Amrita Pritam at 100: Political, progressive and a true pioneer

Full of spring, the writer adorned and refined our lives with her prose and poetry throughout the 20th century.
Published September 3, 2019

‘There was a pain
Which I consume silently
Like a cigarette
There are some poems
Which I have shaken off like ashes
From the cigarette’

Amrita Pritam, who was born 100 years ago in Gujranwala (now in modern-day Pakistan) was one of those brightest personalities of the Progressive Writers Movement, of whom we can justifiably be proud.

She was a true pioneer of our age. She suffered the cultural and political ambiences, springs and autumns of this unfortunate century, meaning all its pleasures and pains, upon herself and deeming its ashes to be sindoor, dressed and preened the parting of her hair.

Even after being burnt in the fire of our hellish society, this woman full of spring, youth and dignity did not get scorched or wither away; but emerged before us, clean and pure like the finest gold. As some poet said, ‘The eternal fragrance of our garden of beauty and love.’

This poetess full of spring adorned and refined our lives with her prose and poetry throughout the 20th century – levelled our rocky paths and gave us a lesson and a knack for living life, gave us love.

Amrita Pritam, of course, found fame as a poetess of the Punjabi language. And the circle of her poetry’s fame is as wide as that of the Punjabi language itself.

It is a reality that till the Independence of India and formation of Pakistan, she did not have the popularity and fame which she achieved after moving to India. In Pakistan, her self and poetry became famous after the appearance of her legendary poem Aj Aaakhan Waris Shah Nu (‘I say to Waris Shah today’).

This poem – rightly acclaimed as the dirge for Punjab – was written as a natural reaction to the division of Punjab and the riots and bloodshed which occurred here. This poem greatly affected the people and it became Pritam’s identity in the 20th century:

‘I say to Waris Shah today, speak out from your tomb
And let a fresh page unfurl from the Book of Love’s womb.
Just one daughter of Punjab’s woes caused your laments to flow
Today a million daughters weep, and thee they do implore
Arise you chronicler of pain and witness your Punjab
Where corpses sprout in the fields and blood flows down the Chenab.’

However, nearly 14 years after Pritam’s death, it can be said that the circle of her poetry’s fame would have been even greater on the condition that the mutual relations between Punjabi and Urdu were more cordial.

Till the time that the relations between these two languages are not cordial, a poet of one language cannot attain the popularity in the circle of another language to which he or she is entitled.

One should hope that as the veils will gradually be lifted, it would become easier to be acquainted with each other.

It is true that while Amrita Pritam was alive, on a few occasions, a reflection of her poetry would indeed appear on the screen of Urdu journalism; but poetry is nevertheless poetry.

To transfer it into the words of another language – as a few individuals like the great Urdu poetess Fahmida Riaz had also attempted with Pritam’s poetry – is first of all, itself very difficult; but even were it possible to do so, the most we would say would be that the words of one language were transferred to the words of another language – the real is meaning; to transfer the meaning from one language to the other in a way which renders the entire sense perceptions of the poet is realistically impossible.

In the presence of this matter in fact, even if the mutual relations of Urdu and Punjabi became cordial, indeed it is difficult for all the qualities of Pritam’s poetry to be unveiled before the readers of Urdu.

The matter is even more suspect in English, I am raising the matter of translation of Amrita Pritam’s works into Urdu (and by extension, English) because not only am I a translator myself, but overtly dependent on extant translations of her work into non-Hindi and non-Punjabi languages like Urdu for the writing of this humble centenary tribute, not being a native reader of Gurmukhi Hindi or Punjabi despite living in Punjab for the greater part of four decades now.

Amrita Pritam’s Paper and Canvas.
Amrita Pritam’s Paper and Canvas.

In addition, there is the necessity also of translating her selected work into English for this tribute, for the humblest attempt to introduce her work to a global audience not familiar with this great writer of the 20th century, however woefully inadequate it might be.

But the dilemma I discussed above is only limited to poetry. Prose is to a great extent – if not totally – free of this grasp.

