Reflections on Amrita Pritam’s Autobiographies
Amrita Pritam is a prolific writer and a versatile genius. Her essays, short stories and novels written in Hindi and Punjabi have been translated into more than thirty regional and foreign languages. Among the contemporary Indian writers she occupies a unique position. This ‘uniqueness’ arises because of her foray into both lovely and harsh imaginative world which, apart from being confessional outpouring of a sensitive soul, is also a reflection on the patriarchal social constrains. The present paper is an attempt to understand the spoken/ unspoken ordeal of Amrita Pritam as reflected in her two autobiographies. ‘The Rashidi Ticket’ or ‘The Revenue Stamp’ is an autobiography which captures her entire life in its fold. The confessional strains are very much evident here in that Amrita makes a candid confession of the intimate experiences of her life. Even a casual reading of autobiography suggests that all the experiences of her life since childhood have been created and lived under some shadow or another: the shadows of death, weapons, words, dreams, patriarchy, and shadows of authoritarian power, shadows of contemplation and shadows of unrequited love.
In a patriarchal social setup writing autobiography is indeed a very difficult task for a woman writer. Keeping in mind the social and cultural constraints Tharu and Lalita point out:
Autobiography as a genre exhibits a certain ambivalence. The accent is on the personal. The existential contours of a life and the preoccupation with intimate, even confessional details often obscure the fact that autobiography always draws on the repertoire of life scripts that cultures provide at particular junctures in their history. Recurrent themes in many nineteenth-century memoirs are the woman’s joy in the love and support of a progressive husband and her education and the new possibilities that opened out to her. But even in relatively conventional accounts we come across passages that give us a glimpse of many-faceted struggles involved: the pain of being constantly watched and corrected; the feeling that they were not good enough; the exhausting demands of the new housework; the uncertainty and anxiety involved in raising children in the new mode, outside the reassuring circle of the traditional family; the longing for the support of a world they had lost, and so on. (‘Women Writing in India’, Vol. I, 160).
Amrita Pritam has woven a prodigious mass of personal experiences into the texture of her writings. It is necessary, therefore, to peep into those experiences of her life which have direct bearing on her writings. Her experience of growing up as a loner accounts for acute emotional vacuum in her writings. Her marital life was not successful, the evidences of which we very often get in her autobiographies and numerous other writings. Amrita Pritam’s autobiographies, therefore, are a personal testimony of the new sense of worth she experienced as ‘individual’, whose specific life is of interest and importance. Despite her preoccupation with the intimate, and the confessional aspects, she does not ignore the existential contours of life. The materials that she has gleaned from her personal experiences, whether real or visionary, have been converted into an artifact of beauty and order. Narrating the predicament of a woman writer Shobha De says:
‘For a woman, a book in progress is like a secret lover she has to hide from her family and so people are terrified at the thought of writing about themselves. They find all kinds of excuses. They lie. They make up. They invent. They rub out.’ (Selective Memory 1-2).
‘The worst aspect of writing’, reminds Shobha De, ‘whether it’s a memoir or a racy novel is that you can’t share the experience with anyone. It can be hellishly lonely sometimes. A feeling of such isolation, you ask yourself why you are punishing yourself like this. What for? There have to be better options” (Selective Memory 3). Yet the expression of the self is a major feminist concern for her as “an unbearable pain reverberates through the entire body” (Selective Memory 3). A woman autobiographer finds herself in this awful predicament due to the oppressive effects of patriarchy which maintains double moral standard toward sexes. This attitude gets manifested in women’s autobiographies in both explicit as well as implicit ways. These spoken / unspoken ordeals, as pointed out by Shobha De, are very much pronounced in the autobiographies of Amrita Pritam.
The most conspicuous trait that is evident in Amrita’s autobiographies is a woman’s battle against authoritarian and male hegemonic discourse and her determination to “to dare to live the life she imagines”. Her writing is celebrated for its sensuous imagery and evocative rhythm and is widely read and appreciated, though it has also been criticized as vacuous and sentimental. She writes:
‘Society attacks anyone who dares to say its coins counterfeit, but when it is a woman who says this, society begins to foam at the mouth. It puts aside all its theories and arguments and picks up the weapon of filth to fling at her’. (Quoted in Tharu and Lalitha 160).
