AUG 31 marked the 100th birth anniversary of Punjab’s own Virginia Woolf, Amrita Pritam, whose poetic invocation to Waris Shah amidst the partition riots is still sung and remembered on both sides of the divide.
Born into a family of a Sikh academicians and writers in Gujranwala, Amrita began writing poetry from very a young age. Her earliest poetry was deeply spiritual in nature and was published from Lahore’s Sikh Phulwari magazine. This was to change post her marriage and her move to Lahore in 1935 after her wedding to Pritam Singh Kwatra (whose family was based in the city and owned a shop at Anarkali Bazar).
Her exposure to the leftist Taraqqui Pasand Tehreek (Progressive Writer’s Movement) affected her writing style. Elements of romanticism and the belief of equality began to appear in her works during that period of time.
When Amrita wrote her classic ‘Aj akhan Waris Shah nu’ (I ask Waris Shah) in 1947, she was a pregnant young refugee woman. Her lamentation and grief as she talks about the countless Heers of Punjab crying captivates the human aspect of the tragedy with much literary genius. The poem had such an affect in both Punjabs that during one of the interviews Amrita mentions how one fruit seller in Pakistan on seeing another Pakistani going to India to meet Pritam gave the person a few bananas.
He insisted that the bananas should reach Pritam, and if done he would think he had completed one ‘hajj’.
Amrita shall always remain the rebellious, cigarette smoking, bob haired divorcee whose affair with Sahir Ludhianvi and companionship with Imroz will be remembered with much amusement and delight as her seven decades of poetry is.
Harleen Singh Sandhu
Published in Dawn, September 3rd, 2019