Pinjar: a novel ahead of its times
Nirupama Dutt

One of the first voices portraying the pain of Partition was that of Punjabi poet and fiction writer Amrita Pritam. And for a long time the only feminine voice viewing Partition from a woman’s perspective. Chroniclers of the women’s stories of Partition like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin were to enter the area nearly four decades later.

What made her first poem after Partition Ajj Akhan Waris Shah Nu… most poignant was the fact that Amrita was eyewitness to the horrors of Partition and also a victim. She was among the thousands who migrated from West Punjab to make their home across the fence. Her two most outstanding works literary works are the Waris Shah poem, penned in winter after the bloody month of August in 1947, and her novel Pinjar, which appeared in the early fifties.

The novel was too radical for its times because the wounds had not yet healed and the communal hatred as still at its peak. Even in those difficult times, Amrita was able to write a novel that saw the situation from the point of view of the other. In fact, it is only recently that a Pakistani filmmaker Sabiha Sumar has been able to tell a similar story on celluloid. It is this novel that has brought the ailing 86-year-old writer the La Route des Indes Literary Prize from France for its French translation. Long ago, the novel had been translated by Khushwant Singh and published with the title The Skeleton by Jaico. It was reprinted when Chandra Prakash Dwivedi made it into a feature film in 2002.

Amrita’s partner Imroz says the award came as a surprise because they were unaware of the translation by Denis Matringe. Denis was a French teacher in Lahore who heard someone singing Heer and was inspired to learn Punjabi. He also married a Punjabi girl later. Speaking of this novel, Imroz says: "It was very radical. A Muslim boy abducts a Hindu girl and she chooses to remain with him rather than be rehabilitated in India after Partition. It was a saga of love of a couple thrown in a situation not of their making, but they rise above the situation with love and caring." Imroz reveals that a number of filmmakers toyed with the idea of making a film on it and some contracts were also signed. But each time the project was given up because it was felt that the story would not be palatable to the masses. "It was only when the new century came, did someone dare to film it," Imroz adds.

Amrita is too ill to remark on this surprise award but when Dwivedi’s film was made, she was able to see it at home on a DVD although she was bedridden. I recall her saying, "The most terrible happening of the times was the Partition. I still shiver when I think of those blood-drenched days. I had already spoken of the fate of women in the frenzy in my poetry. After Partition Shahnawaz Khan and Mrinalini Sarabhai were involved in the rehabilitation of abducted girls. I would listen to the stranger than fiction stories that they told me. It was thus that Puro of Pinjar took shape and the novel wrote itself.