Her writings after 1960 deal more and more with women who acknowledge their desires and their independence and accept responsibilities for their lives even at the cost of love. Her mother was the sole inspiration behind this spirit of rebellion in her. Her mother, she writes, ‘never failed in the slightest degree to honor and obey my father’s male will... [but] collected all the anger from her mind and poured it into my infant being’. (Quoted in Tharu and Lalita 160).
Women writers have to resurrect and heal a self that has been mutilated by patriarchal constraints. In dealing with the chaos inflicted by society the woman writer glimpsed a power within her own psyche. In his preface to Shadows of Words, she writes:
‘In the name of home, society, religion, and politics... those shadows were wrapped around the doors and walls. Somewhat deliberating, this book-reaches that desired destination – where the shadows of inner consciousness get translated into words. The symphony of this consciousness may not be captured in words- yet conserving about them are these few pages-which can be anointed as an inner journey’. (Preface to Shadows of Words)
The said statement brings to the fore the nature and atmosphere of confessional strain in the Shadows of Words. One thing is obvious that words are adequate to give vent to her feelings: the shadows of inner consciousness have been translated into words. Further, the two dominant emotions which become explicit are that this autobiography is about ‘inner consciousnesses’ or ‘inner journey’ of the narrator. The inner journey ranges from ‘a demonic shadow which baptized me with thick smog’ when she was ‘virtually standing alone in this strange world’ (Shadows I) to the spiritual enlightenment, “fervor of the fragrance within” (Shadows 140). In between is the experience of travail she has undergone because of her unrequited love for Sahir Ludhianvi, the noted Urdu poet. The teenager in Amrita Pritam is a sensitive soul, rather love-smitten and emotionally starved soul, the sufficient evidences of which we get in her autobiographies. The poems that she wrote in this age are the emotional outbursts of a love-lorn teenager who considered all the values which proved blocking stone on the pilgrim’s highway of love as repressive. She has attached considerable importance to this phase when she experienced the first flush of youth. She wrote in Rasidi Ticket:
‘In this, my sixteenth year, a question mark seemed to have erected itself against everything... There were so many refusals, so many restrictions, so many denials in the air I breathed that a fire seemed to be smoldering in every breath I drew... That sixteenth year is still present somewhere in every year of my life’. (Rashidi Ticket)
As it has been mentioned earlier, also at sixteen, she married Gurbaksh Singh, editor of the Punjabi magazine Preetlari, to whom she had been engaged at the age of four with whom she had two children, Navraj and Kandia. Her husband’s family was disturbed by the adverse publicity she often received, and wanted her to stop writing. And over a period of time, she has said in an interview with Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita of the feminist journal Manushi, she realized that this marriage had not provided the companionship she had imagined and wanted. When her father died in 1940, she felt ‘absolutely alone.’
The sixteenth year is the most precious and glorious but extremely turbulent phase of a youth’s life. When the first flush of youth knocks at heart’s door, turmoil begins within and without. Ironically, however, it creeps into mind and soul stealthily. Amrita describes the first touch of love in the sixteenth year of her age:
‘Came my sixteenth year – like a stranger. Inside me, there was an awareness I could not explain... Like a thief, came my sixteenth year, stealthily like a prowler in the night, stealing in through the open window at the head of my bed...’ (The Revenue Stamp 11).
The said passage is imbued with metaphorical implication. The description of the sixteenth year that follows is so emotional and poetic that it touches the heart. It characterizes the colossal emotional appetite of a teenager:
‘Every apsara disturbing the meditations of a rishi was, myth logically speaking, the commissary of Lord Indras. My sixteenth year must also have been Lord Indra’s work, invading the purity of my childhood. It was now that I began to write poetry, and on every poem I wrote, I carried the cross of forbidden desires. Just as the rishis became restless as each apsara appeared, so my rebellious thoughts pursued me, giving me no peace...’ (The Revenue Stamp 12).
