This article was first published in December 2016 and is being re-published in honor of National Poetry Month.
Of late, I have physically embraced the cloak of solitude. Reprimanded often as a dreamer in kindergarten by teachers, now having escaped their vigil I have resigned to my perilous hobby of contemplation. As a doctor, during the day, the drama of disease directs me but in the evenings I am abducted by the poems of Amrita Pritam, Mary Oliver, Robert Bly, Naomi Shihab and Faiz.
I sit still in my home frontier, my easy leg crossed over my other ankle. I tune into their voices. They speak to me intimately as though they have waited for me forever. I am perhaps as enthralled as the spring leaf on the old poplar that thrills in a mysterious shawl of bird song. My identity is revealed, shaped, molded and deepened by my intention to observe and experience my scattered self in their verse.
As I read I, once again, frolic through long summer afternoons free from adult censure. In the body of the poems the memory of my mother’s face emerges. I feel the bright light on my father’s forehead and admire his beautiful strong, artistic hands. His laughter echoes as it tumbles back across time at my first haircut or a stolen cookie and his knotted brow is real too when he looks at my math grades. He smiles his approval at the gold medal I won for an essay about the leprosy home. My mother’s nimble fingers complete the shadow work on my white organdy table cloth from fifth grade. Jumping off rickshaws, scraped knees, a rising cake in a round oven, my first crush, peeling off soaking wet garments, broken spectacles, running out of paper in final exams, frog leg experiments, spinach gulped down with water. Everything is a beautiful song that weaves in and out of my memory becoming my poem.
It is the miracle of remembering and experiencing everything all over again—just right, just as it was meant to be—the nurturing in our Zen-like childhoods. This is comforting as I give myself to the compassion of being solitary.
The sound of dad’s voice reading poetry late into the night, books piled beside his pillow meet the same turf on my bed. Writing becomes a sacred deed and carrying their emblem poems in the deep pockets of my soul my creed. This evening and essay is devoted to Amrita Pritam’s poetry.
Amrita Pritam (1919-2005), was a notable 20th century Indian poet, novelist, feminist and a proud daughter of Punjab, (now in Pakistan). She was the winner of the Sahitya Academy Award in 1956 for Sunehedey (messages) a lifetime achievement award given to the “Immortals in Literature” the Padma Shri and the Padma Vibhushan. A prominent voice in Punjabi literature, her work has been widely translated into Hindi, English, Urdu, French, Japanese and Italian. Through her writing, she has become the friend and confidante of so many women across the continents.
Amrita’s magic permeates the soft and deep hues of dreams, infatuation and longing. She blithely walks into the recesses of my heart blowing away reticent cobwebs with her easy rustic Punjabi dialect. She lets me dwell on my own heartbreak and listens long like a childhood friend. Then she talks to me in an intimate tone but when I open my eyes her words don’t leave. They remain accessible and timeless for me. How did she become so insightful? Perhaps she internalized her grief when her mother died at the tender age of eleven and in the depth of her poetry of commonplace things a penetrating sagacity emerges. Amrita’s verse has the redemptive grace of the Holy Ganga as she flows ebulliently through my mind-locks and washes away scars of distress.
This first prominent female poet of the twentieth century who lived in Lahore,(the city of gardens and free thought, birthplace of my father, Swadesh Kumar Kapur) is my kindred spirit. When I am with her, I inhale the fragrance of my fertile motherland of flowing five waters. Amrita helps my mother dress me in my bridal red and reminds the elders that they are not warning me of inherent untold suffering that comes with leaving the parental home.
In her poignant poem “Peed kudi di chholi pao” she implies that the bride is unaware of the pain she will receive along with all the blessings and sweets in her lap. But after the rude shattering of her naïve dreams, she wraps the weary soul of many young girls in the shimmering moonlit embroidery of her prayers in her poem “Channan di phulkari topa kaun pphare.” (Who can put a stitch in my scarf embroidered by moonlight?) In this poem, she compares the essence of pure love to a luminous embroidered moonlight which is so sheer that only a seer can embellish it.
Amrita was a born romantic; she used to compose romantic couplets in her pre-teens and tear them up fearing that her father would read them. She married young, but did not find her Ranjha (soul mate from the epic Heer Ranjha) in marriage. After separating from her husband, she fell in love with the romantic poetry of a contemporary of hers—Sahir Ludhianvi. This poignant relationship emerged in their verses but they did not unite in real life. The story of not meeting her poetic soulmate is recounted in her autobiography Rasidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp). She did not abandon the idea of romance, for in her golden years she lived with artist and illustrator Imroz. Her poem beautifully expresses this love for her partner of 40 years. Many beautiful poems were written in those years.
