Amrita Pritam was a writer, a mystic, a poet, a rebel and a human being par excellence. She could be a synonym for ‘Freedom’. She lived life on her own terms but without being a confrontationist. Her autobiography Rasidi Ticket was a dignified answer to Khushwant Singh for his less than charitable remarks about her. Amrita, when alive, also lived in the outer world. Her communication with the supernatural has played a major part in Amrita’s life and writings.
Born in Mandi Bahauddin in West Punjab in 1919, she lost her mother when she was barely eleven. Her father Kartar Singh was a learned man with spiritual leanings who left a deep impact on a motherless Amrita. Amrita was not religious, she was spiritual. She mentions in her autobiography that when her mother was ailing, she prayed to God to spare her mother’s life, believing that God answers children’s prayers, but when her mother died, so did her faith in God. Married at the young age of 16 to Pitam Singh, a hosiery merchant in Lahore, she felt suffocated in a marriage that was not to her satisfaction. By this time Amrita had started writing poetry and fell for another upcoming poet Sahir, a love story that changed Amrita’s life but also left a few scars. Partition brought Amrita to Delhi. She was shattered beyond words and while travelling between Dehradun and Delhi, she penned one of her most memorable poems.
Aj aakhan warris shah nu kitte qabran whichon bol (I urge Warris Shah to speak out from his grave). She mentions in her writings that she saw corpses and corpse-like human beings; nobody could have imagined such a gory scene of bloodshed and hatred. While travelling alone at the age of 28 in unfamiliar surroundings in a train between Delhi and Dehradun, she thought of the great Sufi poet Warris Shah who gave Punjabi literature its greatest love epic Heer, and mentally held a conversation with him asking him to come out of his grave and add another page to his sad love story that immortalised the lovers Heer and Ranjha. She wails that, “If you could write such an epic for one woman (Heer), now lakhs of women are being killed, raped and maimed...someone has poisoned the waters of our soil... come out and add this chapter to your epic.” Her longtime friend from Lahore, Sajjad Haider, told Amrita that her poem had become a symbol of Partition in Pakistan. Ahmed Nadeem Kasmi mentioned that people of Pakistan read this poem and shed tears. I am not a literary critic to write extensively on Amrita’s writings, but I cannot forget another gutwrenching tale of Partition in Pinjar, a novel beautifully made into a film by Chander Prakash Dwivedi. In Pinjar, Amrita draws a graphic account of the savagery of Partition without mincing words: The communal flare ups, the helplessness of women and an eternal urge to break away from all this. After Partition, Amrita was working for All India Radio for a while, even while her relationship with Sahir had gone into a ‘silent’ mode. This is when Amrita wrote her Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Sunehade (messages). Sunehade was actually supposed to be Amrita’s oneway conversation with Sahir who had become incommunicado when climbing the ladders of success as a lyricist in the glamour city of Bombay.
When the Sahitya Akademi Award was announced, she exclaimed, “Oh my God, I did not write Sunehade for any award. If the person for whom it was written has not taken note of it,what do I care if even the whole world has seen it”. She writes somewhere that she went out to make a phone call to Sahir, but just as she was about to dial Sahir’s number, she noticed a news article and a photograph in Blitz, a popular weekly of those times, which read: “Sahir has found his new Love”. Amrita mentions her hands stopped in midair and she returned home from the telephone
booth. She later wrote Sat Baras (seven years) on the silence between her and Sahir. If Sahir’s popularity was its peak, Amrita was touching new horizons with her sensitive writing, expressing the anguish of women of this planet. She was a progressive writer and wrote extensively about the exploitation of the poor. And then walked in a Sufi of a lover in Amrita’s life: Inderjeet, a Punjabi painter who illustrated the popular journal Shama brought out by Dehlavis (Yunus and Yusuf). Popularly known as Imroze, Inderjeet, ten years younger to Amrita, was, as if waiting in the wings to come and hold her during her worst days of loneliness. Imroze soon became her Man Friday, so much so that when Amrita was nominated to Rajya Sabha, Imroze would drive her to and from Parliament. He was her lover, companion, adviser, errand boy and man about the house all rolled into one. Here was this Neo-Heer meeting his Ranjha, thus quenching the thirst of an ever-wandering soul of a mystic poet, writer of an era when fractured humanity was looking for answers to the madness around them. One could write volumes about Imroze and Amrita, but it suffices to say that such lovers are beyond the physical.
Amrita and Imroze were personification of Warris’s most popular lines Ranjha ranjha karde main aape ranjha hoyee (Seeking my lover Ranjha so intensely that I have become a Ranjha myself). Imroze loved her passionately and, for Amrita, it was the fulfilment of a dream. It was love without boundaries and love without any condition. Imroze knew of Amrita’s love for Sahir but he never resented this. As a matter of fact, the two became friends, and Imroze designed the cover of Sahir’s book Aao koyee khwab bunne (Let us weave a dream). He told Amrita that he knew how much she loved Sahir but emphasised that he also knew how much he himself loved Amrita.
Such was his love for Amrita that he had no other concern in life except for being with her. When her soul finally departed her body on October 31, 2005, Imroze did not believe it at first. He told me in so many words. I asked Imroze: “Your only topic of conversation is Amrita, you only paint Amrita…” His answer was disarming, sounding as if he was truly a practicing Yogi or Sufi: “Kohli, is one dot not enough for meditation?” Imroze wrote about Amrita’s departure: Till yesterday, life had a tree laden with flowers, fruits and fragrance and today life has a narrative…but living narrative…about the same tree… which has become a seed and the seed has merged with the winds and flown away…God alone knows in search of what kind of a soil. My Salutations to both Amrita and Imroze; I have had the good fortune of having a play written by low-key scholar Danish Iqbal and directed by legendary director M.S. Sathyu which was titled ‘Amrita: A Sublime Love Story’.