Amrita Pritam: Sexual Politics and Publishing in Mid-20th Century India
That was our tryst, yours and mine.
We slept on a bed of stones,
and our eyes, lips and finger tips,
became the words of your body and mine,
they then made a translation of this first book.
The Rig Veda was compiled much later.
– Amrita Pritam, “First Book”
Writing from a minority perspective as an American, it’s often hard to find creative and intellectual predecessors who are writing from your culture of origin but who aren’t necessarily writing in English or just trying to be celebrities in the global Anglophone literary marketplace. For South Asian writers, for women in the literary arts, and for writers who are looking to challenge the patriarchal hegemony of Anglo-American literature, Amrita Pritam is a must-know writer. In the 1940s, she came to prominence as a political and feminist writer in India, first in Punjabi literature, then in Hindi and Urdu translation, and finally internationally. By the 1950s, like Simone de Beauvoir and Bretty Friedan in the West, Pritam was challenging patriarchal values at home, redefining gender roles and narratives assigned to women, and openly challenging heteronormative sexual politics. In doing so, she ushered in a new wave of feminist literature in mid-20th century India even as she faced criticism for her work from her male counterparts and from within the Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, and South Asian publishing industries at large.
Amrita Pritam’s (1919-2005) writing career began in 1935 with the publication of Ṭhāṇḍiyāṇ Kirnāṇ (Cool Rays), her first collection of poems. She was born in Gujranwala and raised in Lahore, but in 1947, Pritam along with the rest of her family, was forced to move from her native Punjab to New Delhi during the partition of India. Her poem, Aj Ākhān Waris Shah Nu (“Today I Invoke Waris Shah” or “Ode to Waris Shah,” 1948) vividly depicts the plight of refugees and emigrants as they attempt to cross the border during the period of partition.  And in 1956, Pritam became the first female poet to receive the Sahitya Akademi Award for her collection, Sunhuṛe (Messages).
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As much as Pritam was known for her political poetry, she was equally acclaimed for her feminist writing, open discussions of sexuality, and verse on themes of lost identities and lost homes. In Pritam’s poetry, the quest for liberation and self-realization are actively tied to her identity as a woman and to her sexuality. For example, in “…Virgin,” Pritam explores the violence of sexual- and self-annihilation. She writes:
When I entered your bridal chamber
I was not one but two persons.
One’s marriage had consummated and complete
the other had remained a chaste virgin.
To fulfill our union
I had to kill the virgin.
And kill her, I did.
Such murders are sanctioned by the law
Only the humiliation accompanying them is illegal.
So I drank the poison of humiliation.
Came the dawn and
I saw the dawn
and I saw the blood on my hands.
I washed them
Just as I washed off the odors on my body.
But when I saw myself in my mirror,
there she was before me;
The same one I thought I had
murdered during the night.
Was the bridal chamber so dark that I could not tell
the one I had slain
from the one I did, in fact, kill. (Singh 36-37)
In Pritam’s poetry, one is not born, but rather becomes a woman. Her unflinching gaze at sex, her exploration of emotional and psychological nakedness, and a sense of self-irony and self-knowledge underwrite several of her poems. In her poem, “First Book,” quoted above, Pritam explores how the very act of physical, sexual love, unbound by the mores of society, collapses the distances between the sacred and the profane. And in her poem, “Amrita Pritam,” the poet takes a hard look at the mythos of her own public identity and the narratives of victimization ascribed to it. She writes: “Pain: / I inhaled it, / quietly like a cigarette. // Song: / I flicked off / like ash / from the cigarette.” (Singh 29).
In Pritam’s poetry and prose, she is actively trying to create new definitions of femininity and new narratives for women and women writers in the mid-20th century. Not only did she actively explore female sexuality and narratives of empowerment in her poetry and fiction, but she was also well-known for taking a public stance against marriage and leaving her husband in 1960 to pursue a romantic relationship with the Urdu poet and popular Hindi-film songwriter, Sahir Ludhianvi (1921-1980). After her affair with Ludhianvi cooled, Pritam went on to become the partner of the famous writer and artist, Imroz (1926-). In many of her texts, Pritam challenges the institution of matrimony and the safety and complacency that heteronormative relationships provide. In her poem “Imroz,” Pritam describes their complicated love affair, suggesting that the very act of intimacy evokes violence and an uneasy marriage of oppositional forces.
