Bard of the Punjab

Raza Naeem pays tribute to Amrita Pritam at 100

Bard of the Punjab
“There was a pain

Which I consume silently

Like a cigarette

There are some poems

Which I have shaken off like ashes

From the cigarette”

Amrita Pritam, who was born 100 years ago on the 31st of August last month in Gujranwala (now in modern-day Pakistan) was one of those brightest personalities of the Progressive Writers Movement – someone of whom we can justifiably be proud.

She was a true pioneer of our age. She experienced the cultural and political ambiance, the springs and autumns of this unfortunate century. She took up its pleasures and pains upon herself and deeming its ashes to be sindoor, dressed and preened the parting of her hair. Even after being burnt in the fire of our hellish society, this woman full of spring, youth and dignity did not get scorched or wither away; but emerged before us, clean and pure like the finest gold. As some poet described it, “The eternal fragrance of our garden of beauty and love.”

This poetess full of spring adorned and refined our lives with her prose and poetry throughout the 20th century – levelled our rocky paths and gave us a lesson and a knack for living life. She gave us love.

Amrita Pritam (left) with Indira Gandhi (right) in Delhi

Amrita Pritam, of course, found fame as a poetess of the Punjabi language. And the circle of her poetry’s fame is as wide as that of the Punjabi language itself. It is a reality that until the independence of India and the formation of Pakistan, she did not have the popularity and fame which she achieved after moving to India. In Pakistan, her self and poetry became famous after the appearance of her legendary poem Aj Aaakhan Waris Shah Nu (I say to Waris Shah today). This poem – rightly acclaimed as a dirge for Punjab – was written as a natural reaction to the division of Punjab and the riots and bloodshed which occurred here. The poem has never failed to move the reader and it became Pritam’s identity in the 20th century:

“I say to Waris Shah today, speak out from your tomb

And let a fresh page unfurl from the Book of Love’s womb.

Just one daughter of Punjab’s woes caused your laments to flow

Today a million daughters weep, and thee they do implore

 Arise you chronicler of pain and witness your Punjab

Where corpses sprout in the fields and blood flows down the Chenab.”

However nearly 14 years after Pritam’s death, it can be said that the circle of her poetry’s fame might have been even greater – had mutual relations between Punjabi and Urdu been more cordial. For as long as that does not happen, a poet of one language cannot attain the popularity in the circle of another language to which they are entitled. One should hope that as the veils will gradually be lifted, it would become easier to be acquainted with each other.

It is true that while Amrita Pritam was alive, on a few occasions, a reflection of her poetry would indeed appear on the screen of Urdu journalism; but poetry is nevertheless poetry. To transfer it into the words of another language – as a few individuals like the great Urdu poetess Fahmida Riaz had also attempted with Pritam’s poetry – is first of all, in of itself very difficult. But even were it possible to do so, the most we could say would be that the words of one language were transferred to the words of another language. The real is in the meaning. To transfer the meaning from one language to the other in a way which renders the entire sense perception of the poet is realistically impossible. Given this, even if the mutual relations between Urdu and Punjabi became cordial, indeed it would be difficult for all the qualities of Pritam’s poetry to be unveiled before the readers of Urdu. The matter is even more doubtful in English.

I am raising the matter of the translation of Amrita Pritam’s works into Urdu (and by extension, English) because not only am I a translator myself, but overtly dependent on extant translations of her work into non-Hindi and non-Punjabi languages like Urdu for the writing of this humble centenary tribute. After all, I am not a native reader of Gurmukhi Hindi or Punjabi - despite living in Punjab for the greater part of four decades now.
Her poetry’s fame might have been even greater – had mutual relations between Punjabi and Urdu been more cordial

In addition, there is the necessity of translating her selected work into English for the purpose of this tribute – for the humblest attempt to introduce her work to a global audience not familiar with this great writer of the 20th century, however woefully inadequate it might be.

But the dilemma I discussed above is only limited to poetry. Prose is to a great extent – if not totally – free of this limit. A writer of one language can present their prose quite well indeed in another language. Only hard work and method are needed – or those ordinary resources which are not too difficult to obtain.

Google Doodle honouring Amrita Pritam

Very few Urdu aficionados know that Pritam was not just a poet but an accepted author and short-story writer of the Punjabi language. In the background of the facts above, if her poetry cannot be properly rendered into Urdu and English, so much the better, since translations of her short stories have endeavoured to compensate for this necessary compulsion.

The literature of every age is affected by the intellectual, moral, economic and political tendencies of its time. Time is an ocean, and moral and social values are the waves of this ocean. There are very few writers who can determine an independent direction for their boat. They surrender themselves to the waves; when in reality this ought not to happen.

Alas, very few writers have estimated their power and responsibility. Countless writers lose their track. They do not lead the people, but follow them. A true writer cannot become a follower of popular passions, indeed they must needs be a leader.

The present time is a delicate one for authors and short-story writers. The demands of the people are very low. Society sets much lesser store by moral values. “Progressive literature” – which it might be more suitable to call “regressive literature” now – has spoiled their taste. Third-rate films, lurid short stories and pedestrian novels have created extremely cheap tastes. A class of so-called short-story writers and authors, taking advantage of this mentality among the people, is creating an inferior-quality literature. They have adopted a criminal carelessness towards their creative responsibilities.

Joan Porter has noted, “A country’s splendour and greatness according to Johnson is because of its writers. But only when writers are the prophets of reason. If lessons of exemplary conduct are not forthcoming from them, then there should be a collar of curses around their neck instead of a garland.”

How painful is the confession of the fact that the new crop of our “Progressive” writers might well be deserving of the “collar of curses” from the perspective of future generations!

