The Impact of the Partition on Amrita Pritam and her Writing
By Melanie P. Kumar | On January 9, 2023 | Updated January 10, 2023 | Comments (0)
In 2021, The Union Government of India designated Partition Horrors Remembrance Day to be commemorated yearly on August 14. This is a fitting occasion to consider the impact of the India-Pakistan Partition of 1947 on the writings of litterateur/journalist Amrita Pritam, who lived through this horrific time.
For those of us who were born in independent India, there is not much recollection of what happened then, as perhaps our elders were trying to shield us from the sorrows of those times.
It is only through reading books like Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s Freedom at Midnight and Amrita Pritam’s works in translation, including her autobiography, The Revenue Stamp , that brought that terrible time alive.
Literature’s focus on the individual
Conventional meta-narratives of history can have limitations when they involve capturing a time, place, a people, or a life-changing moment. Without politicizing, there is a great need to be receptive to the literature of the time. It is this body of literary work that has the fullest potential in understanding the Partition historically.
The imagination of a writer has a different way of putting words, meanings, and shapes into emotions that cannot be easily labeled or understood. As an example, there is no historical record that conveys the loss and trauma of the Holocaust in such personal terms as does Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.
Historical documentation might have a macro approach, while literature tends to focus on an individual and her private sphere, dealing with personal responses to major historical events. Studying the Partition from an individual’s point of view can reveal the enormity of the suffering. More and more, we have come to realize that the personal can also be political.
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Learn more about Amrita Pritam
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Poetry and story bear witness to the Partition
Since 1947, many poets across South Asia and even the diaspora have attempted to put into words the loss and terror that the Partition inflicted on them and the people around them.
They have struggled with and documented the legacy of that period through the lamentations reflected in their writings. They attempt to distill in a few lines the complicated history and the complex set of emotions that we are still wrestling with even today.
Pritam’s character, Puro, from her heartbreaking story, “Pinjar,” later made into a brilliant film, becomes representative of the plight of the women of the time and their helplessness at the cruelty they witness when their bodies become the targets of anger. It happened then and it happens even today, as we are seeing with the invasion of Ukraine.
In her autobiography, The Revenue Stamp, Pritam contrasts the rebellious period of her life with that of 1947 and the Partition, “when all social, political and religious values came crashing down like glass smashed into smithereens from the feet of people in flight.”
Apart from the death, destruction, loss of property, displacement, cruelty, and loss of trust, Pritam also dwells on what it does to friendships, as suddenly people find themselves on two sides of the Radcliffe Line, drawn so callously by a British officer, who had no idea of the wounds that he was inflicting on a people.
The Radcliffe Line was the boundary demarcated between the Indian and Pakistani portions of the Punjab Province and Bengal Presidency of British India. It was named after its architect, Cyril Radcliffe, who, as the Joint Chairman of the two Boundary Commissions for the two provinces, received the responsibility to equitably divide 450,000 square km of territory with 88 million people.
Pritam’s friendship with the Pakistani poet Sajjad, whom she had known before the Partition, became a reason for her to receive flak for mentioning his name publicly. Sajjad requested that she avoid doing so, and she mourns that there is no space for the recognition of a friendship due to the partition of a country.
Still, her heart-wrenching poem on the Partition where she invokes Waris Shah (“Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nun”), the writer of the romantic poem, Heer-Ranjha, spreads the message of love and touches many Pakistani poets.
“Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nu”
One of the most famous poems capturing the loss of Partition is Amrita Pritam’s lament “Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nu” (“Today I Ask Waris Shah”). In it, she implores thePunjabi poet Waris Shah, who wrote the romantic tragedy of Heer Ranjha, to rise from the dead and put into words the bloodshed of the Partition.
In her lament, it becomes evident that the tragedy of Partition is too horrific for any living person to even put into words, let alone weave into poetry. Pritam hopes that Waris Shah will record and witness the miserable condition of Punjab and her people after the Partition and will turn over a new page in Punjab’s history.
In the poem, the river Chenab is bloody with the corpses of all those who lost their lives in the Partition. The poem also decries the violence against women in the communal riots at the time of the Partition when the warring communities abducted, raped, tortured, and sold women, or forced them to change their religion.
Pritam calls out to Waris Shah, who penned lyrics mourning the tragedy that befell Heer, to rise up from his grave and listen to the cries of thousands of brutalized women in Punjab.
Waris Shah I call out to you today to rise from your grave
Rise and open a new page of the immortal book of love
A daughter of Punjab had wept and you wrote many a dirge
A million daughters weep today and look at you for solace
Rise o beloved of the aggrieved, just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods, Chenab overflows with blood
Someone has blended poison in the five rivers of Punjab
This water now runs through the verdant fields and glades
This fertile land has sprouted poisonous weeds far and near
Seeds of hatred have grown high, bloodshed is everywhere
Poisoned breeze in forest turned bamboo flutes into snakes
Their venom has turned the bright and rosy Punjab all blue
Throats have forgotten how to sing, the yarn is now broken
Friends are lost and the spinning wheel has gone silent
Boats released from the harbour toss in the rough waters
The peepul has broken its branches on which swings hung
The flute that played notes of love is now forever lost
Brothers of Ranjha have lost the hero’s devotion, his charm
Blood rains on the earth, even the graves are oozing red
The princesses of love are now weeping midst the tombs
Today all have turned into Qaidon, thieves of love and beauty
O where on earth do we go to look for a Waris Shah once more
(Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt)
Amrita Pritam wrote this poem when she was only twenty-eight, while traveling to Delhi from Dehradun in search of work, just a few months after she had migrated to India.