This beautiful dream and lovely imaginative vision emerge into ecstatic experience and she is transported into the world where bliss forever reigns. She thanks God for being trapped into the network of love, inflicting this pain, rather romantic pain, in her:
I thank the fates that conspired to break through the years of my innocence. That conspiracy relates not only to that one year alone but to the whole of my life. (The Revenue Stamp 13).
However, despite having a “clandestine relationship” with this phase of life, this sixteenth year is also the year of awakening for Amrita when life took on a different meaning. It was the beginning of a new dawn, marked by a new awareness about life. A rebel in her challenged the orthodox, conservative and conformist attitude of society. Though nothing very significant happened, yet it marked a distinct phase in her life. She says:
‘Yes life took on a different meaning; it was the beginning of an uneven road of life with all its hairpin bends, its ups and downs. It was also the beginning of curiosity. I questioned parental authority. I questioned the value of doing my work at school by rote. I questioned that had been preached to me and I questioned the entire stratified social scheme. What I had so far learnt was like a strait-jacket that gives way at the seams as the body grows. I was thirsty of life. I wanted living contact with those stars I had been taught to worship from afar. What got instead was advice and constraint which only fed my rebellion.’ (The Revenue Stamp 12).
The said passage is significant in that it outlines the future course that rebel in Amrita will take. ‘Life took on a different meaning’ suggests that she was going to be nonconformists questioning the ‘entire stratified social scheme’. ‘I was thirsty for life’ suggests the acute emotional vacuum that had crept quite early in her life.
‘Even now, everything around me seems to constrict the soul just as the clothes one grows out during adolescence. The lips are parched with the thirst for life; desire comes back to stretch the hand and touch the stars. Wherever in the world a wrong is done, I continue to feel a deep sense of outrage.’ (The Revenue Stamp 13).
She opines that everyone goes through this phase, but ‘it happened to me with three time’s greater impact’.
‘First, there was the drabness of middle-class morality, then the dosage of “don’ts” thrust down my throat which I somehow felt I would have been spared, had my mother been alive. Here was the overbearing presence of my father, a man of religion. Poor Father. He wanted me to be an obedient, self-effacing daughter and here was I in my sixteenth year bearing my cross like the pang of an unfulfilled love. I was sixteen and the memory creeps into every phase of my life’. (The Revenue Stamp 13).
Out of several precious moments which both enlighten and consume her heart is the memory of unrequited love for Sahir. Because of the conservative family milieu and its hatred toward Muslim there existed hatred between the two. Amrita recalls an incident whenever her father’s Muslim friends visited her house, they were offered tea in glass tumblers which were kept away from all other pots and pans on a shelf in the corner of the kitchen, in their ‘ostracized niche’. The rebel in Amrita could not tolerate this and she revolted against this custom of her father and grandmother: “thereafter, not a single utensil was labeled ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ (The Revenue Stamp 5). She says:
‘Deep down in the layers of my mind, was the first impact of a religion against which I had risen as a child, when I had seen that glass tumbler touched by someone with a different faith became impure’. (The Revenue Stamp 150).
Ironically, however, she confesses: ‘Neither Grandmother nor I knew then that the man I was to fall in love with would be of the same faith as the branded utensils were meant for’. (The Revenue Stamp 5).
The said confession brings her passionate longings for Sahir as ‘love, all alike nor season knows nor clime’; in other words, it transcends cultural and religious boundaries. It’s worth becomes supreme even if it remains at platonic level, even if it is visionary, ‘Shadows are related to entities; they are subservient to entities’ even if they do not fit into any such pattern. Her poignancy of feelings has been expressed in the following words:
‘Young as I was, I wonder whether the shadow of my fate had not so been cast on me already... Shadows have a reality longer than is recognized. Faces too have reality. But for how long? Shadows for as long as you like. For a lifetime, if you will.
