Amrita Pritam

Punjabi poet and novelist

For over five decades, Amrita Pritam was a household name across Punjab province, partitioned between India and Pakistan. She was known for her ability to portray the essence of its robust people, their turbulent lives and, above all, their deeply entrenched pathos. In simple but delicate and creative prose and verse, she expressed the poignancy of India's division by the colonial administration in 1947, when millions were uprooted, with bloodshed and tragedy on either side of the new border.

Written a few months after Partition, the opening lines of Pritam's "Ode to Waris Shah", an elegy to the 18th-century Punjabi poet - "I want Waris Shah to speak from his grave / And turn today in the Book of Love, to love's next beloved page" - capture hauntingly the essence of the moving times. The poem remains immortalised in the hearts of millions of Punjabis.

In the novel Pinjar (1950, later translated as The Skeleton), Pritam depicts the political and human tragedy that subsumed Punjab in the months of sectarian rioting that preceded the sub-continent's partition into a Muslim Pakistan and a broadly secular, but predominantly Hindu India. Pritam focused on the lives of young Muslim, Sikh and Hindu women who became the victims of abduction, rape and other untold miseries during the fury of the chaos and mindless killings, in a cameo that was eventually made into a successful film in 2002.

Pritam's poignant poems also publicised the plight of Punjabi women, who had woven their suffering in a conservative milieu into folksongs, sung softly behind voluminous veils and in the privacy of the kitchens to which they were perpetually doomed.

She was born Amrita Kaur in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan, in 1919, the daughter of an orthodox Sikh schoolteacher and poet. Her mother died when she was only 11; the ensuing loneliness made the pretty and petite Amrita reclusive and she sought solace in poetry, publishing her first anthology in 1935 at the age of 16 in Lahore, the cultural and political capital of Punjab and the city where she lived until partition.

The same year, desperately in search of emotional succour and stability, she married Pritam Singh, a Sikh journalist who was much older than her. But it was an unhappy and highly turbulent union that eventually ended in divorce in 1960, rendering a strong feminist flavour to Pritam's later works.

Thereafter she teamed up with Imroz, an artist based in Delhi, where she had lived since independence, and their relationship survived for over four decades. In one of her recent poems, penned from her sickbed and knowing that her end was imminent, she consoled Imroz by declaring that they would meet again.

After independence, Amrita Pritam (she continued to use her married name throughout her life) joined the state-run All India Radio, and worked there for 14 years until 1961 when she left to take up writing full-time. Her autobiography Rasidi Ticket (The Revenue Stamp) in 1976 courted controversy for its candidness, as did the volume of poetry Kagaz te Kanvas ("Paper and Canvas") four years later.

In a literary career spanning seven decades, Pritam wrote 24 novels, 15 short-story anthologies and some 23 volumes of poetry, greatly enriching the Punjabi language. She was the first woman to be conferred with the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award, for Sunehray ("Golden"), her anthology of Punjabi verse, in 1955.

Pritam was also the first Punjabi woman to be awarded the Padma Shri, one of India's higher civilian awards, in 1969 and the Jnanpith Award - the country's highest literary honour - 13 years later. "I have just returned what I absorbed from reading the great poetry of the great Sufi and Bhakti poets of my land," Pritam said modestly.

A diehard romantic, Pritam was constantly in search of freedom and lived life on her own terms. She was also down to earth and possessed of a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour that helped her make light of personal tragedies.

Kuldip Singh