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The Revenue Stamp: An Autobiography of Amrita Pritam
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Recollections from The Revenue Stamp
As she writes in The Revenue Stamp, Pritam herself was not spared the horrors of the Partition. In the darkness of the never-ending night, she sat holding her two children as she left her hometown of Lahore behind. She had to flee the city literally in the clothes that she was wearing when communal riots broke out in August 1947 during the Partition. She recalls the journey in The Revenue Stamp:
“Uprooted from Lahore, I had rehabilitated myself at Dehradun for some time. I went to Delhi looking for work and a place to live. On my return journey in the train, I felt the wind was piercing the dark night and wailing at the sorrows the Partition had brought. I had come away from Lahore with just one red shawl and I had torn it into two to cover both my babies. Everything had been torn apart. The words of Waris Shah about how the dead and parted would meet, echoed in my mind. And my poem took shape.”
She goes on to say in The Revenue Stamp that the poem founds its way to Pakistan. Sometime later, the late Pakistani poet, journalist, and writer, Ahmed Nadeem Kazmi, revealed in his foreword to a book by Faiz Ahmed Faiz that he had read the poem in jail.
After his release, he recounts seeing copies of this poem with common men and women, who would weep when they read it. Pritam continues, “At a BBC interview in London (1972), I was introduced to Sahab Kizilbash, the Pakistani poetess, who exclaimed, ‘Arre.’ So this is Amrita … the writer of those lines. I ought to be embracing her …”
Strangely, among the musings in Pritam’s autobiography there are indirect reflections on Karma. The family that she was married into had inherited a carpet, which was said to have been looted by a Sardar during the melee of the Sepoy Mutiny in Delhi. Though in a tattered and torn state during Partition, a grandfather would insist on sleeping upon it.
“During the mass exchange of refugees in 1947, the move to Delhi became inevitable. But the head of the family — Grandfather that is — refused to leave. He could not bear to tear himself away from memories and possessions, handed down from generation to generation. He had the firm conviction that the chaos and confusion would get sorted out in time.
Governments could not seize people’s homes. He wanted to stay back. But when conditions worsened, the military packed him off in a truck to Delhi. All that he could carry as bedding was the tattered silk carpet. The anguish of leaving behind all his treasures and belongings and the discomforts of the journey was too much for him.
He lived only a few days after reaching Delhi. He was lying on that carpet when he died and after his death, it was given away to a fakir. One thought came to all members of the family. ‘This carpet was looted from Delhi during the Mutiny. Today, accounts have been squared up. What belongs to Delhi has been returned to it after a century.’”
Pritam muses, “If loot too is a sort of debt that one day has to be paid back, the fearsome thought that time and again surfaced in my mind was that I too might have to return something. What it was, to whom, and when, I could not guess.”
Premonitions of anguish
Even before the pain of Partition, Pritam had been weighed down by some sense of premonition perhaps when she wrote, “Fellow-traveler, we are parting company today. This distance between us will grow…”
Pritam wrote a lot of poetry that seemed to speak of love and romance. But the desolation and the sense of loss that seems to haunt many of these poems are probably a metaphor for a lack of rootedness; a sense of homelessness from being displaced by the Partition. I am quoting from the poems with a disclaimer for my English translations.
“Suraj ne aaj mehendi gholi, hatheliyon par rang gayi humari dono ki takdeerein.” (The radiant sun mixed the mehendi colours that etched out the lines of our two destinies.)
“Tumhari yaad iss tarah aayi, jaise geeli lakdi mein se gehra aur kaala dhuaan nikalta hai.” (Memories of you flooded back just like the thick and dark smoke that emanates from damp firewood.)
“Yaadon ke dhaage kayanaat ke lamhe ki tarah hote hain.” (The threads of memory are but moments in the universe.)
“Aankhon mein kankar chhitra gaye, aur nazar zakhmi ho gayi kuch dikhai nahi deta, duniya shayad ab bhi basti hai.” (There is grit in the eye, which has dulled my vision. Perhaps the world still exists.)
“Ab suraj roz waqt par doob jaata hai Aur andhera meri chhati mein utar aata hai” (Now the sun always sets on time and the darkness descends into my heart.)
The Partition of undivided India took its greatest toll on the women of the country on both sides of the divide. In The Revenue Stamp, Pritam speaks of the anguish felt most by the women. Their struggles, anger, affection, love, sorrow, loss, and gain are all reflected.
Before Partition, Pritam writes of her friendship with a “wondrous soul,” Sajjad Haider. The two met and talked often whilst in Lahore. Post-Partition, the friendship continued through letters of shared joys and sorrows and a chance visit from Sajjad to Delhi.
After seventy-five years, it may still be necessary to invoke the message of peace and love that Amrita Pritam and others of those times wanted to inculcate in those horrific times. We can surely learn from history without needing a Partition Horrors Remembrance Day.
Contributed by Melanie P. Kumar: Melanie is a Bangalore, India-based independent writer who has always been fascinated with the magic of words. Links to some of her pieces can be found at gonewiththewindwithmelanie.wordpress.com.
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