The clashing of wills between men and women, between unrequited and suffocating forms of love, between social prescriptions of femininity and masculinity and individual definitions of identity and desire play out in several of Pritam’s poems. In “Night,” Pritam explores mid-20th century sexual politics in India and extramarital relationships between men and women. In the poem, which was translated from Punjabi into Hindi by Devendra Satyarthi for the modernist Nayī Kavitā magazine, Pritam writes:
गैसों के प्रकाश में
पता नहीं किसी छत के नीचे
तुम बाट जोह रहे होगे,
एक-एक घूँट से,
एक-एक नोट से,
एक-एक परी के चेहरे की!
ओ मेरे होने वाले बच्चे के बाप!
और दीये3 की लौ में बैठी,
तुम्हारे बाप-दादा की छत के नीचे
मैं बाट जोह रही हूँ
तुम्हारे लड़खड़ाते पैरों की,
कुरते के गले पर
शराब की राल
खाली-सी जेब से,
लाल-लाल आँखों से,
नंगी-सी गालियों की!
तुम्हारे होने वाले बच्चे की माँ!
In the gaslight, I don’t know
under which rooftop
you must be waiting—
with each and every gulp,
with each and every bill, 
with each and every beautiful face, 
You—yes, you! You—
oh, the father of
my unborn child!
and I’m sitting by the flame
of an earthen lamp, under the rooftop
of your forbears,
I am waiting for your faltering
steps, the collar of your shirt:
so ugly, so dirty, and wet
with the stain of alcohol,
with emptied pockets,
with red, red eyes,
and humiliating curses,
Me—yes, me! Me—
the mother of your
While “Night” explores the consequences and stigmas attached to pregnancy, infidelity, and extramarital sex, the narrator of Pritam’s poem is a woman who takes responsibility for her sexual identity even as the speaker wavers between the archetypal gender roles of the neglected housewife and the whore. Pritam’s poem describes a love affair gone awry: a woman who is pregnant with her absentee lover’s child, is waiting under the rooftop of his ancestral home for his drunken return. The ambiguity in the poem lies with the woman’s legitimacy. Is she the forsaken wife of a drunken man, who is spending his evening coveting “with each and every beautiful face” of a loose woman or a prostitute, or is she a “loose” woman, herself, who has come to his family home to confront him with her pregnancy? Has she gotten herself into this physical and psychological bind by coveting with a man outside of wedlock? The notion of licit and illicit behavior runs as an electric current through the entire poem. Similarly, Pritam’s first novel, Dr. Dev is a subversive love story. Pritam describes its central conflict:
The woman, the heroine, chooses a man, Dr. Dev (he isn’t a doctor yet though), but this match isn’t acceptable to her parents. She has to leave him, but after she has borne him a son; she is then forced to marry another man. A second child is born and she thinks that this child, a girl, is her first child, the boy. After a while, she decides to tell her husband everything, for she feels it is not fair for him to not know about her past. She explains how she has had an illegitimate child. Of course, they part. The husband appreciates the woman from the very bottom of his heart, but society demands that he leave her. (Coppola 13)
While Pritam’s novel, Dr. Dev, and poems such as “Night” and “The Scar” openly speak of taboo subjects such as extramarital affairs, unwanted pregnancies, and sexual politics between men and women, her writing, overall, demonstrates the difficulties of challenging gender expectations in order to create narratives of equalized power between men and women in the mid-20th century. Pritam writes:
The bonds and conventions of society are certainly reflected in my poetry, negatively, of course. But I think every intelligent person has to suffer…Suffering is the price the intelligent person has to pay. As for women, I feel that women in literature are different from women in other fields…Basically, there is a prejudice against women in literature. Men take women’s writing lightly; they doubt a women’s sincerity. For example, when I got this Sahitya Akademi Award, and with it fame, the leading English daily in Delhi wrote that I got my popularity in Punjabi literature because of my youth and beauty. I felt very sorry to read that. Why not talent? They can admire a beautiful woman, but not a talented one. (Coppola 11)
Here Pritam observes that while her male contemporaries were lauded for their literary accomplishments, privileged, and praised publicly for their lyrical brilliance, she, as an award-winning female poet, was haunted by questions of legitimacy and dilettantism throughout her career.