Years come and go. They do not wait. Some shadows, on the other hand, hover around is with an existence of their own.
Sometimes it seems as a shadow is cast on you from nowhere. Broken away, it falls in your path, and you have to carry it along with you to whichever part of the world you go – in search of the entity from which it broke off’. (The Revenue Stamp 5).
It is the ‘shadow’ of Amrita’s first meeting with Sahir that haunts her and kept on haunting throughout her life. Her passionate longings for Sahir remained a constant source both her hopes and despair. She missed him much in life, but bore the pangs of bereavement with stoical fortitude. Her feelings find expression in one of the most beautiful and telling passages of The Revenue Stamp:
‘Wayfarer! Why did you the first time meet me at an evening hour!
I am approaching the turning point of my life.
If you had to meet me at all why did you not meet me at high noon
When you have felt its heat’. (39)
The said lines are not written by Amrita but were recited by a famous Hindi poet Shiv Mangal Singh Suman. These lines touch the heart and so she comments about the universal feelings that these lines evoke, ‘each feels his own pain. But sometimes such pains bear striking similarities. These longings of mine have been bruised against that stern citadel of yours in the same city of my earlier hopes’. (The Revenue Stamp 39).
In 1944 Amrita met the poet Sahir Ludhianvi. She describes the meeting in “Akhri Khat” (Last Letter), which, she says, was written as a story only because it could not be posted as a letter to Sahir. ‘My beloved,’ it ends, ‘this is the last letter I shall write to you... now with these hands kissed by you I will write songs not of silk but of iron... When you read these battle songs remember I am writing them with the hands you have kissed.’ They enjoyed a long and mutually supportive friendship, but Amrita declared her love for him only in her poetry. The long poem “Sunehre” (Message), for which she won the Sahitya Akademy Award in 1953 and many other poems in her early collections were inspired by their friendship. She recalls an incident when a press photographer came to her with the news of Akademi Award for Sunehere. This testifies to the depth and intensity of her love for Sahir:
‘Late that evening, came a reporter and a photographer from the press. The photographer wanted me to pose as one engrossed in the act of writing. I put a sheet of paper on the table in front of me and, pen in hand, began writing in a trance, the name of the one for whom I had written Sunehere “Sahir, Sahir...” I had completely filled the sheet with that name’. (The Revenue Stamp 15).
Amrita describes her first meeting with Sahir, one small incident at a small town names Preet Nagar during adolescence that made him the daring darling of her heart:
‘Between Lahore and Amritsar existed a small town-Preet Nagar, where once an evening of Urdu-Punjabi poetry was celebrated, and returning from here to Lahore, one had to walk down a stretch of two-three miles to catch a bus. The evening before, it had become cloudy and started pouring, but on the way back it was softly sunny. The muddy path was totally wet with the night-shower, at places it was messy. There were around fifteen people, walking ahead and behind, among whom was the one I had been observing since last night. He just maintained silence-wherever his thin and tall shadow fell, I would quietly start walking in that shadow... Well, it was just an incident, and in my conscious mind I had never ever contemplated that in all the years to come I would have to walk along this shadow...’ (Shadows of Words)
Amrita confesses that this meeting, this dream ‘created a beautiful, exotic vision – I often visualized a river, which had a boat, saw myself in that boat and him too’ (Shadows of Words 19-20). This romantic dream cannot be realized in concrete terms but pierces her heart, ‘I love one man, but lost him twice’ (Shadows 35). Out of several reminiscences which flash upon her eyes, the one which is striking is as follows:
‘Whenever Sahir came to see me in Lahore, it was as if he had somehow been conjured up by my silences. He had become so much a part of them, still still in the chair until it was time for him to go away...!
He would quietly go on chain-smoking... he would smoke half a cigarette, stub it out, and light another. When he was gone, the place was littered with cigarette ends...
Sometimes, I intensely longed to touch him but I could not overcome my own reservations.
It was a time when I lived in my imagination a great deal.