A writer of a language can present his or her prose perfections indeed in another language. Just hard work and method is needed or those ordinary resources, to attain which is not difficult.

Very few Urdu aficionados know that Pritam was not just a poet, but an accepted author and short story writer of the Punjabi language.

In the backgrounds of the facts above, if her poetry cannot be transferred into Urdu and English, so much the better, since translations of her short stories have endeavoured to compensate for this necessary compulsion.

The literature of every age is affected by the intellectual, moral, economic and political tendencies of its time. Time is an ocean, and moral and social values are the waves of this ocean. There are very few writers who can determine an independent direction for their boat. They surrender themselves to these waves; in reality this should not happen. Writers are not lowly straws flowing with the support of waves; they are brave sailors leading their caravan by shattering the waves to bits.

Alas, very few writers have estimated their power and responsibility; countless writers lose their track. They do not lead the people, but follow them. A true writer cannot become a follower of popular passions, indeed he will be a leader.

The present time is a delicate one for authors and short story writers. The demands of the people are very low; moral values have fallen very greatly.

‘Progressive literature’ – which it is more suitably called ‘regressive literature’ now – has spoiled their taste. Third-rate films, short stories and novels have created extremely cheap tastes among them.

A class of so-called short-story writers and authors, taking advantage of this mentality among the people, is creating an inferior-quality literature. They have adopted a criminal carelessness towards their responsibilities.

The Revenue Stamp by Amrita Pritam.
The Revenue Stamp by Amrita Pritam.

Joan Porter has said, “A country’s splendour and greatness according to Johnson is because of its writers. But only when writers are the prophets of reason. If lessons of exemplary conduct are not forthcoming from them, then there should be a collar of curses around their neck instead of a garland.”

How painful is the confession of this fact that the new crop of our ‘progressive’ writers will indeed be deserving of the “collar of curses” according to the future generations.

In this hopeless atmosphere, if some writer or poet keeps a perception of one’s responsibilities and instead of walking behind the people, considers the latter’s leadership to be their right, then undoubtedly he or she is deserving of extraordinary respect and honour.

So when we review Amrita Pritam’s poetry and her short-stories from this viewpoint, we necessarily conclude that she had a deep perception of her poetic and literary responsibilities.

She had been least affected by the ‘progressive’ course of her contemporary poets and writers. For this scribe, for example, the earthy image which she has portrayed of the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in her poem Lenin Ke Naam (To Lenin) is far more progressive, therefore preferable than the more bloodless portrayals of the same by her more doctrinaire contemporaries:

‘You, how much of a beautiful character you are of my history
Who coming out of the calendar on my wall, always changes its date
And comes to meet me in the form of a new morning
After coming out of the calendar you go out into the streets
And a sunshine appears
Wherever there is a soft corner, he begins to laugh like a green leaf
Wherever there is a dirty corner, he is indeed ashamed
But what for you is a natural thing, is an un-natural process of history
History takes a breath of comfort
When it becomes really disturbed dwelling in the past
Then it deals with the present
So for the sake of this history indeed
So many times have I imprisoned you in the calendar
And similarly affixed the stamp of my land’s covenant
And have hammered the nails of so many ‘isms’ on it
But you come out of the calendar on my wall, change the date daily
And with new anxiety, new salvation in hand
You – meet me like a new day
Yours – the greatness of a new day
As if a shady corner of my being has heard a couplet of your sunshine
And which is an un-natural process of history
But what is natural for you, has become un-natural for me.’

Amrita Pritam’s short stories like her poems are rich with the best moral values. There is not a single short story which can be censured from the viewpoint of modesty and morals.

They contain all the elements. Her characters are ordinary human characters. Though she was not the possessor of fame on account of her short stories, but even a bird’s eye view of these short stories will make us conclude that Pritam had gained profit from all the qualities of short story writing.

She could examine, think and narrate her meaning in excellent style with skill and artistry. She did not just make do with the direct observation of events but also made a psychological analysis of every character of her short story. An ‘emotional analysis’ of human life was also prominent in each of her short-stories.