In this hopeless atmosphere, if some writer or poet still upholds their responsibilities, then undoubtedly they are deserving of extraordinary respect and honour. So when we review Amrita Pritam’s poetry and short-stories from this viewpoint, we necessarily conclude that she had a deep perception of her poetic and literary responsibilities. She had been least affected by the “Progressive” course of her contemporary poets and writers.

For this scribe, for example, the earthy image which she has portrayed of the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in her poem Lenin Ke Naam (To Lenin) is far more Progressive – and therefore preferable – to  the more bloodless portrayals of the same individual by her more doctrinaire contemporaries:

“You, how much of a beautiful character you are of my history

Who coming out of the calendar on my wall, always changes its date

And comes to meet me in the form of a new morning

After coming out of the calendar you go out into the streets

And a sunshine appears

Wherever there is a soft corner, he begins to laugh like a green leaf

Wherever there is a dirty corner, he is indeed ashamed

But what for you is a natural thing, is an unnatural process of history

History takes a breath of comfort

When it becomes really disturbed dwelling in the past

Then it deals with the present

So for the sake of this history indeed

So many times have I imprisoned you in the calendar

And similarly affixed the stamp of my land’s covenant

And have hammered the nails of so many ‘isms’ on it

But you come out of the calendar on my wall, change the date daily

And with new anxiety, new salvation in hand

You – meet me like a new day

Yours – the greatness of a new day

As if a shady corner of my being has heard a couplet of your sunshine

And which is an unnatural process of history

But what is natural for you, has become unnatural for me.”

Amrita Pritam’s short stories like her poems are rich with the loftiest values.

Her short-stories contain all the elements of the quintessential short story. Her characters are ordinary human characters. Though she was greatly famed on account of her short stories, even a bird’s eye view of these short stories will make us conclude that Pritam had profited from all the qualities inculcated by short-story writing. She could examine, think and narrate her meaning in excellent style with skill and artistry. She did not just make do with the direct observation of events, but also made a psychological analysis of every character of her short story. An “emotional analysis” of human life was also prominent in each of her short-stories.

Amrita Pritam kept searching for new topics for short-stories, and was successful to a very great extent. He ideas were unusual, her paths modern. Her “ideal” was constructive, not destructive. Like her poems, in her short-stories too she was seen to be giving a “message” to her readers. Her message was one of life and love.

Her short stories were short in the real sense. Some short-stories like couplets seemed shorter than was necessary. The reader wishes that they were more detailed. In this respect, the example of her Choti Kahani (Brief Story) from her collection Chabees Saal Baad (26 Years Later), definitely published before 1947 from Lahore by the Lahore Book Shop can be cited here. In a mere four pages, Pritam summarized the whole philosophy of “art for life” and the idea of selfless love with stunning economy of words and minimal dialogue between the two central characters. Undoubtedly if her short-stories were not so short, Pritam’s pen had the power to increase their attraction by giving her abridgment a colour of detail.

But this is merely the aesthetic demand of this tribute writer: it is not necessary that every reader would totally agree with this opinion. I am sure that a rereading of Pritam’s short-stories on her birth centenary would establish her at a prominent pedestal in the literary history of the Indian Subcontinent.

Amrita Pritam was thus the modern spirit of the folk, spiritual, mythological and poetic literature of Punjab in the 20th century. Her Punjabi intonation and style was very close to the Urdu of the Punjab. She dealt with Urdu words exactly in the manner of the people of my native Lahore, and indeed this allowance turned her into an undivided voice. With her, the description of the truths of life was extremely topical. She painted the internal struggle of humanity with such sorcery that the reader could not but be entranced.

Any tribute to Amrita Pritam will not be complete without an anecdote from Lahore, the city she made her home as a teenager after leaving her native town of Gujranwala, and from where she was forced to leave after the horrors of the 1947 Partition. It involves Rauf Malik, at 92 years of age presently, one of the last living witnesses to the generation which produced the likes of Pritam and her contemporaries. He is the younger brother of Pakistan’s legendary communist leader and writer, Abdullah Malik (whose own birth centenary will be celebrated next year); and was the proprietor of the Peoples Publishing House, which played a seminal role in the propagation of Progressive and socialist ideas in Pakistan, often at some extremely difficult moments in the country’s history. Malik junior’s autobiography Surkh Siyasat (Red Politics), which is no less than a historical document of its times, was launched in Lahore with much fanfare in 2018 and contains a tribute – among others – to Amrita Pritam. In that chapter, Malik informs us that he was the first proper publisher of Pritam’s collection of poetry in Pakistan, which was titled Naveen Rut (New Season), compiled at the poetess’s behest. This is the sole volume of her poetry ever published in Pakistan with her express permission and consent.

Given the tensions between India and Pakistan over the recent revocation of Kashmir’s special status by the Indian government, it will be apt to conclude this tribute with Tamghe (Medals), one of her biting polemics about the futility of pseudo-nationalist, flag-waving patriotism, of which I suspect Amrita Pritam was always very suspicious:

“Brave are the people of my nation

Brave are the people of your nation

They merely know death and assassination

Offering heads as sacrificial libation

That the head is never one’s own

Is a separate conversation

This Man is a corpse

Rare like God’s own corpse

So when in the midst of Man

This piece of God’s own land


Then its disliked odour

Does not rise ever

There is no lover

And neither is proximity a fear

No danger of pain

Just a border which is bigger domain

It makes them a subject of ridicule

Remove those borders which do not suit the rule

So the entire victory is free of disruption

And the whole feast is free of obstruction

On the lip of time a smile

And fixing on their bosom

Many medals of valour, impotent, unwholesome” 

Note: All the translations from the Urdu are the writer’s own.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979