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Home > News> Big Story > Amrita Pritam: 'I wanted to write at all costs, and I did'

Amrita Pritam: 'I wanted to write at all costs, and I did'

Ahead of Amrita Pritam’s 101st birth anniversary, a close friend of her girlhood shares with Lounge an unpublished interview conducted for a school magazine

Amrita Pritam, in a photograph from 1948
Amrita Pritam, in a photograph from 1948 (Photo: Alamy)

Celebrated poet and novelist Amrita Pritam is one of the most recognized Punjabi authors of the 20th century. Although she has more than 100 books to her credit, she is best known for her novel Pinjar. Amrita Pritam wrote in Punjabi and Hindi, but her works have been translated into many languages, including Danish, Japanese, French and Mandarin.

This interview was conducted in Hindi and Urdu by my grandmother’s sister, Mukti Verma, who is 85 years old today. Her writer husband and she were friends with Amrita Pritam and growing up, I often heard the names of Amrita and Imroz at their home in Delhi.

Recently, while talking to her, I asked her to write something about Amrita with the intention of motivating her in these troubled times. A few days later, she called me excitedly with the news that she had stumbled upon an interview she had done with the writer for a school magazine in 1992 that never got published. Presented here is my translation of the text.— Shunali Khullar Shroff, author of ‘Love In The Time Of Affluenza’

Mukti: What is the most important thing in life?  

Amrita: The most important thing in life is happiness. But then so much of what we go through in life depends upon our ruling planets. You know our elders chanted on a 108-bead string. If you consider the real reason they did this, you will realize it is the chanting of 12 zodiac signs and 9 planets i.e. 12x9 = 108. These 108 planets travel throughout the universe and influence our lives.

Mukti: Your life is completely and wholly concerned with poems, stories and novels. This discovery that you are interested in planets and zodiac signs is confounding to me.

Amrita: But Mukti, I consider astrology to be a complete science. These planets, constellations, they hold a special place in our lives. The more immersed you are in the understanding of this science, the more accurate your calculations will be. So much of what we go through is written in the stars.

Mukti: You have increased my curiosity further... 

Amrita: I do not decry the importance of science. I do believe that scientific discoveries have done many wonderful things for us. Science has progressed, it has established its suzerainty over every aspect of our life like a sorcerer. But as long as science is estranged from spiritual power, it cannot give happiness to human beings. It cannot function in and by itself for the overall betterment of human life.

Mukti: Tell us about an incident in your childhood that influenced you a lot.  

Amrita: I was very young and was crying near my mother’s bed as she was on her last breath. One of my friends came by and bid me thus—“Amrita, wake up. Don’t cry. God always listens to children. Go! Pray to God for you mother’s life." I got up and started praying fervently for my mother’s life, but maybe her time was up and she passed away. My prayer was not accepted by the almighty. This incident left a lasting impression on my mind. After that, when anyone asked me if there was a God, I would answer—“No, if God were there, wouldn’t he have listened to a child’s implorations?’ 

(from left) Mukti Verma, Amrita Pritam and Balraj Verma.
(from left) Mukti Verma, Amrita Pritam and Balraj Verma. (Photo courtesy: Shunali Khullar Shroff)

Mukti: Is this indelible impression of the absence of God yet intact?

Amrita: No Mukti, that was in childhood—a childlike attitude, which was influenced by that event. Any child would have undoubtedly felt the same after their mother’s death. Life is fleeting and one considers a temporary object as permanent only to give comfort to the mind. I now think of God as a force of the entire universe, from eternal to infinite. 

Mukti: How much did your family contribute towards your milestones? 

Amrita: I was very young when my mother died but I was influenced by my father. He was a good writer and a poet of his time—he used to write in Braj language. His personality helped cultivate my literary temper. 

Mukti: Even though you weren’t married to a literary personality, how did you persist with writing?

Amrita: It is true that I was married off while I was still very young. After marriage I did not find that mahol (environment) that a writer needs for his or her creativity to thrive. So I decided to create my own environment and sow my creative seeds (she left her husband on amicable terms with her two children, he himself encouraged her to leave in order to pursue her life as a writer). To gain something, you have to be willing to lose something. You have to be willing to make sacrifices to nourish your passions. What is also required is a lot of conviction in your pursuits. I wanted to be able to write at all costs, and I did. 

