Through a Translator’s Eyes: Shyamal Bhattacharya

Shyamal Bhattacharya
I met Amrita Pritamji, the iconic Indian writer first time in 1999 at her residence in Delhi along with veteran Punjabi Fiction writer Gurbachan Singh Bhullar for obtaining her permission to translate her works into Bengali. And to my utter surprise, the mighty lady, whose works as well as life, were a bold statement that redefined not just the Punjabi literary canon but also found new words and images for how Indian women perceived themselves, have permitted me without any hesitation and blessed me with a kiss on my forehead.

We found her in a good mood and she was quite humorous. She mentioned the famous writer and journalist Khushwant Singh once telling Amritaji that the whole story of her life was so inconsequential and brief that it could be easily contained within the small space at the back of a revenue stamp. She remembered the joke and called her autobiography Raseedi Ticket (The Revenue Stamp). This one incident probably sums up this prolific and ground-breaking writer’s philosophy of life – “My work/my life will be my answer”.

Before meeting her, I had gone through about her life and works. She was the only child of Kartar Singh and Raj Kaur, a Sikh couple who named her Amrita Kaur in 1919, in Gujranwala, Punjab in erstwhile undivided British India, now Pakistan. Her father was a school teacher by profession but is also believed to have been a small-time poet. The environment in her early home was deeply spiritual; her father was a Sikh religious pracharak (preacher) as well. Along with religious learning, she also inherited her love for literature from him.

Amrita was born a rebel, a questioner of norms, and a devil’s advocate of sorts. She asked difficult questions and challenged those things that everyone accepted as the norm. This gets reflected in her literature and personal life much later and throughout. Amrita became the first Punjabi woman writer to move out of the shadows of the contemporary male writers and created her own niche in Punjabi literature. Not just a poet, she was indeed revolution personified.

In her autobiography, she recalls that once as a young girl she noticed water being hawked at the railway platform as Hindu water and Muslim water. She questioned her mother — “Is water also Hindu-Mussalman?” Her mother’s reply – “It is this way here…” – was definitely not satisfactory for the young rebel. Later, a very young Amrita raised her voice against her conventional grandmother, who kept separate utensils for her Muslim visitors. It was “….my first baghavat (rebellion) against religion“, she writes therein.

Amrita, the young critical thinker who was already questioning a lot of morality and religion, turned almost atheist after the death of her mother when she was barely eleven years old. She realised the uselessness of prayer as all her prayers to restore her mother’s health had turned futile and stopped praying altogether after her mother passed away.

The family then moved to Lahore where the young teenager found herself overburdened with responsibilities of running a household. In such depressing and challenging circumstances, Amrita found succour in writing. Her exceptional talent did not go unnoticed and as a result her first anthology of poems ‘Amrit Lehran’ (Immortal Waves) was published in 1936 when she was barely 16 years old.

Trying to find some grip on life the young Amrita married Pritam Singh and became Amrita Pritam around the same time, a name she carried all her life. Pritam was the son of a hosiery merchant and an Editor, the couple had two children, but according to Amrita the union was loveless and devoid of any passion or deep emotion. I read details about her while translating the Autobiography of Kartar Singh Duggal as well. I was attracted, reading about her madness and compassion towards literature. Famous Punjabi Poet Mohan Singh was in deep and abiding infatuation for Amrita after the sudden demise of his wife Basant. But Amrita chose to marry Pritam Singh.

Not many days later there was an evening party at a friend’s place where Amrita came with her husband. Finding his love in the company of her husband Mohan Singh depicted what he underwent in a poem entitled Jaidad (Property)

At the door stood she – a piece of property;

Beside her stood the owner, her husband,

And in front, the lover.

At the door stood she,

Silent and still,

Like a lily-white marble pillar,

Her breasts were like two caged doves,

Her eyes like two bits of luminous stone,

Her lips like two rubies,

Silent and helpless,

Ended was her speech and her smile,

Woe to this benighting shadow of convention

Woe to this bloodthirsty ogre of custom.

Beside her

Stood the husband

Placing his hand upon her shoulder,

He said:

This is my property;

I am the master,

Manu's law favours me;

So does man's;

So does my rank;

The religion,

And the custom.

The heart?

That matters not.

I shall see

How this handsome edifice

Can refuse to give me shelter, Or deny me warmth in winter

And cool in summer.

