When a woman tries to defy societal taboos to realise her talent, break the glass ceiling and find her own identity in a male-dominated world, the path is bound to be tough. The life of pioneering Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam (Aug 31, 1919- Oct 31, 2005) was no exception. The celebrated writer had to face many storms in her life. However, she emerged a winner, charting her own course of life and penning over 100 books of poetry and prose that won acclaim and accolades. Inarguably, no other Punjabi writer has been able to match her cult status.
Most famous is her Partition poem ‘Ajj aakhan Waris Shah nu…’ in which she invoked the 18th century poet Waris Shah, famous for penning the legend of Heer, to witness the bloodbath in Punjab. It touched hearts on both sides of the border and to date she is a much-loved poet in India and Pakistan. Interestingly, Amrita wrote in her autobiography ‘Rasidi Ticket’ (The Revenue Stamp) that a debate ensued among Punjabi writers in India with some saying that the poem should have been addressed to Guru Nanak while others wanted it to be addressed to Comrade Lenin.
Controversy follows her even a decade after her death with a 76-page critique by a scholar questioning a 400-page novel assumed to be based on her life. The novel is ‘Eh Janam Tumhare Lekhe’ by Gurbachan Singh Bhullar and the critique is by Gurdial Bal. The novel shows the poet protagonist as a wanton, selfish woman using men to her advantage to achieve fame, the critique questions feudal and patriarchal denouncement of a woman who pursues her art and life as she wants it.
Amrita was married at 16, but she chose to walk out of the loveless marriage and stayed in a live-in relationship for four decades with artist Imroz. Together they brought out a literary journal ‘Nagmani’ for 33 years, nurturing two generations of Punjabi writers. Thrown in between was an unfulfilled romance with Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi. A romantic at heart, Amrita wrote at length about her love. Yet Bhullar’s allegation is that she had not written about her other romantic affairs. So has he tried to fill in the blanks? Interestingly, while the poet is called ‘Jagdeep’ in the novel and her live-in partner Charanjit, other names like that of contemporaries such as Sahir, Mohan Singh and Balwant Gargi are unchanged.
Reacting to this continuing male fad of Amrita-bashing, Amiya Kanwar, who translated many of the poet’s books into Hindi, says: “They were attracted to her beauty and talent yet they resent her fame. Even when she became the first Punjabi writer to win the Jnanpith Award in 1981, some male Punjabi writers wrote bitter articles about her. This trend has increased after her death because she is not there to counter them. Also some are doing it to attract attention.”
Bal in his critique questions the authenticity of novelist Bhullar’s claim that his ‘woman protagonist is a symbol of feminine desire to live a free life and the male protagonist is the society which will not let this happen.’ The critique highlights the salacious pleasure the novelist takes in etching sexual encounters in a crude manner, most derogatory to woman.
Always a woman
Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan says: “Bhullar has written good fiction about Punjabi rural landscape where he was born and raised. But he falls short of depicting urban complexities. His novel ‘Eh Janam…’ is such a failure. It is a good example of working of a sexually starved and repressed society on the one hand and underdeveloped literary sensibility on the other. I see Bhullar’s misogynistic (antiwoman) novel in that perspective. Sadly, the novel does not add any new dimension to our understanding of the complexity of life, especially the condition of women in the present-day Punjabi society.” Women writers hold that any woman expressing her opinion sans fear is a victim of male chauvinism. Well-known Punjabi poet Pal Kaur says: “It does not take them even a minute to take liberties with a woman and her writing. Being a single woman and writing what I want to, and not what they would want me to write, makes me a subject of mockery at their hands.”
Dalit fiction writer Des Raj Kali has no qualms in accepting that he threw the novel into the bin. “It shows the Brahmanical patriarchal point of view at its worst, where women and Dalits are always at the receiving end. Is this the way to remember a writer who contributed greatly to Punjabi literature and encouraged so many young writers?”