Born in 1919, in Gujranwala, Punjab, in present day Pakistan, the acclaimed Indian author, Amrita Pritam was the only child of a school teacher and a poet. Originally a Punjabi poet, she took to writing in Hindi after moving to Delhi during the Partition. Her poem, Ode to Waris Shah, captures the pain Punjab went through during this violent juncture in history. Sources say that she wrote this poem on her train ride from Gujranwala to Delhi in 1947, deeply moved by the violence she witnessed.
As a leading Punjabi poet of the 20th century, she was equally loved on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. She produced over 100 books of poetry, fiction, biographies, essays, a collection of Punjabi folk songs, and was also the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award for her long poem, Sunehade (Messages) in 1956. After a long illness, she died in her sleep in October 2005 in New Delhi, leaving behind a legacy of poignant poems and novels. Here’s a beautiful tribute to the legendary wordsmith: a short documentary on her illustrious life and work.
And here are five truly evocative poems from her lifetime, included here with their English translations.
Aj aakhan Waris Shah nun
“Aj aakhan Waris Shah nun kitton kabran vichchon bol!
Te aj kitabe-ishq da koi agla warka fol!
Ik roi si dhi Punjab di, tu likh likh maare wan,
Aj lakhan dhiyan rondian, tenun waris shah nun kehan.”
To Waris Shah
“To Waris Shah I turn today!
Speak up from the graves midst which you lie!
In our book of love, turn the next leaf.
When one daughter of the Punjab did cry
You filled pages with songs of lamentation,
today a hundred daughters cry
O Waris to speak to you.”
Oh Mere Dost! Mere Ajnabi….
“Ik baar achanak tu aaya,
Taan waqt, aslon hairan, mere kamre wich khalota reh gaya….
Tarkalan daa suraj len varsali, par leh nar sakiya,
Te ghadi ko usne duban kirmat visar deti,
Phir ajlan de neem ne ik duhai ditti,
Je waqt ne beete khilote cheena nun takiya,
Te khabad ke baaris vichon chaal maar ditti.”
My friend! My stranger!
“Suddenly one day you came,
Time stood still in my room,
The sun about to set,
Fated to return,
The sun forgot its fate.
The cosmic order complained.”
“Ik dard si-
Jo cigarette di tarah main chup chaap peeta hai
Sirf kujh nazman hain-
Jo cigarette de naalon mein raakh wangan jhadiyan….
I inhaled it,
Quietly like a cigarette.
I flicked off
From the cigarette.”
“Suraj ne kuj ghabar ke ajj
Chanad di ik baari kholi
Badal di ik bari bheedi
Utar gaya nere di paudi.”
“Today the sun was somewhat uneasy,
It threw open the window of the light
Then it shut the window of the cloud
And went down the stairway of darkness.”
“Kal asaan dohan ne ik pul jalaya see
Te ik dariya de kande vangu nazeeb vande.”
“Yesterday you and I
Burnt a bridge
And divided our destinies
Like the two banks of a river.
Shook our bodies
Till one body had the solitude of one bank
And the other the solitude of the other.”
(English translation by Khushwant Singh.)
You can read more of Amrita Pritam’s incredible works here.