Amrita Pritam, a novelist and poet, was a woman way ahead of her time who refused to be bound by stereotypes. So if she was unhappy in her marriage, she chose to walk out; if she fell in love, she chose to live in.
The world remembers her as someone who wrote over 100 books of poetry, fiction, biographies, a collection of Punjabi folk songs and an autobiography that were all translated into many Indian and foreign languages.
But more than a literary wonder, she was a woman who dared to defy societal norms, the ways of the world and form an identity of her own. She refused to be bound by stereotypes and traditions.
Amrita Pritam was born Amrit Kaur on 31 August 1919 in Mandi Bahauddin, Punjab, present-day Pakistan. Her mother was a teacher, while her father was a poet and a scholar. She lost her mother when she was only eleven years old, which changed her life in several ways. Plagued by loneliness and the need to take on adult responsibilities, she started writing when she was very young and published her first anthology of poems Amrit Lehren in 1936. She was only 16 at that time. In the same year, she married Pritam Singh, to whom she was engaged in early childhood. Pritam Singh was the son of a hosiery merchant of Lahore’s Anarkali bazaar. After marriage, Amrit Kaur became Amrita Pritam. The marriage led to two children, a son and a daughter.
Though she began her journey as a romantic poet, the country’s partition changed everything. She became part of the Progressive Writer’s Movement, a liberal literary movement in pre-partition India. This had a significant impact on her writing. In 1944 she came out with a poetry collection titled Lok Peed ( Anguish of the Public), where she wrote about the effects of World War II and the Bengal famine on the economy. She also started getting involved in social work and did a brief stint at the Lahore Radio Station. All this work made her aware of the sufferings and vulnerability of the masses, especially women and made her more rebellious.
Impact of Independence
And then came the independence of the country but with a price. The country got partitioned and stricken by communal violence. Amrita, who was just 28 then, became a refugee and had to move from Lahore to Delhi. Her anguish at this happening which tore the country into two came out in the form of a poem Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu ( I ask Waris Shah today).
She also wrote a novel Pinjar based on the partition in 1950, which told the story of the partition riots and their repercussions, particularly on women. This novel was later made into a movie.
While the country was facing this major crisis, Amrita’s personal life was not faring any better. She was extremely unhappy in her marriage, but rather than continue, which most women would have done, she decided to end it and divorced her husband in 1960. Though it was her choice, the decision wasn’t easy. Again, this painful experience impacted her writings, and they now started getting a feminist touch.
After moving to Delhi, she started working with the Punjabi service of All India Radio and continued till 1961.
Life went on, and she got into a relationship with the poet Sahir Ludhianvi. However, this relationship also did not give her much happiness because Sahir never wanted to make any commitment. Once again, she took to expressing her feelings through her writings. This phase of her life is depicted in her autobiography Rasidi Ticket ( Revenue Stamp). Interestingly, her last meeting with Sahir was immortalized by her dear friend Fahmida Riaz in her work Amrita Ki Sahir Se Akhari Mulaaqaat (Amrita’s Last Meeting With Sahir)
And then she found the love of her life Imroz. He was someone who loved her as much as she loved him. Their first meeting is immortalized in a poem Shaam Ka Phool ( Evening Flower), written by Amrita. She spent almost 40 years of her life with him, which was probably the happiest time of her life.
Their life together is also the subject of the book Amrita Imroz: A Love Story.
Though much younger than her, Imroz gave Amrita everything that her earlier relationships had not been able to. He showered her with love, adoration and commitment, something every woman wants, and Amrita was no different. Their love was unconditional.
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Towards the end of her life, Amrita fell ill, and Imroz did everything he could to give her happiness, taking care of her with his heart and soul.
Their relationship was symbolic of love in its truest form. As he said, “We made no promises, no commitments. There were no questions, no answers. But love flourished without any formal expressions.”
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Amrita died in her sleep on 31 October 2005 at the age of 86, survived by Imroz, her children and grandchildren.
And then after her death, as if to finish something that she had started in terms of recording every moment of her life, Imroz published a book of poems Jashan Jari Hai ( The Celebrations Go On )
Amrita rose to be a great literary figure not only in Punjabi and English but in other languages as well. She became the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award for her magnum opus Sunehre, a long poem. Later she also received the Bhartiya Jnanpith Award, one of India’s highest literary awards.
Amrita left a rich and everlasting legacy for those who loved and admired her. Even though she is no longer physically with us, she lives on through her work.
When the body perishes
but the threads of memory
are woven of enduring atoms
I will pick these particles
weave the threads
and I will meet you yet again
Main Tenu Phir Milangi (I Will Meet You Again)