Punjabi and translations in dozens of Indian and foreign languages.. Her abode for decades - K-25, Hauz Khas, New Delhi - had remained an extraordinary literary pilgrimage till her last for her dedicated readers, fraternity of writers, fellow travellers, sisters in sorrow - from India and abroad - and plain ‘Darshanarthis
- the onlookers of her magnetically pretty looks!
I do vividly recall how, as an elementary school - child, I had chanced to read her poem - a pretty picture of her adorning it - in a Punjabi monthly ‘Veer Bhumi’, sometime in 1950. Then for a several years in the mid-1950s, her measured and soft voice as an anchor of the 15 minutes program in Punjabi on All India Radio, Delhi had become captivatingly familiar, as if in uniting the two sparring, grieving and singing Punjabs. It was, however, on 22nd November 1970 that there was an opportunity for me to listen to her live. It was during the Mushaira
of the Golden Jubilee of my college - Govt. College, Ludhiana - Sahir’s own proud alma mater.
The Mushaira, compered by the legendary Kunwar Mohinder Singh Bedi, had started on a note of an absolute disaster of ‘Band-o-bast’. The restrictive arrangements of entry tickets had crumbled in no time in total chaos. Anyway, the huge and roaring audience, by then more in a rebellious mood to hoot than to listen, had consolation of having glimpses of shining star poets like Jan Nisar Akhtar, Mohan Singh and Amrita Pritam doing the empty ritual of recitation of their poems. Even Shiv Kumar Batalavi, the prince among new poets, had to be cajoled to recite her poem after an initial hooting. However, Sahir - the ‘old- boy-hero’ of the College in 1930s - had mesmerised all with his poem titled, ‘Ae Nai Nasl
- O, New Generation’, dedicated to Principal Pritam Singh and addressed to all the past and present students. Sahir was indeed at his magical best when he poetically pierced into the hearts of the Ludhianvi audience with the lines:
Naam mera jahan jahan pahuncha / saath pahuncha hai iss dyaar ka naam.
Main yahan mezban bhi, mehman bhi / app jo chahen dijie mujhe naam.
Nazar karta hun in fizaon ko / apna dil, apni rooh, apna kalaam...
Kal jahan main tha, aaj tun hain vahan / Ai, Naee nassl! Tujh ko mera Salaam!
My golden College of that day, now named after ‘old-boy-scientist’ Satish Chandra Dhawan and with the main Hall named after Sahir, is struggling to breathe - and survive to celebrate its Centenary due in 2020!
My ‘real and historic’ Amrita moment was, however, destined to be on August 31, 1992, just on the eve of my departure for Pakistan, as India’s Deputy High Commissioner. Pandit Krishan Ashant
, the poet-philosopher turned Jyotishcharya
- astrologer - an intimate good old friend of my family had kindly taken me and my wife Aradhana to pay a respectful courtesy call on her. I had asked Amrita about some Pakistani writers whom I might meet. She had mentioned a few names including some of women friends based in Lahore and short story writers Mansha Yaad and Mazhar Khan who was Director of the popular Pakistani Folk Art Museum, Virsa. Imroz, an incarnation of serenity and sincerity, was around and had kindly served us the famously mandatory magical tea. We had felt privileged that we had the good luck to preserve forever the precious memory of Mulaaqat
with an iconic figure, a veritable literary queen of her time!
The love legend of Amrita, particularly her self-confessed decades-long passionate attraction for Sahir, has been one of the most written about and celebrated affair in the popular literary imagination in India. The year 1960, according to Amrita’s own account, was the saddest time of her life. She mentions how the report in the ‘Blitz’ about ‘a new flame of love in life of Sahir’ had totally devastated her, plunging her into dark despair. This development had, perhaps, as if in a rebound, made it possible for Amrita to attach her destiny of ‘life-lasting-soulful-love’ with the younger painter friend, Inderjit. He was soon assigned the metaphorically popular name, ‘Imroz’ - the Persian word meaning ‘today’. This unique ‘undefined’ partnership of ‘understanding’ lasting more than 45 years proved to be the most intensely enduring for the mutual esteem, affection and awesomely creative in terms of Amrita’s literary output and picture perfect of ‘made-for-each-other-soul-mates’. Such supposedly ‘idyllic’ life would only be waiting to be sung and celebrated about, not only in sweet, sentimental and eulogistic notes but also to be written about in a plaintive and poetic mix of fiction and reality.
