“...as long as nothing happens between them, the memory is cursed with what hasn’t happened.”
A quote from Marguerite Duras, well worthy of being placed among one of the most beautiful lines in Literature, is something I turn to most nights when the depths of my insomnia meet the memories of a tall boy’s peculiarly slanted shoulder blades. It was on one of these nights that I stumbled upon Amrita Pritam’s works: words as excellently evocative as her person. It was a night when the enormity of my own unrecompensed story began to drown me. So, for momentary relief, I wanted to indulge in someone else’s unfulfilled love story.
Amrita met Sahir in 1944 at a Mushaira in Preetnagar village, somewhere between Amritsar and Lahore much akin to the love that they shared. Amrita was a trapped teenager and Sahir was a budding lyricist, and it was love at first sight for the mystic poet. I am compelled to remark on Amrita’s prettiness which was in stark contrast to Sahir’s pockmarked face and his unique manner of walking similar to Heer and Ranjha. The well-known Punjabi folklore goes to say that Heer was unattractive and Ranjha was quite handsome. Amrita was inspired by the writer who gave the world Heer and Ranjha, Warris Khan, a 16th century poet. In one of her interviews, she said she thought of herself as Ranjha. “Ranjha ranjha karde main aape ranjha hoyee (Seeking my lover Ranjha so intensely that I have become a Ranjha myself)."
The mushaira ended after midnight following which the poets and guests bid goodbye to each other. The sky had turned cloudy during the mushaira and it had begun to drizzle by the time it had come to an end. Amrita wondered if fate played a hand in all this and wrote, “Destiny had sown the seed of love in my heart which the rain nurtured.” Over the course of attending many such mushairas, the acquaintance between the two grew into mutual affection. However, she believed there were two obstacles between them. The first being silence which lasted till her last breath, and the other being language: she wrote poetry in Punjabi, he wrote songs in Urdu.
When Sahir would come to meet her in Lahore, it was as if he brought silence along with him. He smoked as silence engulfed the room along with the cigarette stubs that Amrita would collect as soon as he left. She kept those stubs in teacups and in her cupboard and occasionally lighted them and smoked. That’s how she took to smoking because she wanted to feel the touch of his fingers. The smoke in the air made her feel that he was close to her. She thought he appeared, each time, like a genie in the smoke emanating from the cigarette. And Sahir, on the other hand, used to come to her street and stand in a corner. He would sometimes buy paan, or light a cigarette or hold a glass of soda in his hand. He stood there for hours watching the window of her home.
When the partition took place, Amrita moved to Dehradun and Sahir settled in Bombay. Somewhere in the chambers of her heart, Amrita knew that Sahir was a commitment-phobe and his love for her was not as intense. The last letter she ever wrote to him, which she delivered to him personally, had a question in it for him. She asked if the magnanimity of her love could ever match his. To commemorate their poignant last meeting, they had one last cup of coffee and smoked a cigarette.
After winning the Sahitya Akademi award for one of her poems which she wrote for Sahir, she went to make a phone call. Just as she was about to pick up the phone, she noticed a news article and a photograph in Blitz, which read: “Sahir has found his new Love.” Amrita’s hands stopped midair, and she returned home from the telephone booth. The call never took place.
Even though they did not end up together, they never forgot each other. Sahir fell for Sudha Malhotra but Amrita remained his only love. And when he got to know Amrita was in a live-in relationship with Imroz, he wrote, “Mujhe apni tabahiyon ka koi gham nahin. Tumne kisi se muhabbat nibaah toh dee (I’m not sad over my losses and ruins. I am happy that finally you found someone worth living for).” Contrary to what most people believe, Amrita’s most memorable poem, Mai Tenu Fir Milaangi, was written for Imroz, with whom she lived the final 40 years of her life. It is said, she lay dying, but with enough words to express her undying love for Imroz. The poem is a promise of eternal love, transcending lifetimes.
Sahir and Amrita’s tale had all kinds of emotions, from ecstasy to melancholy, and everything in between - the said and unsaid. Yet, when the idiosyncrasy of life drew them apart, they didn’t choose to despair or sink into the remnants of one another. They opted for happiness, with different people, and always wished for each other to flourish. A little something we can all learn, that life need not revolve around one person even after they are gone. A little something that gives me life. I can love the creases of your white shirt and your sparkling clean glasses, and still let you go. They might not have had their forever, but the love they had for each other is immortalized, in their love letters and their poems, and despite time being the most disloyal friend, their love story remains timeless.