“My bed is ready for you
But take off your body
Like you did with your shirt and shoes
Keep it away on the stool
It doesn’t matter
Every land has its own customs.”
Apne Naal Mulaqat (Meeting The Self) isn’t among Amrita Pritam’s most famous poems, but it captures her literary genius and perfectly expresses a poignant sense of yearning with almost shocking intimacy. The body, for Pritam, was a looking glass into worlds of trauma, sexuality, loneliness and love.
But even as she wrote of the peaks and valleys of pleasure and vulnerabilities often, single works carry multitudes within themselves. In Kunwari (The Virgin), she wrote of shame and sex, “To fulfil our union/ I had to kill the virgin./ And kill her, I did./ Such murders are sanctioned by the law/ Only the humiliation accompanying them is illegal./ So I drank the poison of humiliation./ Came the dawn and/ I saw the dawn/ and I saw the blood on my hands./ I washed them/ Just as I washed off the odors on my body.”
More than 100 years after her birth, through a life that saw the trauma of Partition and the birth and rise of a new nation, it’s this stark yet lyrical intimacy of Pritam’s words that lives on.
Of feminism, sex and obscenity charges
When Amrita Pritam was born, in Gujranwala on 31 August 1919, rebellious women were the antagonists of any good, moral story. From the time she began publishing in 1935, it became clear that her writings on the body, female pleasure and sex were an act of rebellion in itself. Her visceral imagery came under immediate scrutiny: She was charged with obscenity by the government of Punjab, even for a poem she dedicated to Guru Nanak.
Pritam snatched her freedoms unabashedly, whether it was the more personal choices of smoking, drinking and cutting her hair short or how she knit and sold sweaters for children to stay financially afloat. Her fierce sense of independence, which marked both her words and her actions, ultimately boiled down to one basic human need — equal love. She explained it to journalist Rama Jha over the course of an interview: “Man has not yet tasted the friendship and company of a liberated woman as an equal partner. Men and women have not yet met as two independent human beings. If men and women are not economically independent, how can they love? Generally women love out of a sense of insecurity. Love is admiration and companionship of the other person. Economic enslavement obstructs the experience of love.”
Partition and its impact on Amrita Pritam
Gujranwala was in India when Amrita Pritam was born. In 1947, it became part of Pakistan. Pritam produced one of the most widely read works of modern Indian literature, Aaj Akhaan Waris Shah Nu (To Waris Shah).
The poem is addressed to the 18th-century Sufi poet Waris Shah, beseeching him to “just look at your Punjab” as “today corpses haunt the woods”. Khushwant Singh, who translated a number of Pritam’s works, once said her “only claim to immortality are those ten lines of lament to Waris Shah. Those haunting lines will remain long after the rest of her writing is forgotten”.
As Partition ravaged the two countries, Pritam was forced to flee Lahore, where she was staying at the time, in the very clothes she was wearing. In her autobiography, Rasidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp), published in 1976, she says the horrors and tales from that year were “each more hair-raising than the last”.
In To Waris Shah, Pritam describes the trauma of millions: “Someone has blended poison in the five rivers of Punjab/ This water now runs through the verdant fields and glades/ This fertile land has sprouted poisonous weeds far and near/ Seeds of hatred have grown high, bloodshed is everywhere/ Poisoned breeze in forest turned bamboo flutes into snakes/ Their venom has turned the bright and rosy Punjab all blue/ Throats have forgotten how to sing, the yarn is now broken.”
The wreckage of Partition also gave rise to Pritam’s first novel, Pinjar (1950). The Hindu protagonist, Puro, is abducted by a Muslim man who eventually, filled with regret, takes her back to her family after many years. But she is rejected by them, and is ultimately resigned to belonging nowhere. The book was adapted into a movie of the same name in 2003, starring Urmila Matondkar as Puro and Manoj Bajpayee as her abductor Rashid.
The loves that shaped Amrita Pritam’s literature
Amrita Pritam is often remembered through the men she loved because of how cinematically her attraction to them unfolded, and how her passionate relationships shaped her writing. She was engaged, at the age of four, to Pritam Singh, the son of a businessman, and she married at the age of 15. But she was deeply unhappy, and left him in 1960. The words of poet and lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi attracted Pritam and she had been in love with him for years, a relationship she wrote about in her autobiography.
Love with Ludhianvi meant long silences, deep gazes and quiet yearnings. They often wrote to one another, but never quite bridged the gap that kept them apart, Ludhianvi being what, in today’s terms, would be called a ‘commitment-phobe’. Pritam wrote in her autobiography that she would “collect the stubs and preserve them secretly in a little cupboard. And then I would salvage them one by one and quietly sit and light them, one after the other… And I would feel the touch of his fingers by holding the stubs he once held.”
Much later, renowned writer and artist Imroz came into her life and Ludhianvi was with someone else. Pritam and Imroz’s love is legendary, and is still widely discussed for his complete devotion to her. Their relationship is also the subject of a book, Amrita-Imroz: A Love Story, by Uma Trilok.
These two intense loves were also, many say, the inspiration for Anurag Kashyap’s 2018 film Manmarziyaan, starring Taapsee Pannu, Vicky Kaushal and Abhishek Bachchan. The film was dedicated to Pritam, and later, when someone on Twitter pointed out the similarities, Kashyap retweeted her points, not denying them.
So, here's my short theory on #Manmarziyaan (Jooti mat marna, bas thinking aloud rahi hoon.) It looks like @anuragkashyap72's modern take on the Sahir Ludhianvi-Amrita Pritam-Imroz triangle. And he dropped the biggest hint right before interval with 'Main Tenu Phir Milangi'.
— Sohini M. (@Mittermaniac) September 15, 2018
Pritam’s work earned her a string of accolades: In 1956, she became the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award for her poem Sunehade (Messages). In 1969, she was awarded the Padma Shri, and in 1982, she received India’s most prestigious literary award, the Jnanpith, for Kagaz Te Canvas. In 2004, the last award she got before she passed away, she was given a Padma Vibhushan.
But she is perhaps best known for her last poem, a love letter to Imroz titled Main Tenun Phir Milangi (I Will Meet You Again).
Main Tenu Phir Milangi
Kitthe? Kis Tarah? Pata Nahin
Shayad Tere Takhayul Di Chinag Ban Ke
Tere Canvas Te Utraangi
Ya Khowre Tere Canvas De Ute
Ikk Rahasmayi Lakeer Banke
Khamosh Tenu Takdii Rawaangi…
Ae Jism Mukda Hai
Te Sab Kuch Muk Jaanda
Par Chaityaan De Dhaage
Kaainaati Kana De Hunde
Main Onhaan Kana Nu Chunangi
Dhaageyaa Nu Walangi
Te Tenu Main Phir Milangi…
“I will meet you 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.
When the body perishes
It all perishes
But the strings of memory
Are woven of cosmic atoms
I will pick these particles
Reweave the strings
And then I will meet you again.”