When he was done, I would collect the stubs and preserve them secretly in a little cupboard. And then I would salvage them one by one and quietly sit and light them, one after the other... I would feel the touch of his fingers by holding the stubs he once held... !’ (The Revenue Stamp 110 )
One can guess the depth of sorrow in these lines. Throughout Raashidi Ticket Amrita sings of sorrow. However, this is not merely the song of but also of delight, redounding, as it does, to the glory of human nature. Suffering is the touchstone of the innate goodness of the human nature, even when this suffering befalls persons quite pure and innocent. The pain that she experiences is unbearably pathetic and it has been expressed by her through the immortal lines of Oscar Wilde:
‘I determined to commit suicide. After a time that evil mood passed away, and I made up my mind to live, but to wear gloom as a king wears purple : never to smile again: to turn whatever house I entered into a house mourning: to make my friends walk slowly in sadness with me...
Some people advised me to forget all this. It was ruinous advice. I would mean-the beauty of the sun and the moon, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves or the dew – creeping over the grass and making it silver – would all be tainted for me... to deny one’s experience is to put a life into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than the denial of the soul’. (The Revenue Stamp 34).
Bharat Muni, the reputed founder of the ancient Indian theatre, in his monumental work on dramaturgy, known as The Natya Shastra, has made a distinction between the feelings of life and the emotions of art. The former may be painful, but as they are manifested in a work of art they become capable of yielding delight. Her reflections on tragedy of life are exceedingly remarkable:
‘Tragedy is, when the silver plating peels off and the contents of the bowl turn poisonous and penetrate into your imagination...
Tragedy is, when you write your life’s letter to your love and you yourself go and lose his address...
Tragedy is, when with solely bleeding feet you stand where no pathway opens before you...’ (The Revenue Stamp 36).
Amrita’s autobiographies are a brilliant piece of a work of art. As a work of art it presents a world which has a strong semblance of the real life, but is essentially unlike it, because in this world things are logical, orderly and intelligible, bound as they are by the law of cause and effect or of probability or necessity. The result is a sort of ‘distancing’ where the world of realities is viewed not closely but at a distance. In this process the interested specters slowly rise above their personal limitations and prejudices, their selfish intents and concerns and contemplate on the human struggle against the odds of a life in a mood of entranced detachment Amrita’s meditative posture has been well described when she reflects on the essence of life:
‘During the first phase, like a Bodhisatva, I sat looking upon everything with an eye of a wonder, the minutes were somehow magnified, though for no reason that I can explain.
By the second, I had developed an overwhelming consciousness – it was the vigor of youth in revolt against the bastions of social tradition. The hatred and wrath rising up in me was like the precious stone in a toad’s head.
The third one was the courage to forget and demolish the present and to build a new future, the courage to shuffle dreams like cards before they are dealt out... the courage to take the losses in a game and to shuffle the cards again and deal them out afresh in the hope that luck would change.
The fourth is this sense of isolation.’ (The Revenue Stamp 40).
The most powerful evidence of Amrita Pritam’s confessional strain that brings to the fore her unspoken ordeal is evident in the passages dealing with the delicate human relationship, her unrequited love. Love, the first need of nature, the first prayer of heart, becomes the first martyr to this unspoken ordeal before it gets kindled and finds expression in words. If the language of love is silence, Amrita bears the pangs of separation with Sahir with stoical fortitude. She is quite open in telling about her illicit relationship with Sahir outside the laws of wedlock. At that time she was engaged to Imroz, but her physical relationship with Sahir was an ecstatic experience, ‘Strange meeting after many years when two lives throbbed like a poem’. (The Revenue Stamp 116) It is not the guilt emanating from the hot heat of sexual passion that pains her but something else:
‘A couple of years ago I met Sahir. The pressure he put on me was so great that I could not but go and stay with him for two days... But my guilt lay in the green years of my youth. And though I wrote poems like ‘Janam Jali’ on this professed “guilt”. I could still say with composure: And are our guilt’s heinous?’ (The Revenue Stamp 116)
This confession exudes a quiet courage with which Amrita Pritam faced the tormenting pain and desolation she suffered. It shows her rare sensitivity, intensity and passion. Hidden secrets of relations with the opposite sex, and twisting of the soul in unbearable pain throws ample light on the lot of the fellow sufferers on highway to love: ‘when I made love/eyes saw him/ and my ears heard him;/ my arms grow beautiful/ in the coupling/ and grow lean/ as they come away./ what shall I make of this?’ This sentiment echoes in the following lines: ‘Love put its thumb impression/ On the page of life./ But who’ll settle the debt?’ (The Revenue Stamp 77).
