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A life of one's own

She was a woman who lovingly rolled out a 'chappati', slathered it generously with ghee, and served the first one only to Imroz, her lifelong friend and companion. She would tell the characters of her novels, "Wait kar, Shelly aa gaya hai…" when her child (Shelly) would make incessant demands on her time and patience.

She enjoyed an unhurried pace of life with walks in the Hauz Khas rose garden, endless glasses of tea with cashew biscuits, books of Osho, and the warmth of company. In her youth, the fire in her belly to write, to live a life of absolute truth impelled her to walk out of her marriage with her two small children – Shelly her son and Candy, her daughter.

She managed to survive on Rs 5 per day and found a room of her own to live and to write for to her both meant one and the same thing.

This year marks the birth centenary of poet and author Amrita Pritam (August 31, 1919, to October 31, 2005), who lived a life that was a veritable image of the quest for freedom of the soul.

While love might seem to elude many women, who like to live life on their own terms, she was fortunate to have found her rock, the artist Imroz, of whom she said, "Yeh meri dharti hai" (He is my very earth, my stability).

Actor, poet, filmmaker Dr Lavlin Thadani, Amrita Pritam's close confidant and friend, who has played her on stage in a play, 'Amrita – A Sublime Love Story' directed by MS Sathyu, opened up about her long and deep and association with the author, one of the foremost feminist voices of the country.

"Amrita ji's house in Hauz Khas Enclave K-25 was diagonally opposite ours, 11 houses away. I used to visit my family and first met her probably in my early teens."

Poetry probably drew them to each other, as from age 11, Lavlin had been writing poems related to nature – sunrise, sunset, clouds among others.

"You and I are made of the same salt," Amrita Pritam had told a young, impressionable Lavlin, and later in an interview to journalist Janardhan Thakur she called Lavlin her 'soulmate', she says.

"Yet, never did she make any attempt to influence me. She read my poetry but never suggested I change even a comma or a full-stop, leave alone a word. She had tremendous respect for individual space and freedom, though a woman of strong likes and dislikes."

Lavlin grew up and studied abroad. Whenever she would visit Delhi, Amrita Pritam would call her over with words of endearment and affection, "Pyari kudi aa jaa. Chheti chheti aa jaa" (Dear child, come quickly).

And endless hours of conversation and banter were to follow, punctuated by tea served in glass tumblers with Gooday cashew biscuits by Imroz, who made very good tea. Lavlin recollects as her eyes fill up, "She would light her cigarette, take a long drag, and say, 'aur dus' (tell me more), and the conversations would range from shayiri to Osho who she looked up to as a spiritual genius and had penned prefaces of several of his books.

"Amrita ji and I would sit on her bed and Imroz ji would be on a chair facing it," said Lavlin. One can almost imagine the scene, shafts of mellow winter sunlight streaming into the room, Amrita Pritam roused from her nap by Imroz, and the trio sipping tea in the glow that only true friendship can impart.

It was the home of an artist and a poet who worked in perfect harmony. During meals, Imroz would cook the vegetables and the daal, lay the table, place the dahi and the salad, while Amrita made rotis one by one and always gave the first one dripping with ghee to Imroz, says Lavlin, to whom they were family.

Quite like the Jagjit Singh ghazal, "Na umr ki seema ho, na janm ka ho bandhan, jab pyaar kare koi, to dekhe kewal mann," the three seemed to have found strength and love in the oneness of their minds.

Amrita Pritam, born in Gujranwala and brought up in Lahore, got married very young, at the age of 16, to a hosiery businessman and became a mother at 20.

"Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu", that urges Waris Shah the 18th-century Sufi poet to rise from his grave and heed the cries of the many daughters of Punjab, flowed from her tormented pen when Partition seared her soul and made her question the foundation of religion and society. The poem, which later went on to win wide acclaim was criticised at the time as it was addressed to Waris Shah the author of 'Heer Ranjha', whose birthplace is in present-day Pakistan.

She also wrote the novel 'Pinjar' in which the heroine Puro, who is abducted, says each time a girl be it Hindu or Muslim reaches her home, think that Puro has reached home. Partition brought Amrita Pritam first to Dehradun and then to Delhi. The power of her pen and her impassioned call to humanity endeared her to readers on both sides of the border.

"She did not want a life of lie and was desperate to live her truth," says Lavlin, which was perhaps the reason why she stepped out of a life of material comfort and decided to strike it out on her own at an age when the idea of such a life seemed impossible to most women.

Survive she did, on a pittance of Rs 5 per day, the wages of a casual artist with the All India Radio from 1948, that was to be her earning for quite a few years.

While she was busy with her work at the radio station and raising two children, a young artist Imroz caught sight of her and decided to make what can be described as a prank call.

"I am Dev speaking," he said cheekily. Dev being the character of her novel 'Dr Dev'. On hearing her voice, he nervously hung up. Later, when he met her, she dismissed his overtures suggesting that he was too young and that he needed to see the world – "Duniya dekh aa". Imroz, eight years her junior, was undaunted. He circled her and said, "Well, I have seen the world now."

Amrita perhaps felt that Imroz, or Inderjeet, who was from a village in Punjab, was infatuated. Later, he took the name Imroz, which in Persian means new every day.

To him, she was indeed the world, says Thadani, recounting the incident. She was perhaps 40, around 1959, when they first met and eventually grew to be inseparable, though never formally married, they were contented to lead what Imroz, an artist, often called 'manchahi zindagi', a life of one's choice, one's dream life literally.

Of him, she would often say, "Meri dharti hai".

Thadani who plays Amrita Pritam on stage says the opportunity to play the role of a woman she was so close to came to her at a time when she was working on as many as 25/26 productions simultaneously and was juggling commitments. The person who sought her out was none other than the legendary filmmaker MS Sathyu. At first, she thought of declining since her hands were full, yet something held her back. She recalls, "I remembered Amrita ji's words, 'Mainu khabar mil jaandi hai' (I get messages). It was almost as if she herself wanted me to essay that role. And whenever I go on stage, I say, 'Amrita ji, please guide me,' and members of the audience have often told me that they felt as if they were watching not me but Amrita ji herself."

It is almost as if one can hear Amrita Pritam pulling the strings and encouraging her with the words, "aur dus", "speak, go on…".

In today's age and time, Amrita Pritam's voice is perhaps more relevant than ever. In lines that can be read as an appeal to humanity she had written:

"Doston dua maango ki mausam khushgawaar ho,

Yeh kulhaadiyon ka mausam badal jae,

Pedon ki umr, pedon ko naseeb ho,

Tehniyon ke aangan mein,

Hare patton ko jawani ki dua lage,

Aur rahon ke phulon ko asheesh mile.

("Friends pray that the weather may turn pleasant,

This season of axes will pass,

Trees may be fortunate enough to live a full life,

Branches may sprout green leaves,

And flowers may blossom along the paths…

- Translated by Soumi Das

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