The lives of writers and artists have indeed been a source of immense fascination everywhere - not only for readers and audience but also for fellow writers and critics and commentators. In the case of writers, ‘aside from their works, there are even autobiographies, letters, diaries, and memoirs of those who knew them best... others have taken it a step further, painting a portrait of a literary genius through those who knew him / her best’. Enters here, Gurbachan Singh Bhullar (b. 1937), an eminent short story writer, editor, and columnist, Sahit Academy Awardee in 2005, with roots in Malwa region of Punjab. He had been an alert insider in the various forums of the Punjabi writers since arrival in the capital in 1967 to work in the Soviet Information Department. He would have been privy to all the literary intrigues, factional feuds, scramble for awards and personal rivalries that always plague the atmosphere of community of writers and artists everywhere. He enjoys reputation as one of the select writers in Punjabi who are well read in literature of other languages and are painstakingly diligent in paying attention to the most appropriate vocabulary and idiom in Punjabi. It is indeed very interesting how my most favourite short storywriter and columnist decided to be a novelist. Please permit me to quote from his own 11-pages declaration, ‘How and Why I wrote the novel, Eh Janam Tumhare Lekhe
- This Life I lay at thy Feet’:
“18 of March 2014 was my 77th birth day... this juncture of life can often make a person sad, even frightened... but I had felt full of enthusiasm. I had conceived the woof and warp of my maiden novel and had started designing, naturally, the flowers and petals and even the thorns... Friends had often advised, ‘A short story writer attains perfection only by writing a novel... you have plenty of stories and experiences of social life and an appropriate idiom to tell them, you must write a novel’.”
|Gurbachan S Bhullar|
Bhullar quotes at length many foreign writers and critics to highlight the subtle points of crafts of short story and the novel. He cites examples from the narrative traditions of epics of India and folk tales of love and how human life revolves around Arth — subsistence, Kaam - sexuality and Dharam - morality. The four word title of the novel, according to Bhullar, was decided at the very beginning. It is taken from the hymn of celebrated Dali poet Bhagat Ravidas in the Granth Sahib, “Bahut Janam bichhure the Madho, eh janam tumhare lekhe - Separated since several births, O lord, this birth is solely dedicated to thee”. How the characters of the novel would stand up to the test of this dictum of total surrender was going to be challenge for the novelist. Bhullar asserts that there are no conventional individual hero or heroine in the novel: the moral restraints prescribed by society at large and their clash with the feminine way of thinking about freedom constitute the crux of the thematic world of this novel.
The protagonist of the novel is Jagdeep - a poet, does not pose much of a difficulty to be identifiable as Amrita Pritam. It is also, interestingly, the name of a character in her novel, ‘Ek Savaal - A Question’ who has a shade of Amrita in losing her mother an early age. The names of poet Mohan Singh (1905-1978) and Sahir Ludhianvi (1921-1980) have been retained in the novel along with the use of their select poetry. To keep the fictional façade of Jagdeep intact, Bhullar has composed some poems himself and used some of the verses of Sukhvinder Amrit (B. 1963). The other characters - easily recognised among the ‘who is who’ of all the prominent friends - some turned foes - and relations of Amrita. They have been assigned meaningful names: Imroz as Inderjit-Charanjit-Navrang; her husband Pritam Singh becomes Gurmukh Singh; Bhapa Pritam Singh of Navyug Press is named Harprit Singh ‘Hiteshi’; Balwant Gargi is Kulwant Bani; Devinder (of AIR) as Harvinder, etc. The chapters about Editor of ‘Shamma’- name in novel ’Chiragh’- provide enjoyable comic and witty relief in enlarging character of Imroz’s earlier life. The cover design by artist Satwant Singh Sumail is indeed attractive in symbolising the theme of the novel - the feminine flutters for freedom of choices and the social constraints of moral behaviour.
It is after gap of many years that I have been able to read a novel in Punjabi running into exactly 400 pages. I had been presented the signed copy - ‘with intimate affection’ of the novel by Gurbachan Ji on March 16 and could finish it at my enjoyable pace on April 11, 2015. The seventeen parts of the novel, further subdivided into 3 / 4 chapters in each, make an engrossing reading with the ebb and flow events of a real life legend. Necessary liberties of the fictional kind have been taken here and there as required to enhance an atmosphere of verisimilitude. We get introduced to a gallery of unforgettable characters, majority of them ‘recreated’ after the real life dignitaries of Punjabi community of Delhi who had been closer to Jagdeep-Amrita!? - the protagonist of the novel. Since my first arrival in Delhi on June 16, 1969 and then 16 years - 11 of them consecutively now - of stay in Delhi, I have been witness to a procession of passing away of the pre-partition generation of so many distinguished Punjabis. They had been instrumental in shaping the contours of Punjabi literature and culture. The mindless violence for decades in Punjab; the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and the consequently continuously ‘shrinking’ role of the present truncated Punjab in the national life has posed serious new challenges to the traditionally imagined values of Punjabi literature and culture. Amrita, a purely Punjabi phenomenon, had passed away proclaiming herself, perhaps, as more popular ‘original author of Hindi’!