She is pale with longing for him. Casting off all shame and oblivious of all scandals she seizes on every possible pretext and tries to meet him. The pain of this love smitten lady cannot be diagnosed as it is in her heart that has been afflicted. It is the name of Sahir that has wounded her, ‘the sweetness of his lips is a pot of nectar,/ that’s the only curd for which I crave.’ In the day she had no hunger, at night she is restless and cannot sleep. Leaving these troubles behind, she goes to the other side, ‘A hidden knowledge has taken hold of me’. Then the pen in the hand, created a sensation on paper like the leaves from the trees. Having taken up this bundle of suffering, the body, how can she throw it away? It belongs to Sahir, she is true to him and there is nothing to be ashamed of him:
‘The relationship of mine with Sahir Ludhianvi, cannot be defined within the confines of a relationship... Sitting among the ruins, at times in the valley of flowers – those moments came which cannot be defined in terms of relationship. There were no bodies in that relationship, only the heart, whose beat was heart somewhat by the earth and somewhat by the sky... My relationship with Sahir can be somewhat identified in this light. In that long relationship over the years, it was only the heart – which was beating through the verses...’ (Shadows of Words 20).
Apart from bringing to the fore hidden turmoil inside her body the said expression also is a reflection of social constraints that a woman had to face in giving vent to her purely personal and private experiences. The intensity of Amrita’s devotion to Sahir and her courage in resisting every pressure to deviate from her chosen way of life can be demonstrated when we see her crazy love for Sahir. When her first baby was born and when she first looked upon his face, ‘it was the face of Sahir in mind...’ (The Revenue Stamp 108). She says that she was merely feeding her frustration, ‘Like divinity aiming at the creation of a wonderful one.../ Free from the claims of the flesh.../ Free from all that flesh and blood has been heir to/ From the dawn of creation...’ (The Revenue Stamp 108). At the same time, she confesses that she did it because:
‘I had read about how a child develops and how his mind is shaped by his mother’s thoughts... My imagination drew me away from the world around me and I said to myself: if you always have Sahir’s face in mind’s eye, he’ll grow to resemble him.’ (The Revenue Stamp 108).
Amrita’s love for Sahir is reminiscent of a Sufi poet of Punjab, Mirza, who having seen the bewitching, exquisite and matchless beauty of Sahiba exclaimed with delight, ‘Man Mirza tan Sahiba’. It means, when Mirza meets a beautiful girl, Sahiba, she feels that Mirza is a mind who has made her body his abode. In similar way, when Amrita describes her love for Sahir, it seems that Sahir has made her heart his abode; the bodies of Amrita and Sahir have become like holy shrines, where even the sternest puritans have come to learn about love. In her passionate description one can experience the union of two souls, not two bodies. And in this supreme meeting one experiences within the limits of the bodies the super consciousness which can make it boundless.
Why has love found this place in life? Amrita has found the answer to that mystery when these bodies of flesh and blood become a temple where, arising from within, the fragrance of incense offered in prayer begins, ‘Because a drop of your love got mixed in my cup/I could drink the bitters of life...’ (The Revenue Stamp 45).
De, Shobha. Selective Memory. New Delhi: Penguin, 1988
Pritam, Amrita. Rasidi Ticket. Delhi: Hind Pocket Books, 1998
Shadows of Words. trans. Jyoti Sabharwal, Delhi: Macmillan, 1997.
The Revenue Stamp. trans. Krishna Gorowara, Delhi: Vikash, 1998, Tharu.