Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Reflections (and questions) on Amrita Pritam

Amrita Pritam passed away this past week. I must confess that I haven't read enough of her work to feel that I really know her oeuvre. But I have some thoughts, and questions for people who might know her stuff better.

Her most influential story -- at least in South Asian literature circles in the U.S. -- is Pinjar ("Skeleton"), a dark narrative of the cross-religious abductions of women that took place in the Partition. The protagonist, Pooro, is a Hindu woman who is abducted and forcibly married into a Muslim family. Importantly, in Pritam's novella Pooro doesn't simply become yet another female victim of religious violence. Though she remains scarred, Pooro (renamed Hamida) comes to accept her new identity, and prosper in a provisional, post-traumatic sort of way. She becomes an agent on behalf of other women whose lives are jeopardized, which is almost a happy ending.

It's a powerful basis for a narrative, and Khushwant Singh's English translation probably doesn't serve it as well as one might hope. But maybe the story doesn't quite carry us all the way. Pritam's story is somewhere between a realist (ethnographic and historical) account of a particularly nasty aspect of women's experiences of the partition, on the one hand, and a more internal psychological portrait where realism is only a secondary goal, on the other. In the end, I think the second, more psychological reading dominates (for realism, one usually goes to the real thing, and look at the testimony recorded by Urvashi Butalia in The Other Side of Silence).

Here's the opening of the novella (again, keep in mind that it's a possibly questionable translation):

The sky was a colorless grey. Pooro sat on her haunches with a sack spread beneath her feet. She was shelling peas. She pressed open a pod and pushed out the row of peas with her finger. A slimy little slug stuck to her thumb. She felt as if she had stepped into a cesspool; she ground her teeth, flicked off the slug and rubbed her hand between her knees.

Pooro stared at the three heaps in front of her: the empty husks, the pods, and the peas she had shelled. She put her hand on her heart and stared off into space. She felt as if her body was a pea-pod inside which she carried a slimy white caterpillar.

Again, it feels more like a psychological than a realistic portrait, and as such it somehow leaves me a little flat.

It might be just the translations. But I wonder if I'm simply not getting Pritam? Anyone have suggestions for Amrita Pritam stories that are real knock-outs?

I took a glance at some of the many links in Uma's comprehensive post on Pritam, but none of the stories or excerpts from stories I've read from those links really do much for me.

Perhaps Pritam is stronger as a poet? Here are some lines from "The Scar" (translated by Harbans Singh):

I am also of human kind
I am the sign of that injury,
The symbol of that accident,
Which, in the clash of changing times,
Inevitably hit my mother's forehead.

I am the curse
That lies upon man today.
I came into being
When the stars were falling
When the sun had been quenched
And the moon darkened.

. . .

Who can guess
How difficult it is
To nurse barbarity in one's belly
To consume the body and burn the bones?
I am the fruit of that season
When the berries of Independence came into blossom.

Guess who she's talking about. (Shouldn't be hard)

* * * *

One thing I did pick up on from Uma's links is an interesting biographical tidbit, from an article that describes her relationship with the Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi:

A bachelor to the end, Sahir fell in love with writer Amrita Pritam and singer Sudha Malhotra, relationships that never fructified in the conventional sense and left him sad. Ironically, the two ladies' fathers wouldn't accept Sahir, an atheist, because of his perceived religion. Had they seen the iconoclast in him, that would have been worse; being an atheist was worse than belonging to the 'other' religion. Sahir, perhaps, had an answer to such artificial barriers in these lines written for Naya Raasta (1970):

Nafraton ke jahan mein humko pyaar ki bastiyaan basaani hain
Door rehna koi kamaal nahin, paas aao to koi baat bane

A young Amrita Pritam, madly in love with Sahir, wrote his name hundreds of times on a sheet of paper while addressing a press conference. They would meet without exchanging a word, Sahir would puff away; after Sahir's departure, Amrita would smoke the cigarette butts left behind by him. After his death, Amrita said she hoped the air mixed with the smoke of the butts would travel to the other world and meet Sahir! Such was their obsession and intensity.

