Reflections (and questions) on Amrita Pritam

Amrita Pritam passed away this past week. I must confess that I haven't read enough of her work to feel that I really know her oeuvre. But I have some thoughts, and questions for people who might know her stuff better.

Her most influential story -- at least in South Asian literature circles in the U.S. -- is Pinjar ("Skeleton"), a dark narrative of the cross-religious abductions of women that took place in the Partition. The protagonist, Pooro, is a Hindu woman who is abducted and forcibly married into a Muslim family. Importantly, in Pritam's novella Pooro doesn't simply become yet another female victim of religious violence. Though she remains scarred, Pooro (renamed Hamida) comes to accept her new identity, and prosper in a provisional, post-traumatic sort of way. She becomes an agent on behalf of other women whose lives are jeopardized, which is almost a happy ending.

It's a powerful basis for a narrative, and Khushwant Singh's English translation probably doesn't serve it as well as one might hope. But maybe the story doesn't quite carry us all the way. Pritam's story is somewhere between a realist (ethnographic and historical) account of a particularly nasty aspect of women's experiences of the partition, on the one hand, and a more internal psychological portrait where realism is only a secondary goal, on the other. In the end, I think the second, more psychological reading dominates (for realism, one usually goes to the real thing, and look at the testimony recorded by Urvashi Butalia in The Other Side of Silence).

Here's the opening of the novella (again, keep in mind that it's a possibly questionable translation):

The sky was a colorless grey. Pooro sat on her haunches with a sack spread beneath her feet. She was shelling peas. She pressed open a pod and pushed out the row of peas with her finger. A slimy little slug stuck to her thumb. She felt as if she had stepped into a cesspool; she ground her teeth, flicked off the slug and rubbed her hand between her knees.

Pooro stared at the three heaps in front of her: the empty husks, the pods, and the peas she had shelled. She put her hand on her heart and stared off into space. She felt as if her body was a pea-pod inside which she carried a slimy white caterpillar.

Again, it feels more like a psychological than a realistic portrait, and as such it somehow leaves me a little flat.

It might be just the translations. But I wonder if I'm simply not getting Pritam? Anyone have suggestions for Amrita Pritam stories that are real knock-outs?

I took a glance at some of the many links in Uma's comprehensive post on Pritam, but none of the stories or excerpts from stories I've read from those links really do much for me.

Perhaps Pritam is stronger as a poet? Here are some lines from "The Scar" (translated by Harbans Singh):

I am also of human kind
I am the sign of that injury,
The symbol of that accident,
Which, in the clash of changing times,
Inevitably hit my mother's forehead.

I am the curse
That lies upon man today.
I came into being
When the stars were falling
When the sun had been quenched
And the moon darkened.

. . .

Who can guess
How difficult it is
To nurse barbarity in one's belly
To consume the body and burn the bones?
I am the fruit of that season
When the berries of Independence came into blossom.

Guess who she's talking about. (Shouldn't be hard)

* * * *

One thing I did pick up on from Uma's links is an interesting biographical tidbit, from an article that describes her relationship with the Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi:

A bachelor to the end, Sahir fell in love with writer Amrita Pritam and singer Sudha Malhotra, relationships that never fructified in the conventional sense and left him sad. Ironically, the two ladies' fathers wouldn't accept Sahir, an atheist, because of his perceived religion. Had they seen the iconoclast in him, that would have been worse; being an atheist was worse than belonging to the 'other' religion. Sahir, perhaps, had an answer to such artificial barriers in these lines written for Naya Raasta (1970):

Nafraton ke jahan mein humko pyaar ki bastiyaan basaani hain
Door rehna koi kamaal nahin, paas aao to koi baat bane

A young Amrita Pritam, madly in love with Sahir, wrote his name hundreds of times on a sheet of paper while addressing a press conference. They would meet without exchanging a word, Sahir would puff away; after Sahir's departure, Amrita would smoke the cigarette butts left behind by him. After his death, Amrita said she hoped the air mixed with the smoke of the butts would travel to the other world and meet Sahir! Such was their obsession and intensity.

In reading this, one should probably keep in mind that Amrita Pritam (born in 1915!) was married at age 15 to her editor (she started writing young!). It's a little unclear how she could even have considered marrying Sahir Ludhianvi.

There is reference to a frustrated romantic interest of Ludhianvi's here, but it's unclear whether Amrita Pritam is the person mentioned. In fact, I don't think it's quite possible, as I gather she moved straight from Gujranwala (Pakistan) to New Delhi in 1947. As far as I know, she never lived in Ludhiana in the 1930s.