Rall gai si es vich ik boond tere ishq di
Esse layi main zindagi di saari kudattan pee layi
Because a drop of your love had blended in
I drank the entire bitterness of life.
When she was breathing her last she composed this piece, “Mein tenu pher milangi.”
I will meet you yet again
How and where? I know not.
Perhaps I will become a
figment of your imagination
maybe, spreading myself
in a mysterious line
on your canvas,
I will keep gazing at you.
Perhaps I will become a ray
of sunshine, to be
embraced by your colors.
I will paint myself on your canvas
I know not how and where—but I will meet you for sure.
I know nothing else
but that this life
will walk along with me.
When the body perishes,
but the threads of memory
are woven with enduring specks.
I will pick these particles,
weave the threads,
and I will meet you yet again.
Freedom of thought defined the writings of one born in a remote village of Punjab.
Aaj Maine Aapne Ghar Ka Number Mitaya Hai
Aur Gali Ke Mathe Pe Laga Gali Ka Naam Hataya Hai
Aur Har Sadak Ki Disha Ka Naam Paunch Diya Hai
Par Agar Aapko Mujhe Jaroor Pane Hai
To Har Desh Ka, Har Shahar Ki
Har Gali Ka Dwar Khatkhatao
Yeh Ek Shap Hai, Ek Var Hai
Aur Jahan Bhi Azad Ruh Ki Jhalak Parhe
Samajhna Vah Mera Ghar Hai
Today I have wiped out my street address
If you want to find me
Knock on every door, of every street
Where you find a glimpse of a free spirit
That’s where you will find me.
As I read her poems aloud, my voice mingles with my father’s voice reading poetry late into the night. His gusty voice urges me to keep marching despite the overwhelming grief of bereavement. Two years back, for Diwali, my dad wanted to give me a parting gift. I could not receive this final gift from his hands but I found palliative solace for my insurmountable grief in the audio CD Amrita Pritam: Recited by Gulzar, 2007. I played this repeatedly as I went through my days aimlessly. After my father’s demise, her words became my anchor. The ambrosia that personifies Amrita’s name became my salvation.
Mere thande kkhut de mitra, Keh de jo kuj kehna
Mein ik tidke kkade da paani
Kal tak nahin rehna…
Translation: Oh my friend who shared my cool drink of water in good times,
Please tell me what’s in your heart
My life is trickling out like a stream of water from a
I will not be here long.
I am certain that these handful of poems that I keep tied in my heart are indeed the mysterious gift from my dad. Yes Amrita, my friend: “Mein tenu pher milangi.” I will meet you again and perhaps we will together wake up Waris Shah from his grave and implore him to rewrite the devastating narrative that marred our birthplace in 1947 during the Partition.
These immortal lines are from Amrita’s transformative signature piece: Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah nu:
Here she implores the 17th century Punjabi poet Waris Shah of Heer Ranjha fame to rise from his grave.
Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nuu,
Ki tu Qabraan Wichon Bol,
Tey Ajj Kitaab-e-Ishq Daa,
Koi Agla Warka Phol
Ikk Royi Sii Dhi Punjab Di,
Tu Likh Likh Maarey Wain,
Ajj Lakhaan Dhiyan Rondiyan,
Tenu Waris Shah Nuu Kain
Uthh Dard-Mandaan Diya Dardiya,
Utth Tak Apna Punjab
Ajj Bailey Lashaan Bichiyaan
Tey Lahoo Di Bhari Chenab
Kisey Ne Panjaan Paaniyan Wich
Diti Zahar Rala,
Tey Unhan Paniyaan Dharat Nuu
Dita Paani Laa
Oh Waris Shah, you wrote volumes on the pain of one Heer.
Speak out from your grave
Today, a million daughters cry out to you, Waris Shah,
Rise O’ narrator of the grieving!
Look at your Punjab, the fields are lined with corpses,
And blood fills the Chenab.”
The effects of this fracture of Partition are still reverberating in the mountains of Kashmir. Today we can surmount our challenges if we tune in to the timeless classic poetry of Amrita Pritam. Her bold, revolutionary deeply romantic and spiritual poems have a universal appeal that echoes through several genres. Let us invite her clear voice into the sacred space of our solitude.
Monita recommends reading Selected Poems of Amrita Pritam by Pritish Nandy.
Monita Soni is a pathologist and diagnoses cancer. Her writing style weaves eastern and western cultures. You can hear her commentaries on WLRH-Sundial Writers corner and on “All Things Considered.”