In reading this, one should probably keep in mind that Amrita Pritam (born in 1915!) was married at age 15 to her editor (she started writing young!). It's a little unclear how she could even have considered marrying Sahir Ludhianvi.

There is reference to a frustrated romantic interest of Ludhianvi's here, but it's unclear whether Amrita Pritam is the person mentioned. In fact, I don't think it's quite possible, as I gather she moved straight from Gujranwala (Pakistan) to New Delhi in 1947. As far as I know, she never lived in Ludhiana in the 1930s.


Blogger ana beynaam said...

sad news about amrita pritam. i guess being away from desi websites, i had not read of her passing.

i haven't read much of amrita pritam except for what i've found in anthologies. have you read her poem "waris shah nu?" i found a translation in an anthology of women writing about war. of course i prefer the original punjabi.

can't say i've read "pinjar", but i saw the movie, and i don't know how close it was to the novel. i think "waris shah nu" is quite a knockout personally, but i haven't read enough pritam to make that call.

thanks for posting about her. i'm a newcomer to your blog and have really enjoyed the literature and language posts.


6:16 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...


Here's a link to "Waris Shah Nu" in romanized Punjabi and English.

It is a beautiful poem. My favorite couplet is:

kise ne panja paania vich dittii zahir rala!
te unhaa paaniaa dharat noo dittaa paanii laa!

(Someone filled the five rivers with poison,
And this same water now irrigates our soil.)

Seems like it could apply to some things that have nothing to do with Waris Shah, if you know what I mean.

* * *
The film version of Pinjar was pretty good, I thought, though they added a lot of stuff that wasn't in the book, and made it more of a colorful bollywood melodrama. If I made a film version, I might make it a quiet little art film with lots of shadows and silence.

But it was interesting to me that the ending from the novel/novella remained intact in the film.

6:39 PM  
Blogger ana beynaam said...

Thanks for the link! It was great to read it in Punjabi again. I think linking "Heer", a tragic love story to the senseless violence of Partition was quite something in terms of intertextuality. And I do know what you mean about the couplet having to do with more than just Waris Shah. I think hun vhi, kisi ne paniaa dharat noo ditta paanii laa.
I taught a class a few years ago where we read texts by women on war/violence, and I took the opportunity to bring in this poem, Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India, and Urvashi Butalia's book The Other Side of Silence to students with little to no knowledge of what happened in that time in history. I brought in Deepa Mehta's "Earth" as well, and having read the book, my students weren't all that enthused about the movie. Perhaps my opinion influenced them as well. I thought much less of Earth after I read Cracking India.

Read an essay not too long ago where someone talked about Sidhwa's novel and Pritam's Pinjar in terms of novels where women's agency is a connecting theme. I'll try and find that or the link to that if I can. Having just recently watched "Khaamosh Paani" (Silent Waters), I think it would be interesting to discuss not only how Partition and its effects have been shown in literature, but in cinema as well (unless we've exhausted that particular discussion already)

9:24 PM  
Blogger Shreeharsh said...

But it was interesting to me that the ending from the novel/novella remained intact in the film.

I thought too that this was one of the high points in an otherwise blown-up movie. In fact, more than anything else, the movie's ending was more resonant than the novel's (which I read in Hindi, and like you, found rather stark and austere, but also beautiful, once you get used to the resigned tone of voice).

The movie begins in 1946 (the novel in 1938, I think) and ends in 1948. Puro is no longer fourteen. (At least as played by the twenty-something Urmila Matondkar, she doesn’t look fourteen). The compressed time-period means that Puro and Rashid don’t have a son (she suffers a miscarriage in the movie and another child, whom she adopts is taken away from here because she is a muslim). In the novel, however, she has a son and the adopted boy is returned to her too.

Thus, in the novel, when she decides to stay back with Rashid, she has two children. In the film, she has none. By subtly changing the incidents in the novel, the film gives greater moral weight to Puro’s final choice. (It seems somehow more existential and less resigned. What do you think?)