In front, the lover,

Resolute in thought:

A piece of property

Yes, She is

A silent rock,

Which the fire of my love,

Cannot melt today,

I shall further inflame this fire.

Changing this world,

I shall return some day,

I shall recall her to life.

(Translation: Harbhans Singh]

It remains one of the most outstanding pieces of Mohan Singh's poetry of the period.

That it had become a scandal, Amrita Pritam didn’t care. In fact she seemed to enjoy it. Despite what talked about, she continued to meet Mohan Singh, visited him with or without her husband. Her husband, the last gentleman on earth, didn't pay heed to what people said. He was loyal to his wife; he had no reason to doubt her integrity.

In the world of Punjabi letters that was dominated by men, Amrita wished to carve her way. Her evolution was so unique that people associated her name with Mohan Singh bothered her not, for was Mohan Singh not the premier Punjabi poet of the day? She came visiting Mohan Singh, the editor of a leading Punjabi journal as an upcoming poetess. She figured in the ‘Panj Darya’ prominently. Her husband trusted her. They purchased a tanga (horse-driven carriage)so that she was mobile and on her own.

Amrita continued writing poetry so prolifically; in spite of the dissatisfactory marriage, as she mentioned in her autobiography, she had already gained much acclaim and by 1943 had six anthologies of poetry to her credit. Her initial work consisted mainly of romantic poems though she gradually gravitated towards the Progressive Writers’ Movement – a literary movement where writers were writing about socio-economic concerns of their society and times.

In 1944, in a poetry collection titled ‘Lok Peed’ (Anguish of the Public) Amrita’s first social poetry emerged and she criticised the economy being depleted by the Second World War and the disastrous Bengal famine of 1943. Her increased involvement in social work in the mid-1940s, her working with the Lahore Radio Station, when Kataar Singh Duggal was working there as a Programmer, for a brief period and her angst at the helplessness of the commoners especially women made her works around that time become more and more rebellious and socio-political in nature.

The partition of the country in 1947 became a watershed for Amrita- both as an individual and as a writer. She witnessed innumerable, unspeakable human tragedies. The communal riots that continued for several months during the refugee influx to and fro both sides led to such mindless violence that like most other survivors of this historic tragedy, it left an indelible mark on her mind.

Amrita, a young woman of 28 moved to New Delhi from Lahore. By now she was sure that her marriage was just imprisoning her body and soul. It was in this state of emotional turbulence that she penned one of her oft-quoted and most famous poems ‘Ajj Akhaan Waris Shah Nu’ (‘Today I invoke Waris Shah’) in 1948, invoking the famous Sufi poet Waris Shah.

In this poem she challenges the tropes used in romantic poetry – not just Punjabi or Sufi poetry, but the entire literary canon – where the woman is just seen as a consort/beloved and nothing more, her suffering and her dilemmas completely overlooked. Also, her vision of love here became significantly broadened and delved into the other worldly Sufi realms.

Nirupama Dutt, a prominent Punjabi/English writer herself, who was a friend and confidante of Amrita in her last years and has translated some of her work, writes in an article that in Amrita’s literature love wasn’t viewed as ‘a narrow man-woman exchange’. She was deeply hurt and saddened by the loss of a composite Punjabi culture and felt a deep sense of betrayal like many other survivors because of the mindless bloodshed during and in the aftermath of the Partition. Nirupama says that probably she had turned to Waris Shah to express this deep-seated anguish because he had composed one of the most famous and immortal love legends of Punjab.

“AjakhaanWaris Shah nu

Kitonqabranwichonbol,

Teajjkitab-e-ishq da koi

Aglavarkaphol”

(I call out to Waris Shah today

To speak out from his grave

And turn today the next leaf

Of the book of love.)

(Original Amrita Pritam, Translation: NirupamaDutt)

Her novella ‘Pinjar’ (Skeleton/Cage) came out in 1952. This was made into a Bollywood film years later in 2002 and remains till date one of the few Punjabi works on the partition of India from a woman’s perspective.

Amrita is mostly known for her passionate and unabashed love poems, hitherto unknown in the whole canon of Indian literature by women. She talks about the woman’s body as an independent entity as well as a contested space by a man’s love and the tradition’s pressure to procreate.

These revolutionary ideas and expressions made some contemporary critics describe her as a feminist much before feminism. She was a firebrand poet who would not mind any words just because of expectations from her gender.

