As the year 2019 draws to a close, we at The Seer would like to pay a small tribute to Amrita Pritam’s stories in the hundredth year of her birth anniversary. Amrita Pritam was born on 31st August in 1919 in Gujranwala, Punjab (which is in present day Pakistan). Earlier in August, Google commemorated her 100th birth anniversary with a beautiful doodle.
She wrote several poems, short stories and novels in her lifetime. Amrita is most famous for her melancholic poem, Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu (Today I Invoke Waris Shah). The poem addresses the 18th century Sufi poet, Waris Shah, to look at Punjab that was bleeding due to Partition.
Her other works include Pinjar, which was her first novel. The story portrays Partition’s aftermath. Her autobiography, Raseedi Ticket (1976) recounts her experiences of the Partition and also her relationship with poet, Sudhir Ludhianvi, among other things. In the Times of Love and Longing is a collection of soulful love letters exchanged between Amrita Pritam and Imroz. One of her other famous poems is Main Tenun Phir Milangi (I Will Meet You Again), a beautiful love letter to Imroz.
Female desire and thoughts are integral to Amrita’s works. She was unabashedly a rebellious writer and was unafraid of writing on taboo topics. Her short stories show women’s perspectives on love and art as well as their plight in a constraining society. She also did not shy away from writing about masculinity and its constructions in an age when ideas around toxic masculinity had not yet gained traction.
The Stench of Kerosene or Bu in Hindi is striking in its symbolism that haunts Guleri’s husband, Manek. Guleri is a carefree girl but one who is unable to bear any children. Children have and continue to be a goal that a married Indian woman is expected to achieve. Because Guleri is unable to do so, her mother-in-law pushes Manek to have a second marriage. Manek seems reluctant to do that. Later, he becomes numb after hearing about Guleri’s death. Guleri sets herself on fire with kerosene when she heard about Manek’s second wedding. The story ends with a son being born but the sight of his son ironically reminds Manek of the kerosene’s stench. Through this story, Pritam does not implicate anyone directly but brings together various ways of thinking that create boundaries for a woman and even lead to her death. Manek is trapped between his love for Guleri and his mother and the obedience to social norms. Guleri’s mother-in-law is blinded by the idea of the necessity of children in a marriage.
Five Sisters or Paanch Behene in Hindi describes different experiences of women. The story reads like an allegory or a fable. It is as if she is depicting the problems of all women, creating an everywoman. Two characters Life and Wind visit the five sisters of the 20th century. The first one is trapped within the walls of the house and so are all her fellow women. The second sister belongs to a subaltern section and has consequently faced many hardships. The third is compared to a statue and her marriage has forced her into undergoing an operation that turns her heart into a rock. The metaphor of an operation is apt to describe how marriages steal women’s identity. The fourth one cries out that she has lost hope in life because of her rape during the Partition. The last sister that Life visits seems to be a young singer and writer. Although she seems successful and talented, she is not spared from gendered criticisms. One could also interpret the last sister as a reflection of Amrita Pritam herself when the society was quick to criticise her unorthodox choices.
The Wild Flower or Jangli Booti in Hindi speaks of Angoori’s conversations with the narrator. Angoori is the wife of one of the servants in the narrator’s neighbour’s neighbour’s house. Angoori is a simple, innocent girl who believes that falling in love is a sin and that those girls who eat a kind of wild herb are the ones who fall in love. Like many of her other short stories, The Wild Flower emphasises on how women’s right to love and have a desire are controlled by moral and righteous forces which deny them any voice. The story can be read online in English on The Little Magazine website.