A mighty gush of poignant thoughts rips apart a tender heart, out of which flows a cascade of sublime poetic anguish. This bruised and battered heart belongs to the weaver of sorrow, the queen of pangs and longings, whom her devotees fondly remember as “ek thi Amrita”. While reminiscing nostalgically about Amrita (a legend of Punjabi literature) one is spontaneously reminded of Lord Byron’s Poem She Walks In Beauty.
Like Byron’s beautiful lady, Amrita had a beautiful soul, residing in a beautiful body that remained restless throughout its sojourn in this mortal world. At the age of 11, Amrita had her first encounter with sorrow when her ailing mother departed for the next abode. It was a catalytic moment in the life of the cherubic child. Her deep rooted faith in the benevolence of God received a shattering blow.
Like Thomas Hardy, once a regular church goer, Amrita too turned atheist and stopped frequenting the places of worship. They say suffering has been the mother of many great writers and Amrita had enough of it for her share. She was desperately searching for solace and took refuge on the comforting lap of writing.
At the tender age of 16, her first poetry collection, Amrit Lehrein – The Immortal Waves– appeared. The anthology, as the title suggests, consisted of poems leavened with the intricate emotion of love and romance. Thereon, misery and inner loneliness had become the constant companions of this sensitive soul.
A bitter marriage and the gruesome memories of Partition wreaked havoc with her inner equanimity and gave her much substance to contemplate over and write about. Her blood curdling novel Pinjar (The skeleton) brought her instant fame not only in the circuit of Punjabi literature but in the entire ambit of Indian literature written in vernacular.
Like Khushwant Singh’s magnum opus Train to Pakistan, Pinjar is esteemed as one of the finest works about the macabre saga of India’s Partition. It also establishes Amrita’s identity as a “feminist before feminists”.
In the genre of novel, her Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu (Today I invoke Waris Shah) is a sublime piece of poetry, a dirge, in which deeply agitated Amrita recounts the horrors of the holocaust of 1947 by invoking the spirit of the legend of Sufi literature, Waris Shah. Addressing the creator of the epic Heer Ranja (in Punjabi), the poet exudes a poetic shriek of excruciating pain and writes: “Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nuu,
Kiton Qabraan Wichon Bol, Tey Ajj Kitaab-e-Ishq Daa, Koi Agla Warka Phol” (“Today, I call upon Waris Shah, Speak from your grave And turn, today, the next page from the epic of love.”)
Though Khushwant Singh did not hold Amrita in high esteem and even went to the extent of sardonically remarking that whatever she had churn-ed out could be placed just on a Revenue stamp, the irresistible appeal of
“Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nuu”, impelled Amrita’s great detractor Singh to say, “Those few lines she composed made her immortal, in India and Pakistan”. Such was the spellbinding charisma of Amrita that she retained the ability to endear her adversaries too. It was certainly the satirical observations of Khushwant Singh about her due to which she entitled her autobiography “Rasidi Ticket” (The Revenue Stamp).
And when one writes on Amrita Pritam, (Pritam the surname, she got after her marriage to Pritam Singh, the son of a leading hosiery merchant of Lahore's Anarkali bazaar) her relationship with Sahir Ludhianavi cannot remain unmentioned.
It was an affair (should we call it an affair in the first place?) between two creatively inclined individuals who were fiercely independent. Sahir and Amrita complemented each other. Both sought love and believed that, 'Muhabbaton ki parakh ka yahi toh rasta hai/ Teri talaash mein nikaloon, tujhe na paaoon main' (The yardstick of true love is the elusiveness of the object).
They loved each other without being possessive. Amrita and Sahir's poetry reveals that desirable sense of longing but no belonging. Her association with Sahir resulted in more profundity in her works. Amrita never denied her extreme fondness for Sahir. Though she later found Imroz and lived with him till she breathed her last, Sahir lived in her consciousness till the end. This is something ethereal and uncanny.
Amrita will be remembered as a writer who poured her heart out in her works.
August 31 marks the 100th birth anniversary of Amrita Pritam