 

Amrita began working in the Punjabi service of All India Radio, Delhi and continued serving there till 1961. In the 1960s, post-Pinjar, the feminist streak in her writings became more predominant and vociferous. But her feminism was not self-centered, it was more an expression of marginal women. In Pinjar, Amrita depicted the immense human tragedy through the lives of young Muslim, Sikh and Hindu women who were abducted, raped and killed. Several of these women were permanently separated from their families and those that were reconciled were not accepted and labelled ‘tainted’. Many of her poignant poems during this period also encapsulate the silent suffering of women in such a conservative milieu where behind their suffocating veils these women remained perpetually doomed and belonged nowhere. This is the reason I have decided to translate her into Bengali. Several of her later works – ‘KaalChetna’ (‘Consciousness of Time’), ‘Kala Gulab’ (‘Black Rose’), and ‘Aksharon Kay Saye’ (‘Shadows of Words’) all had a strong rebellious undertone.

Her writings on the partition move away from the gory violence and explore its impact on everyday lives and the association between memory and trauma in a post-partition world, especially in the lives of the womenfolk. From Angoori to Veero – the ‘ideal’ form of womanhood in nationalist literature was eroded with every protagonist in her work.love and desire in Amrita Pritam’s work was never seen through just rose-tinted glasses. In her poem, ‘Virgin’, she wrote:

“To fulfill our union

I had to kill the virgin.

And kill her, I did.

Such murders are sanctioned by the law

Only the humiliation accompanying them is illegal.

So I drank the poison of humiliation.”

For me this is a sharp critique of marital rape and the complicity of the law in it. Who kills the virgin and for what purposes? But the way the poem ends, it raises another question: Who truly is the virgin?

“But when I saw myself in my mirror,

there she was before me;

The same one I thought I had

murdered during the night.

Oh, God!

Was the bridal chamber so dark that I could not tell

the one I had slain

from the one I did, in fact, kill.”

Amrita survived and walked out of a loveless marriage, as mentioned earlier, she bore with courage the agony of being uprooted from her homeland during partition and went on to lead an exemplary life.

Amrita’s life choices, as well as her literature, were definitely ahead of her times. She gathered the courage to walk out of her loveless arranged marriage, which was unheard of in those times, and openly acknowledged her love for the famous poet Sahir Ludhianavi. She lived the rest of her life with her companion Imroz, the artist from Pakistan who migrated to India only because of her. Her relationship with Imroz resulted in some of her most beautiful poems and has served as an example to look up to for women who dare to be themselves in a world that is constantly trying to put them into watertight compartments – daughter, wife, mother or the more intangible ones – chastity, morality, virtue. I read her letters to Imroz and Sahir Ludhianvi that explore unrestricted desire, love and passion paved the path for many women in love. She wrote in the poem ‘First Book’:

“That was our tryst, yours and mine.

We slept on a bed of stones,

and our eyes, lips and fingertips,

became the words of your body and mine,

they then made a translation of this first book.

The Rig Veda was compiled much later.”          

Here is a profound intermingling of the sacred with the secular.

The hetero-normativity of the institution of marriage and the chains it binds us in was critiqued by Amrita in her poems ‘Night’ and ‘The Scar’ questioned the norms of our society – motherhood, pregnancy, marriage, and the inherent gendered violence within hetero-normative relationships. Almost like Simone De Beauvoir, Amrita Pritam lived her principles choosing to break off an unhappy marriage and remained unmarried thereafter. This choice of being together outside wedlock in 1958, when living together was not even heard of, became one of the most defining statements about her non-conformity to the norms of ‘ideal Indian womanhood’. This courage allowed her to transcend all social sanctions and the formal legitimacy of marriage.

While discussing about the difference between the written works of men and women in the 20th century and the sexual politics in the publishing world she wrote, “As for women, I feel that women in literature are different from women in other fields… Basically, there is a prejudice against women in literature. Men take women’s writing lightly; they doubt a woman’s sincerity. For example, when I got this SahityaAkademi Award, and with it fame, the leading English daily in Delhi wrote that I got my popularity in Punjabi literature because of my youth and beauty. I felt very sorry to read that. Why not talent? They can admire a beautiful woman, but not a talented one.”

In 1964, she founded a Punjabi literary journal called Naagmaṇi, (Serpent’s Jewel), the monthly publication in which she started showcasing the work of emerging and reputed Punjabi poets and writers as well as translations of foreign writers, as her contribution to a growing new canon of new literatures in India. The mere fact that Amrita Pritam would choose a name which has the word Serpent – a dubious animal in most mythology – is perhaps representative of her desire to challenge the society and its ideas.