Also, do you think Pinjar can really be considered to be a "partition" novel? I was surprised when I read that director Dwivedi considers it to be his definitive partition novel; for partition enters into it only because the novel is set between 1935 and 1948. Pritam might as well be talking about the thousands of women who suffer in times of war; who are raped, tortured, killed, abducted or left to die.

Sorry for the rather long-winded analysis. I think I got a little carried away!

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Kanya said...

Speaking of her romantic life, I was always fascinated by her relationship with Imroz. A man, so much younger than her, with whom she lived in the heart of middle-class Delhi and her children lived in the same apartment complex but a floor below hers. This, to me, is truly radical in a society where you don't get a rental if you are seen to be in a non-legitimate relationship. I haven't read anything by her, but would love to read a biographical account that describes her journey to this place of complete self-confidence which she apparently occupied right till her death.

8:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amrita was so sensitive to the agony and pain of wowen who face lust, rape, hunger,deprivation of love and care. She ruthlessly exposed man's false sense of superiority of gender when she says that no man has ever pealed a woman completely.A woman is a mirror, a reflection of the divine, the cosmic,which man defiles with his ugly and beastly designs. A woman is a godess who needs to be worshiped, adored, pampered, caressed very gently and fondly. She is an eternal source of joy,love, and inspiration and a symbol of feminine grace but man always exploits her for his own selfish ends.
Sat Paul Goyal

11:14 PM  
Blogger silbil said...

Hi there is a story of hers called 'The Wild Flower'
the link is this
and yet another mindblowing story called 'Shah Ki Kunjri' they are brilliant at least in hindi translation...there is a bhartiya gyaanpeeth translation called ' Satrah Khanaiyan' which has these among other really nice stories...

3:59 AM  
Blogger How do we know said...

Try the novel Nagmani.. its got a lot of passion which most ppl do not identify with, but Amrita Pritam fans know it wel enough. Also, try and read her in Hindi. She is best there!

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Rupinder said...

I have read Pinjar and seen the movies. The book has some differnces and does not suffer from bollywoodisation or songs. That said the film is a pretty good depiction of the novel. The novel tends to be a A level set piece or a University one.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Raza Rumi said...

Dear Amardeep
I accidentally came across your piece on Amrita Pritam. I liked what you wrote. Just wanted to add that Amrita's autobiography "raseedi ticket" quite candidly expresses her passion for Sahir. In fact, the famous anecdotes of Amrita smoking the cigarette butts left by Sahir etc. are based on her own words.
I will in due course share the obituary that I wrote in the Pakistani weekly "the Friday Times" last year.

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have not merely read amrita's work,but i have lived it. i consider myself to be the heir of amrita,but the boldness n grit portrayed by her in her times, cannot even be found in the literature of today.
kudos to her.

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe the word Pinjar means bird cage. It may be different in this context, but I'm pretty sure that this is the only meaning. Also, I do not feel that this is necessarily a partition novel because what happened to Pooro, is the story of many women, even before partition. What I felt was key about the partition taking place in the novel was to contrast how Pooro is disowned by her parents and considered dead and the acceptance of her, when it happens to 1000s of women in the time of partition. Amrita Preetam wrote to tell the story of the lives of so many oppressed women as many were not brave enough to speak out themselves. She saw and felt the pain of so many and expressed it through her writings. She let the tragedy of the oppression be known to the world not only through this novel, but through several of her poems as well. Waris Shah Nu, is speaking of the women that are in trouble during the time of partition and asking Waris Shah to come out of his grave and speak out for these women. When one daughter of Punjab cried (Heer) you wrote saagas, today there are 1000s of daughters trying and are asking to you to come out and speak!

7:59 PM  
Blogger jaijee said...

I have read most all of her works and read them ten times each...since i cant read punjabi so I read the hindi and english transaltion of the same.

Anyways coming back to comments somebody was looking for a more realistic work by her , you can try "Ek thi Sara'. Its a book about the paki poetess Sara Shagufta.
Those who wanna know her may read "Na Radha na Rukmani" and "Rasidi Ticket".

There is a brutal honesty, upfrontness in her writing which makes her stand out in the crowd.

Not to forget folks she was someone who witnessed almost an entire century.


8:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Open Your Heart to the Beloved

By Sat Paul Goyal

Existence is very vast and has a unique organic unity. Life celebrates the cosmic rhythm of all-pervasive mystery and wonder. Love is the pulsation and expression of that tender harmony underlying all existence. Love unites us with that infinite potential and we become an integral part of one whole.

Love is spontaneous. It springs from our open heart. And heart is like a small island: a fountain of happiness. Love is the flame and devotion its radiance. Devotion emanates ecstasy and empowers human heart with a divine opening. In love all boundaries disappear and we start flowing spontaneously like a river.

Life is of the ecstatic heart. All that is beautiful and subtle comes through the heart. The head is just our periphery. To live in the head is to live on the outer circumference without ever knowing the beauties and thrills of the center.

Heart connects us to our being. It gives a dance to our steps and makes our life a celebration, a festivity. Head is cold and calculative. Love leads to being. With love in heart, we can start looking at existence with fresh eyes. If our heart is open, we start enjoying stars in the sky, birds singing, rain washing leaves, and thousand other activities in the natural world.

The domain of heart is trust and longing. Head always doubts. We come to realize that source of all living is one and autonomous and that the same luminous consciousness animates all life. It makes us both compassionate and fearless. We start overflowing with love and ease. The whole humankind becomes one global family and we start rejoicing the essence of life by surrendering ourselves and removing all hurdles to union.

In the exquisite tapestry of life, the threads of love and longing weave elegant patterns where the finite and the infinite merge into the mysterious. The mosaic, called life, reflects the glorious music of the seasons, the splendors of woods, and the reckless exuberance of open skies and distant galaxies. When the island of heart evokes the ceremony of love, life is filled with the sparkles of joy and drunken ecstasy. When the fire of love is doused in the oil of longing, all dualities vanish and the wandering heart unites with the Supreme Being. Then lilies bloom under the light of full moon and peacocks open their colorful feathers and dance wildly. Buds blossom into flowers and their fragrance permeates the air and cuckoos sing in the mango groves. A tender heart lights its own lamp and a singing Mira lives beyond Mira. Anyone who bows to such a heart gets bathed in the energy that holds mountains. For an open heart all is possible:

Hang up the swing of love today!
Hang the body and the mind between the
arms of the beloved, in the ecstasy of love's joy:
Bring the tearful streams of the rainy clouds
to your eyes, and cover your heart with
the shadow of darkness:
Bring your face nearer to his ear, and speak
of the deepest longings of your heart.
Kabir says: ‘Listen to me brother!

Bring the vision of the Beloved in your heart.’ {Sant Kabir}

9:43 AM  
Blogger Raining Fire said...

Hi Amar

There was a short poem of Amrita Pritam in which smoking and woes are main themes.Read it loong time beore, cant reacll it exactly.
It goes soemwhat like, "There was sorrows and I smoked it away....
Can you post it here??


11:41 AM  
Blogger Raining Fire said...

Can somebody post the small poem of Amrita Pritam on "smoking away the woes"??

11:43 AM  
Blogger amardeep said...

hello Amardeep,
I recently listen a Poetry "Main tenu Phir milangi" by Amrita ji.
but it is in punjabi & I need to know its actual means in English.
can you give me a translation of this beautiful poem.

7:10 AM  
Blogger Raza Rumi said...

Please see the translation of "Main tenu Phir milangi" here:

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Amardeep,
Accidentally came across your blog.
My views on Pinjar,

Pinjar is not a historical depiction of partition as in what happened on which date.

It actually deals with the trauma and stress women faced at the time of partition. The theme is so complex.

So in this context it is not possible to separate the real and the psychological self.

It is anguish of women that their identity is nothing more than the female attractive body they have.

To throw light on this factor (in the movie)there is instance where a mad girl called pagli is pregnant. That shows the bad and lusty mind of men who don't even leave a mad girl who doesn't understand anything. A female body is enough mun mind understanding are not at all important

It is anguish and agony of a girl" Is desh mein beti hokar paida hoan hi gunaah hai..(sadly that is true for all over the world)

4:03 AM  

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