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Juggling two lives

SURESH KOHLI

Her poetry was sensitive and deep, her prose extremely lyrical. Remembering Amrita Pritam.



PROLIFIC WRITER: Amrita Pritam's prose and poetry linger on. PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

SHE lived two lives. Alternating between dream and reality. Between the inner and the outer world. From the mundane to the sublime. Even divine. Her poetry was a journey of self-exploration. Her fiction an attempt to relate it to the wider world of the woman. She remained rooted to her soil, even when attempting to place her characters in an urban context. She sought to find answers in sensuality as well as sexuality. Her poetry was sensitive, deep. Her fiction never rose beyond the mediocre. This was because she remained first and foremost an ordinary woman, almost never rising above it. But both her prose and her poetry were extremely lyrical. Although she kept pouring out her innermost feeling through her verses until her fingers could no longer hold the pen, and thoughts became wayward about three years ago, she had almost stopped writing fiction. Her last novel appeared in 1982.

Her Muse

Although her poem "I Ask Waris Shah Today" has immortalised her, to my mind it is the somewhat lesser known "Nine Dreams and the Annunciation", trying to relive the feelings, thoughts and emotions and physical changes possibly experienced by Tripta, the mother of Guru Nanak, that could find a place in an anthology of best 20th-Century poetry. The nine dreams are the nine months of pregnancy, and the annunciation the deliverance:

She describes her sources of inspiration somewhat candidly: "It can be compared with the first destination of the Sufis that is desire. The heart's desperate longings. That is the beginning: desire. The second stage is love or romance, and after that, the third point, is realisation. So this is a yatra, a journey. I don't even call it romance. I call it an inner thirst. And this thirst has taken various forms, and it continues.' So it is the intensity of the inseparables yet almost never meeting emotions of love and longing that make her poetry appealing and universal. This inner journey is evident in the opening lines of her poem "A Travelogue of Thirst":

Although her second novel, Pinjar ("The Skeleton"), sensitively recapturing the evil spirit of the immediate pre-Partition days, has become her most celebrated work of fiction, Amrita could never write a full-length novel. Her novels, therefore, can best be described as long short stories or novellas. It is through some of her earlier short stories, like "Death of a City", "The Aerial", "The Virgin", "Unveiling the Bride", "Five Years Long Road", "Two Windows" that she will survive the test of time. Or the sheer lyrical quality of prose that survived despite some indifferent translation. In the centre invariably is a woman, her feelings, her fantasies and the desire and daring to realise them. It did not matter to Amrita Pritam whether she was portraying a rustic woman or a sophisticated urbanite. The narrative flow would invariably, and perhaps, inevitably lead them towards a situation that drifted from the emotional, sentimental or pragmatism and realism. Though not necessarily towards the realization of the dreams and fantasies that they aspire to achieve. "Doesn't another human being always live inside every person, one that isn't a character in any story, but just a spectator of every event?" That vital sense of belonging.

Treatment of male characters

It is not that Amrita Pritam treated the male characters with any less honesty. But somehow the essential bonding seemed missing. She could almost never identify with her male protagonists who always seemed to be overstepping the threshold of the real and the synthetic. Or suffering from over-romantic notions. The central theme of all Amrita Pritam writing. The woman in her, and the essential feminine emotion — sentimentality, almost always prevented her from taking control of the male in her fiction, though not necessarily wrongly. And that was both the strength and weakness of her core writings.

Amrita Pritam excelled in her essays, and other prose outpourings. But even here the unlived moments are visible unfulfilled between the lines. Shortly before the pen fell from her brittle fingers, she had been obsessively involved with reinterpreting Osho Rajneesh, and the Pakistani woman writer, Tauseef on whose life she, perhaps, published her last, and practically unheard of book, Doosare Adam ki Beti ("Second Adam's Daughter"). Apparently, Tauseef endured a lot. She seemed to believe that when Adam was expelled from heaven he wasn't alone. He had a brother who too met with the same fate, though he was aggressive unlike the other. And Tauseef believed "she is the daughter of the latter because of all the suffering she underwent. And Amrita Pritam seems to have outdone herself in this book which appeared in Hindi, though not so much in the second part of her autobiography which was as lacklustre as the first, Rasidi Ticket ("Revenue Stamp").

Amrita Pritam was a very vulnerable woman. Easily corruptible — by a thought, a gesture, a sentiment, a feeling, or an emotion. She suffered from strong likes and dislikes and these got amply reflected in her fiction. Her output was fairly prolific: 23 volumes of poetry, two dozen novels and more than a dozen collections of short stories, and an equal number of assorted prose writings. But how much of the prose, creative or otherwise, will survive time alone will tell. One is rather pessimistic about that. But much of her poetry will, indeed, survive.

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