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Friday, 8 August 2008

Amrita Pritam

by Suzan Abrams

Amrita Pritam, the late Punjabi poet was consumed with passion and a courage to defy the norm and her magic resonated in such lines as these:

"There was a grief,
I smoked in silence, like a cigarette
only a few poems fell out of the ash
I flicked from it."

Amrita Pritam together with her faithful lover of many years, Imroz.

The prominent grand dame of Punjabi letters together with her fiery, passionate poetry and the doyenne of its country's literature, Amrita Pritam, passed away on October 31 2005 at 86. By then, she had earned herself orbituaries in several world newspapers.

Pritam once declared that love meant admiration of a woman's mind and body!
"A woman should come to a man as body, stressed Pritam. ...as a poem and as a person all-blended and fused into one total being. She does not chide the male ego in the process."

Man, she went on to hint, was a hunter, as evolution put him on the highways of time and space. Woman was then a transmitter of knowledge. Yes, from the very prenatal state, the female had to tell a child - what was wind and storm, tree and bird, and what was an apple and snake, long before a holy book said it in so many words.

"No one", finished Pritam, "has ever peeled a woman."

Here was a woman who had earned world respect in every sense of the word.

She essayed through prose and poetry, the gory events of the Partition, earned herself admiration from both sides of the feuding Punjab, won herself awards a-plentiful, authored over a 100 books with her first poetry collection being rocketed into fame at just 16 and had her works translated into several languages including French, Danish and the Japanese.

Her best known novel, The Skeleton was later made into a powerful Hindi film called Pinjar in 2003. It dealt with survival and hope despite chaotic riots, displacement of families and human suffering. (please see pictures below).

And this is for you if you want to catch a breath of her verse:

Who will ever stitch a torn phulkari of light?
In the niche of the sky the sun lights a lamp.
But who will ever light a lamp
On the parapet of my heart... - Amrita Pritam -

And Pritam would have known a solid thing or two about romance. The petite poetess (she was barely 5 ft tall) was described as precocious from young.

For her lover the writer Imroz (pictured above and not Muslim inspite of his name) who devoted most of his life to her until the moment of her final fading breath, "he painted her eyes everywhere on walls and doors", and when ailing, she was finally unable to move, he looked after her to the last.

Pritam already had children; her daughter, Kundala and son, Navraj from an early broken marriage.

The thing is Pritam confessed to being in love passionately and intensely only once in her life and this unfortunately, had nothing to do with the star-struck Imroz.

Pritam who once took to cutting off a great chunk of her hair and smoking heavily in a show of defiance, was known to be head-over-heels in love for most of her years, with the charismatic lyricist/poet of an incredibly great stature, whose name was Sahir Ludhianvi.

Ludhianvi already had a wife and other women.

The famous songwriter of Bollywood films (an industry that would complete Pritam's fascination with fantasy - she loved all things Bollywood), who passed away in 1981, was known to be a heavy drinker and to shout profanities rudely and loudly when things didn't go his way. He died after suffering a heart attack while playing cards.

Pritam had met him for the first time at a press conference.

She took to immediately scribbling his name excessively all over her palm, fingers, wrists and on bits of paper. She even asked him to autograph her palm, "promising never to wash the signature off."

Ludhianvi on the other hand, stayed attracted to Pritam in a cold, silent way. He said nothing, just stared at her, in what I suspect today to be in the most sensual fashion, puffing away at cigarette after cigarette.

After he left, Pritam smoked all the crumpled butts that were hastily rescued from the ashtray!

This was the start of something electrifying yet bizarre.

Ludhianvi would visit Pritam, continue to say nothing, but to sit in front of her, looking straight into her eyes, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Then he would get up without a word to go.

Pritam who nurtured this lifelong crush with the fragility of a diamond, would stare in morbid fascination.

Later, she wrote some of her best poetry based on this strange but highly-seductive encounters. The poem described her fantasy lover's every body language and slight movement and it was clear how she adored each memory.

"There was a grief,
I smoked in silence, like a cigarette
only a few poems fell out of the ash
I flicked from it."

Pritam photographed by Outlook Magazine

"I will meet you yet again
How and where I know not
Perhaps I will become a figment of your imagination
and maybe spreading myself
in a mysterious line
on your canvas
I will keep gazing at you.
Perhaps I will become a ray
of sunshine to be
embraced by your colours
I will paint myself on your canvas
I know not how and where —but I will meet you for sure.
Maybe I will turn into a spring
and rub foaming
drops of water on your body
and rest my coolness on
your burning chest
I know nothing
but that this life
will walk along with me.
When the body perishes
all perishes
but the threads of memory
are woven of enduring atoms
I will pick these particles
weave the threads
and I will meet you yet again." - amrita pritam -

Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama D


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