Gurbachan Ji had brought to my attention on November 15, 2014 his masterly article on Amrita Pritam published in the September-December issue of prestigious Punjabi quarterly, ‘HUN’ (Now) dwelling on the touching theme of ‘The Triple Death Tragedy’ of the ‘Priestess of Love’ in Punjabi literature. Apart from the natural death after a protracted sickness and a long confinement to bed, her abode of ‘love-nest’ so artistically adorned by ‘love mate’ Imroz was soon got torn apart brick by brick by Amrita’s ‘emotionally-conflicted’ son - he had once questioned his mother if he was indeed the ‘biological’ son of Sahir! He was mercilessly murdered on September 20, 2012 in shady circumstances in the mean world of Bollywood. I did not know at all - nor could imagine - that this article was a subtle precursor - curtain raiser - to Bhullar’s ambitious maiden novel on the eternal theme of human conflict: the fate of femininity fluttering for freedom against the gravitational forces of patriarchal social order. She was born as the only child of a reclusive and religious couple and married at sixteen in a closely related orthodox Khatri Sikh family. Amrita, according to Khushwant Singh, “was a pretty girl with almond shaped eyes, fine features... petite... barely five feet tall... she became the toast of Punjabi literary circles (of Lahore), largely because of her stunning good looks... Ode to Warish Shah was her defining work. Much of the rest was sheer atmosphere”.
To quote from Bhullar’s elucidatory article, Amrita had once put, in her peculiarly poetic way, “In all, I have had one and a half love affairs - one with Sahir and half with Jeeti... but his half is equal to Sahir’s one full!” Amrita had written, in Punjabi, her autobiography - rather disjointed chapters - titled ‘Raseedi Ticket - Revenue Stamp’ in 1976 - which has run into a dozen editions - three after her passing away. The Hindi editions might be even more. The translation in English - apparently a hurried and poor job - by Krishna Gorowara may still be quoted, “Imroz is six years my junior... God grants too brief (a) period of youth to one and all; to me He has, in His greatness, granted two! Mine petered off; Imroz’s came on! After fourteen years... I have no regrets about the path chosen by us”. Further, Amrita says that “Imroz’s personality is like the flow of a river uncontrolled by locks and sluices... a relationship with him can last only so long as there is nothing to bind it. Unfortunately, in life there is not much natural freedom. There is society and there is the law... My suffering is the lesser truth when weighed against the greater truth of happiness of life with him...”
Bhullar has proclaimed in the blurb of his novel-in its 2nd edition within six months of the 1st - exactly a similar dilemma with the heroine representing “feminine-way-of- thinking, the centrality of which is the longing, the desire and an attempt to live a life according to the dictates - full freedom - of her mind”. He further adds that, “the feminine thought process, in majority of the cases, gets reconciled to the 'circumscribing limits' accepting them as 'Destiny' and suppressing the urge to 'fly' - but in stray cases there are revolts too...According to science, the astronauts, who break the sphere of the gravity of the planet earth, undergo a process of powerful effects on their body and mind, Whether, according to psycho-processes, the women who dare break the circle of 'social gravity' also undergo a similar transformation of their bodies and mind, is the moot point of this novel”.
Long, long ago, while studying for my post-graduation in English literature, I had immensely enjoyed the recommended slim book, ‘Aspects of the Novel’ by EM Forster. Originally published in 1927, it has remained my favourite book till today. Discussing at length the aspects of Story, People, Plot, Fantasy/ Prophecy, Pattern / Rhythm, the Nobel novelist elaborates on the themes of birth, food, sleep /dreams, love / marriage and death as the essential elements of the structure and craft of novel. Forster points out that love and marriage - the most defining event of human destiny turns out to be the most unpredictable development. The modern science has been hugely impacting our entire approach to love and sex but the scientists are still wondering to know, ‘what fosters long-term attachment... what, really, is this thing called true Love.’ The much used – rather abused - terms like romance, attraction, bonding, passion would seem to defy all reason and logic - that is the unique beauty, as well as the inexplicable tragedy in as many cases, in every culture and civilization.
In 2019, the literary and academic institutions in India would be gearing up to celebrate the birth centenary of Amrita Pritam. Bhullar’s novel has lit up the first candle for a really enlightening revaluation of the literary output of this dear daughter of Punjab. The debates would need be as broad based as the human reason and imagination can be stretched in the multidimensional contexts of the era she had belonged.
Blessed with Punjabi as my mother tongue, I may conclude quoting the following lines of Amrita - they have been my favourite since I took the first fearful and hesitant step into the imagination of my youth:
Pher tainun yaad keeta, agg nuun chumian asan;
Ishq piala zehar da, ik ghutt phir mangia asan …
Your memory has descended on me again, and I have kissed the flame;
I have asked for a sip again, out of the goblet of poison of love!