Of the post-Independence Punjabi poetry scene that Pritam belonged to, she writes: “There is plenty of pain and power in new Punjabi poetry. I would not be very wrong if I concentrate only on such poems of the sixties that attracted notice, may they be labelled as diseased, puzzled, and obscene” (48).  In mid-20th century, Pritam and her cohorts, who were part of the new poetry scene in Punjabi (which was similar in its experimental and confessional aim as the nayī kavitā movement in Hindi and the second-wave modernist movement of the 1950s Krittibās and Shatabhisā poets in Bengali), sought to create a platform that challenged traditional notions of gender, sexuality, psychology, and political mores in their work. Intentionally creating art which engaged with taboo and challenged social mores meant that many experimental, modernist, and feminist writers in mid-20th century South Asia faced censorship, accusations of obscenity, and estrangement from conventional audiences. 
In 1964, she founded the Punjabi literary journal, Nāgmaṇī (Serpent’s Jewel), in which she showcased the work of emerging and established Punjabi poets and writers as well as translations of writers from abroad. Although Pritam admired Western writers such as John Steinbeck and even “translated many of Frost’s poems and Poe’s poems…into Punjabi,” she used her journal Nāgmaṇī, to highlight the work of non-Anglophone writers, women writers, and writers from marginalized cultures, languages, and communities (6). Khushwant Singh notes that as “[Pritam] won recognition [she] was invited to conferences abroad, and visited [the] Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Rumania [sic] and some Western European countries, and these visits enlarged her horizons” (i).  Pritam wrote of her encounters with writers there:
I met…Madame Zulfia in Uzbekistan, the leading poetess of Uzbek who writes wonderful love poems and patriotic poems. I also met Mirza Tursan-Zade, the major poet of Tajik, and I also met Mirward Khanam Dilbazi in Baku, one of the leading Georgian poetesses… I met many poets in Hungary and other countries who frankly told me that they were not published ten years ago. Nobody dared to publish them, nobody dared to listen to them. But now they are published and read. (9, 8)
In mid-20th century India, Pritam, with her feminist verse, not only attacked gender roles and expectations by speaking openly of female sexuality, desire, extramarital sex, illegitimate pregnancies, and taboo social behaviors in her poetry and fiction, but by translating and highlighting the work of lesser known writers and poets from across world literary traditions, she was able to broaden the landscape of modern Punjabi poetry in its aesthetic, social, and political mores.
- The poem also captures the death of the Gandhian dream of a unified independent India (“the hum of the spinning wheels fell silent”) as it happens in real-time. The poem bears witness to the hundreds of corpses lining the pathways between India and Pakistan, and the toll of dislocation, riots, hunger, and weakened health on Indians and Pakistanis forced to leave their families, neighbors, property, and ancestral homes behind. Due to its unflinching gaze at the naked brutality of partition and religious warfare, the poem, addressed to Waris Shah, an 18th Century Punjabi Sufi poet, became immediately popular and canonized across Indian languages after its publication in Punjabi in 1948.
- From Pritam, Amritā. “Rāt.” Nayī Kavitā. No. 1. Trans. Devendra Satyārthī. Ed. Dr. Jagadīsha Gupta and Ramsvarūp Caturvedī . Dillī : Kavitā Prakāshan, 1954.
- A dīya (दीय) is a small earthen, hand-made candle. A dīya is often used as a ritual light in offering-ceremonies.
- Amrita Pritam’s poem, “Night” is translated from Hindi by Rita Banerjee in The New Voyager: Theory and Practice of South Asian Literary Modernisms. Harvard University, Dissertation. Cambridge, MA: ProQuest, 2013.
- The Hindi note (नोट) here indicates a bill of currency.