Mukti: What were the various elements that moulded your literary personality? 

Amrita: (laughs) It seems that no subject will be missed in my exam today. Well, the Upanishads impressed me a lot. I was very fond of reading religious texts since childhood. In Sufism, Kabir, Dadu, Bulleh Shah left a lingering impression on my mind. The words of Waris Shah were enough to awaken my psyche and I feel their influence on me even today. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay was in a league of his own, who would not be inspired by him? Nowadays I am very impressed with Rajneesh ji. During my overseas trips, I read poems by foreign poets and I was moved by their words as well. 

Mukti: In your compositions, from Dr. Dev and Pinjar to Ek Thi Sara and Nagmani, love is presented in a Sufiana style. It is a love that is equated with sacrifices and acceptance without complaints. Could one say that has been a thirst in your life, which could not be quenched?

Amrita: This is true, isn’t it? It is the fate of all human beings, that many of our desires will go unfulfilled. 

Mukti: One can easily identify with the female characters in your stories. You have really understood women, their joys and sorrows. Your stories are those of women everywhere. In Dr. Dev, when Mamta gathers the courage to tell her husband that she has a child from her first marriage, he withdraws from her, as if all the love he felt for her up until that moment has ceased to exist with that one disclosure. He doesn’t let her shadow near their child either. It was a bittersweet story.

Amrita: Ours is a patriarchal society. We may be living in the 20th century but the fate of women remains the same. Men aren’t going to allow women their equal status. It isn’t convenient to them. The Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads, our revered ancient texts, were all written by men and it is men who are responsible for this state of women from the beginning of time.

Mukti: In your stories, female characters are unfulfilled in their present lives and tend to reflect on their past lives. It appears to me that for each of them, their search is not over.  

Amrita: It is a fact that when love opens its doors to you, you see that one person that you have formed an attachment with in this life. What you are not allowed to see, however, are the fine threads that have bound you to that person over previous lifetimes. For me, now there is only one name which is the essence of my soul, my inner meditation: Imroz. 

These words were penned not long ago.

Tum mile/ to kitney hi janam/ nabz ban kar/ mere badan mein dhadakne lage/ ab kaun baid meri nabz dekhega.

(You met me, and then for many lifetimes, you lived within as my pulse, my heartbeat. Find me a doctor who can diagnose this throb in my wrist now.)

This universe bound us together. I will not comment on his skill as an artist, but to translate my words into paintings, this is something that only Allah or Imroz can do. Imroz is to me what Krishna was to Meera. Imroz toh amber ka pani hai (Imroz is like rain from the heavens).

Mukti: Your poem Ajj Akhaan Waris Shah Nu about the riots of 1947 expresses your sorrow over the horrors of Partition. Can we hear a line or two?

Amrita:Punjab ki ek beti royi thi/ tuney ek lambi dastaan likhi/ aaj lakhon betiyaan ro rahi hain/ Waris Shah tumhey keh rahein hoon Punjab ki halat dekho/ apni kabr sey bolo/ aur ishq ki kitaab ka/ koi naya varka kholo

(I say to Waris Shah today, speak out from your tomb, and let a fresh page unfurl from the Book of Love’s womb. The woes of just one daughter of Punjab 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.)

In 1947, when clouds of doom engulfed India and Pakistan, there was endless despair and a constant ache in the heart from the rioting and violence that was taking place around us. What were we and what had we become? We all belonged to that one blooming garden, living and dying together, and then we were separated. And we started killing and robbing each other.

Mukti: There was a phase when you did a fair bit of political writing as well. Tell us about it.

Amrita: It was a good phase that got even better when it ended because nobody was willing to answer my most fundamental questions at the time. The Vedas say that if you do not familiarize yourself with the root, new leaves shan’t sprout. You must welcome the new leaves. But today there is an attempt to gain power and wealth in the name of democracy.

Mukti Verma is the author of Khamosh Dastak, a collection of short stories (available on Amazon).

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