Amrita’s literary legacy is vast not just in its impact but its volume too, consisting of more than a hundred books of poetry, fiction, biographies, essays, and even a collection of Punjabi folk songs – many of which were translated into several Indian and foreign languages as her fame and reputation grew.

In 1956 Amrita’s work ‘Sunehey’ (‘Messages’) was conferred the reputed Sahitya Akademi Award. Later she was also awarded one of India’s highest literary awards – the Bhartiya Jnanpith Award for ‘KagajTe Canvas’ (‘Paper and Canvas’). She was also the recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award and was elected a member of the RajyaSabha.

 

Amrita Pritam’s legacy for women and subsequent generations is to intentionally challenge status quo, trying to use art to challenge accepted taboos and redefine them. Be fearless, unabashed and courageous in the face of crude censorship and charges of obscenity, of raising and using your voice to speak as you see the world – not in the manner that the world expects you to speak.

The last of Amrita’s love poems titled Main Tenu Pher Milangi (‘I shall meet you again’), is now not just a piece of poetry but a legend in its own right, having been recited by many including the famous writer Gulzar. This poem is dedicated to her long-time companion Imroz and is now seen as her perfect epilogue. It showcases her unique perspective on life, her vision of love and the world and her undying hope for a world full of love and peace.

I will meet you yet again

How and where

I do not know

Perhaps I will become a

figment of your imagination

or maybe splaying myself

as a mysterious line

on your canvas

I will keep gazing at you.

Perhaps I will become a ray

of sunshine and

dissolve in your colours

or embraced by your colours

I will paint myself on your canvas

I do not how and where –

But I will meet you for sure.

Maybe I will transform into a spring

and rub foaming

droplets of water on your body

and like a coolness I will

ease into your chest

I know nothing

but that whatever time might do

this birth shall run along with me.

When the body perishes

It all perishes

but the strings of memory

are woven of cosmic atoms

I will pick these particles

Re-weave the strings

and I will meet you yet again.

— Translated from original Punjabi “Main Tenu Phir Milangi” by Pooja Sharma Rao.

I am happy that I could handover her copies of the couple of short stories and six poems into Bangla at her residence in 2002. She told me to recite them in Bengali. She was swinging her neck, and then kissed on my forehead. Later on I could translate three more poems. And I am happy that Triveni Sahitya Akademi, Jalandhar and ‘Parasmani’ magazine founded by Amrita Pritamji honoured me by conferring upon me the Amrita Pritam Award-2015 for my first novel ‘Bukhari’.
***

Bionote: Shyamal Bhattacharya is presently working with Press Information bureau as Translator to Prime Minister of India. He is an eminent author of Bengali Literature and a linguist of repute. His early translations include the poetry of Jugal Parihar from Rajasthani into Bengali, short stories of Amrita Pritam, Kartar Singh Duggal, Ajeet Caur, Omprakash Gaso, Ramsarup Anakhi and 42 others from Punjabi into Bengali and short stories of Ved Rahi from Dogri into Bengali. Some of his important indigenous works include novels like Bukhari and Lodravar Kachakachi; short story collections like Chilte Daag, Fulmotir Basantkal, Jamichalang, Aakashe Orar Galpo, Bharong Pakhir Naach etc. Recipient of honours by Jahangirnagar University, Ganobiswabidyalaya and Dhaka University of Bangladesh(2016) Punjabi Lekhak Akademi, Jallandhar, (2000); Punjabi Sahitya Sabha, Sangrur, (2000); Triveni Sahitya Akademi, Jallandar (2000); Viswakarma Literary Society, (2000); Tripura Prabha Honour (2007), Sutapa Roy Chowdhuri Award by Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi, Govt. of West Bengal (2010), Amrita Pritam Samman (2015), Siromani Sahityakar Samman, Udaipur, Rajasthan ( 2016), Tathagata Srijan Samman, Siddharthanagar, U.P. ( 2016), Mahatma Fule Talent Search Academy, Nagpur( 2016), Sahitya Akademi,Govt. of Madhya Pradesh ( 2018), Manohar Kothari Smriti Samman,by Sahitya Mondal, Shreenathdwara, Rajasthan ( 2019) and the Sahitya Akademi Translation Award (2010). He represented country at Beijing International Book fair in 2010 and attended Brahmaputra Literary Festival (2018).

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