- Here the speaker implies that each and every “beautiful face” or “fairy” that the delinquent father encounters is a prostitute.
- In other texts such as the poem “The Scar” or her first novel, Dr. Dev, Pritam also explores the allure and social stigmas of extramarital love affairs and illegitimate children. She explains, “’The Scar,’ is about an illegitimate child. If you look at the original first line, you’ll see, ‘kaaccii kandh muhabat vaalii,’ or ‘one born of mud-wall love,’ or love not recognized by society. The child has not been born in wedlock” (Coppola 12).
- Pritam notes how the new poetry movement of the 1960s in Punjabi was different from the Progressive Movement in Punjab in which “poets like Eliot, [and] prose writers like Sartre and Camus” were influential to Punjabi poets immediately after the 1947 partition of India (Coppola 16).
- In a 1969 interview in the journal Mahfil, Pritam talks about her difficulties as a Punjabi writer reaching a Punjabi audience and readers in her native tongue: “The strange thing about the way I publish is that my books nowadays come out in Hindi translation first, then in my own language afterwards. There are not a lot of publishers in Punjabi. It is a great problem for Punjabi writers. Punjabis number about fourteen million people, but to publish a book in that language is difficult, and never, never more than one thousand copies. And it is rare [if] they ever come out in second editions” (15). When pressed about the lack of publishing venues and audience for contemporary Punjabi writing, Pritam concedes that “an inferiority complex” arises “Not just from Urdu and Hindi, but English as well. Perhaps this sense of inferiority has come from so many years of slavery under the British” (16). However, despite the pressures facing a marginalized Punjabi literary industry, Pritam continued to write in Punjabi and have her works translated and disseminated to audiences via Hindi, Urdu, and English translations.
- Pritam travelled extensively through Russia, Hungary, and Uzbekistan in the 1960s. Inspired by her travels abroad and meetings with international writers, Pritam declared, “I have published a full issue of Bulgarian, Yugoslav and Hungarian poetry in my magazine naagmanii [sic], or ‘Serpent’s Jewel.’ I am going to publish a full issue on [Romanian] and West German literature. It makes no difference to me what a writer’s politics [are]; whenever I meet good writers, I am inspired to write about them. They may belong to a socialist country, to any country; I really don’t care which” (9). True to her word, Pritam wrote a poem about Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space in 1961 during the reign of the Soviet Union.
Banerjee, Rita. The New Voyager: Theory and Practice of South Asian Literary
Modernisms. Harvard University, Dissertation. Cambridge, MA: ProQuest, 2013.
Coppola, Carl and Amrita Pritam. “Amrita Pritam” (Interview). Mahfil, Vol. 5, No.
2: Amrita Pritam Number (1968-1969). Asian Studies Center: Michigan
Mahendra, Pushpa Kulasrestha and Amrita Pritam. Mahfil, Vol. 5, No. 2: Amrita
Pritam Number (1968-1969). Asian Studies Center: Michigan University,
Pritam, Amritā. “Hot Blood Poetry.” Indian Literature, Vol. 14, No. 1. New Delhi:
Sahitya Akademi, March 1971.
—-. “Rāt.” Nayī Kavitā. No. 1. Trans. Devendra Satyārthī. Ed. Dr. Jagadīsha
Gupta and Ramsvarūp Caturvedī . Dillī : Kavitā Prakāshan, 1954.
Pritam, Amrita and Hari Sharma. “The Relationship of the Red Thread.” Indian
Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1 (135). New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, January-
Singh, Khushwant, ed. Punjabi Poems of Amrita Pritam. Trans. Khushwant
Singh. New Delhi: Star Publications, 2009.
RITA BANERJEE received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard University and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, Riot Grrrl Magazine, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Fiction Project, Poets for Living Waters, Objet d’Art, and on KBOO Radio’s APA Compass. Her first collection of poems, Cracklers at Night, received First Honorable Mention for Best Poetry Book at the 2011-2012 Los Angeles Book Festival, and her novella, A Night with Kali, is forthcoming from Spider Road Press in 2016. Lecturer in Indology and Tibetology at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, she is currently working on a novel and a book of lyric essays.