When I was in college, Amrita Pritam’s work of poetry, Naveen Rut (New Season) inspired me to write in Punjabi, my mother tongue. I had already been introduced to the Sufi poets of Punjabi language. However, the poetry of Amrita ji left a deep impression on me. Whereas previously I had written in Urdu and English, now I started writing in Punjabi as well. My first book Kanso Vele Dee hit bookshelves in 1972 and, as a tribute, I sent a copy to Amrita ji.
Those were the days when Indian television shows and films had just begun airing in Pakistan. There was much excitement and people had installed huge antennas to watch the telecasts. My favourite Indian show was the Punjabi literary programme Darpan presented by Amrita ji.
One day, on the television show, she commented on my book, and congratulated me on air, saying “This is very good poetry. It has modernism and symbolism; the poems speak of a new sensibility. They have given a new trend and shape to the Punjabi poetry.” I wrote her a letter of thanks.
She responded and from then on, I began corresponding with Amrita ji via letters and made sure I sent her all my books. Whenever I travelled abroad, I called her on the telephone, and soon a relationship developed.
When I first began reading Amrita Pritam, the work that stood out for me was her biography Raseedi Ticket (Translated into English as The Revenue Stamp) published in 1976; its second part was titled Mein Jama Toon. Raseedi Ticket created quite a stir in literary circles and several people objected to a few issues she had raised. In my opinion, Amrita ji was a very straightforward person; she did not conceal anything on the pretext of being diplomatic whether it was about her friends, her own life or her views regarding literature. In fact, every author should do the same.
It was Amrita ji’s poem Aj Aakhan Waris Shah Noon Kiton Qabran Vichon Bol, written about the bloodshed during the 1947 partition, that immortalised her in Punjabi poetry.
She was the first female recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, which she was awarded for her collection of Punjabi poetry Sunehre. She was also honoured with the Padma Shri in 1969.
In 1973, Amrita Pritam visited Moscow on the occasion of the World Peace Congress. Earlier she had also visited Tashkent, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the invitation of Moscow Writers Union in 1961. In 1980, Bulgaria instituted an award in memory of its revolutionary poet Nikola Vaptsarov and selected five writers from Russia, the United States, Italy, Poland and India for this award. Amrita ji was selected from India and received her award in 1980.
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While awarding her, the president of the Bulgarian committee said, “We Bulgarian writers are happy that a prominent Indian writer and poetess is our friend. We published her writings in Bulgaria and loved them because her poetry accepts struggle for social values and human welfare”. Amrita ji was given the symbol of liberty, an injured bird made of brass with wings spread skyward. She was also nominated for membership of Rajya Sabha in 1986.
A few years later, when I was in Holland, renowned Punjabi fiction writer, Ajeet Cour, invited me to attend a two-day Punjabi Kahani Conference in New Delhi. I stayed at Amrita ji’s home in the Hauz Khas neighbourhood for three days where I discussed literature, politics, sufism, Punjabi literature, literary figures with her and also exchanged views on Pakistan India relations. Those were the golden moments of my life. She knew about the ban on my Punjabi books during the rule of Gen. Ziaul Haq. When I asked her to watch a drama based on my Punjabi novel Bandiwan recorded in video, she was astonished as to how we produced a play on the novel despite the ban. I informed her that when Ziaul Haq allowed literary, cultural and political activities within walled enclosures, we screened this drama on the occasion of first World Punjabi Conference in 1986 in a house in Lahore.
I also went around Delhi along with Imroz and Amrita ji. We used to sit together in the evening, exchanging views about books. She would recite a new poem on my insistence and share her experiences and observations about Sufis, Rishis and dervishes. She showed two superb documentaries made on her. For those three days, I felt like I was in my own home, with my parents. Amrita would prepare lunch, Imroz served it and also made tea and sometimes I would lend them a helping hand.
During this visit, I asked Amrita ji why she did not write Punjabi poetry and focused only on Hindi. She said since there was a larger readership in Hindi, it was necessary to write in that language.
In 1990, the Punjab Academy in Delhi conferred the Waris Shah Award on her. Throughout her life, Amrita ji violated disciplines and revolted against tradition, and this is why she achieved success in her life.
In Imroz, she found a good friend, colleague and life partner. She first met him in 1955 and they befriended each other in 1960, after which they established Nagmani, a monthly literary magazine in Punjabi, together. This journal was launched in 1966 and ran for more than three decades. Amrita ji used to select material for the journal while Imroz was responsible for proofreading and sketch drawing. This magazine was of superb quality and Amrita ji encouraged and praised its contributing writers.
In February 2000, Amrita Pritam had a fall and fractured her bone. She was 81 then. Although she underwent a long surgery, she had to spend the rest of her life bedridden.
In 2003, the World Punjabi Congress presented her the Achievement Award as a gesture. A shield was prepared for her, and Mahmood Butt, a great painter, drew her portrait. A documentary on Amrita ji called Amrita Imroz produced by Basu Bhattacharya was also screened on the occasion. The ceremony was held in Pakistan and Amrita Pritam could not attend due to ill health.
On October 31, 2005 Amrita Pritam breathed her last and her death was mourned on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. What a pity that Amrita ji could never visit the place where she was born, grew up, got married and gave birth to her two children, Kundlan and Noraj. Both her children were born in Lahore, where she spent 28 years of her life. She never even promised to visit and always used to say, “Well, I will see and come if I am in good health”. But she did not visit Lahore and I will never be able to forget it.
The World Punjabi Congress is organising an International Conference on Amrita Pritam’s 12th death anniversary on Tuesday, October 31