Amrita Pritam kept searching for new topics for short-stories, and was successful to a very great extent. Her ideas were unusual; her paths modern. Her ‘ideal’ was constructive, no destructive.

Like her poems, in her short-stories too she was seen to be giving a ‘message’ to her readers. Her message was one of life and love.

Her short stories were short in the real sense. Some short stories, like couplets, seemed shorter than was necessary. The reader wishes that they were more detailed.

In this respect, the example of her Choti Kahani (‘Brief Story’) from her collection Chabees Saal Baad (’26 Years Later’), definitely published before 1947 from Lahore by the Lahore Book Shop can be cited here.

In a mere four pages, Pritam summarised the whole philosophy of ‘art for life’ and the idea of selfless love with stunning economy of words and minimal dialogue between the two central characters.

The Google Doodle on the occasion of Amrita Pritam’s 100th birthday.
The Google Doodle on the occasion of Amrita Pritam’s 100th birthday.

Undoubtedly, if her short stories were not so short, Pritam’s pen had the power to increase their attraction by giving her abridgement a colour of detail.

But this is merely the aesthetic demand of this tribute writer, it is not necessary that every reader would totally agree with his opinion. I am sure that a re-reading of Pritam’s short-stories on her birth centenary would establish her at a prominent pedestal in subcontinental literature.

Amrita Pritam was thus the modern spirit of the folk, spiritual, mythological and poetic literature of Punjab in the 20th century.

Her Punjabi intonation and style was very close to the Urdu of the Punjab; she dealt with Urdu words exactly in the manner of the people of my native Lahore, and indeed this allowance turned her into the touch of an undivided voice. With her. The description of the truths of life was extremely topical. She painted the internal struggle of Man with such sorcery that the reader could not but be entranced.

Any tribute to Amrita Pritam will not be complete without an anecdote from Lahore, the city she made her home as a teenager after her native town of Gujranwala, and forced to leave after the horrors of the Partition. It involves Rauf Malik, 92 years of age now, one of the last living witnesses to the generation which produced the likes of Pritam and her contemporaries.

He is the younger brother of Pakistan’s legendary communist leader and writer, Abdullah Malik (whose own birth centenary will be celebrated next year); and was the proprietor of the Peoples Publishing House, which played a seminal role in the propagation of progressive and socialist idea in Pakistan, often at some extremely difficult moments in the country’s history.

Malik junior’s autobiography Surkh Siyasat (‘Red Politics’), which is no less of a historical document of its times, was launched in Lahore with much fanfare in 2018 and contains a tribute – among others – to Amrita Pritam.

In that chapter, Malik informs us that he was the first proper publisher of Pritam’s collection of poetry in Pakistan, which was titled Naveen Rut (‘New Season’), compiled at the poetess’s behest. This is the sole volume of her poetry ever published in Pakistan with her express permission and consent.

Given the tensions between India and Pakistan over the recent revocation of Kashmir’s special status by the Indian government, it will be apt to conclude this tribute with Tamghe (‘Medals’), one of her biting polemics about the futility of pseudo-nationalist, flag-waving patriotism, of which I suspect Amrita Pritam was always very suspicious:

‘Brave are the people of my nation
Brave are the people of your nation
They merely know death and assassination
Offering heads as sacrificial libation
That the head is never one’s own
Is a separate conversation
This Man is a corpse
Rare like God’s own corpse
So when in the midst of Man
This piece of God’s own land
Then its disliked odour
Does not rise ever
There is no lover
And neither is proximity a fear
No danger of pain
Just a border which is bigger domain
It makes them a subject of ridicule
Remove those borders which do not suit the rule
So the entire victory is free of disruption
And the whole feast is free of obstruction
On the lip of time a smile
And fixing on their bosom
Many medals of valour, impotent, unwholesome’

All the translations from the Urdu are the writer’s own.

This article originally appeared on The Wire and has been reproduced with permission.