Is it Doomsday?
Moments of my life in the womb of time-lived awhile, and after Time's
span, seemingly entombed-are today alive again, stalk past me....
How have all the graves yielded to resurrect those moments? It must indeed
This is an aubade from a 1918 grave, a year before I was born. It comes to
me now for the first time: so far I had only heard about it.
Both my parents were teachers at Panih Khand Bhassaur School. The two
daughters of Babu Teja Singh, the founder of the school, were among their
pupils. What inspired them one day I would not know, but both organised a
kirtan in the Gurudwara, said their prayers, and wound up with a special
one for the occasion: "Hearken to these voices, O Lord, please grant the
boon of a child to our teacher...."
When my father, who was in the congregation , heard these words he flared
up at my mother. He suspected that the special prayer was my mother's
doing. She, poor soul, was as surprised as he was. Babu Teja Singh's
daughters explained later that if they had taken my mother Raj Bibi into
confidence, she might have asked for the birth of a son. But they wanted a
girl in their master's house-a girl like themselves.
Why did those girls think of this very strange prayer? I don't know. But
the prayer was heard. Within a year from that day,
Raj Bibi had become a mother.
Just as amazingly, a moment from ten years earlier, wakes up from the womb
of Time-the moment when Raj Bibi, only twenty years of age, offered her
homage at the habitation of sadhus at Gujranwala, and there saw Nand Sadhu....
Nand Sadhu was the son of a wealthy moneylender. When he was only six
months old, his mother Lachrni died. His maternal grandmother wrapped him
up in her arms and got a grain-winnower as wet-nurse.
Nand had four brothers and a sister-but two of his brothers had died; one-Gopal
Singh-an inveterate drunkard, forsook his family for the love of the
bottle; the other-Hakim Singh-took to the life of a sadhu. So Nand knew
only his elder sister, Hakko, whom he grew to love dearly.
From all I have heard, she was a bewitching creature and was married when
she came of age. But the moment she saw her groom, Bela Singh, she knew he
was not the one for her. On her first visit to her parental home after her
marriage, she asked for a basement to be built. As soon as it was ready
she betook herself to it and fasted for forty days. She then took the
saffron robes and lived on cooked grams soaked overnight in plain water.
Nand followed suit. He also, began to wear saffron robes. Alas! his sister
did not live long and when she died, Nand renounced the world.
He turned his back on the incalculable wealth his grandfather, Amar Singh
Sachdev, the'moneylender, had left him, and went and joined Sant Dayal's
ashram. There he learnt Sanskrit, Braj bhasha and the lore of hakims. They
used to call him Bal Sadhu-the young holiness.
While his sister was still alive, Nand's aunt and uncle had him betrothed
to a girl in Amritsar. Nand broke off the engagement and began writing
poems steeped in the spirit of renunciation.
Raj Bibi was from the village Monga in Gujarat district, and was married
through the prevalent barter system. But the man to whom her life was to
be linked went and got himself recruited as a soldier. No one heard of him
again. For Raj Bibi it was a life without hope, an empty life. But what
matters is not life but the courage you bring to it. She began teaching in
a school at Gujranwala. Everyday on her way to school, she would first go
with her sister-in-law to Dayalji's ashram for her prayers. Her brother
had died. Her widowed sister-in-law's brother had been exchanged with hers
for a husband. But now, the two lost souls taught in the same school and
kept house together. One day, when Raj Bibi and her sister-in-law were at
Dayalji's ashram, it started raining heavily. There was no question of
anyone leaving the ashram in that rain. So Dayalji asked Bal Sadhu to
recite some poems till the weather cleared. Bal Sadhu was in the habit of
closing his eyes as he recited. The recital over, he opened them and they
were immediately attracted towards Raj Bibi and could not take them off
her. Dayalji noticed this. He did not say any thing immediately but some
days later took Nand aside and said: "Nand, my boy, this life of
renunciation is not for you. Give up these saffron robes and get married."
That was how Raj Bibi became my mother, and Nand Sadhu my father. On his
marriage, Nand changed his name to Kartar Singh. Since he wrote poetry, he
had also taken on a pseudonym- Peeyookh-the Sanskrit word for nectar. Ten
years later when I was born, he named me "Amrita", the Punjabi equivalent
for peeyookh; while he himself changed his nom de plume to Hitkari.
The most remarkable thing about father was that a life of riches or
renunciation came alike to him. Mother used to relate a story about a
brother sadhu, another disciple of Dayalji, Sant Harnam Singh by name,
whose elder brother wanted to marry. A girl had been bespoken, but because
he had no house, the question of marriage was ruled out. My father had one
house, still left from his inheritance. He said:
"If it's only for want of a house that he can't get married, I'll transfer
mine in his name." And so it was. Then for the rest of his life my father
lived in rented places. He could never build another house of his own; yet
I do not remember ever having seen or heard any sign of regret from him.
What I do remember is a regret of another sort, transfixed in his
expression after mother died, when I was only ten years of age. He again
sought renunciation. I was the only bondage in his world. Love for me and
a desire for complete withdrawal were the two conflicting forces that
tormented him. I sensed all this and used to cry out in anguish because I
could not tell whether I was accepted or not. I was both accepted and
rejected in turn.
Having taught me all he could about rhyme and rhythm, my father's desire
was that I should find expression in poetry. I began writing and it seems
to me I wrote because I wanted to forget those moments of rejection I felt
Half a century later I feel that both riches and renunciation have taken
twin birth in me as well., This I have inherited, like my features, I
think, from Father. Perhaps I see things with the same eyes that he
Only, I keep wondering if I have accepted myself for what I am. That is
why perhaps I have written all my life—so that whatever I could not accept
in me, I would in time not reject altogether.
I did not then think of the world or of what the world thought of me. My
only desire was to please Father. It is the same now. I am not in the
least mindful of what others think of me. My only desire is to be at peace
with my innermost self.
I never told an untruth to Father; I can never lie to myself either.
This brings me to Grandmother, who reigned supreme in the kitchen if not
in the house. My father's revolt was
against her regime. I used to notice three glass tumblers kept away from
all other pots and pans on a shelf in the corner of the kitchen. These
were for use only when Father's Muslim friends were offered tea or
buttermilk when they came to visit him. After these tumblers had served
their purpose they were scrubbed and washed and put right back in their
The three tumblers became a "cause" for me, and the four of us put up a
fight with Grandmother. I was adamant, I would not drink from any other
tumbler but one of those. Grandmother would rather see me thirsty than let
me use them. The tale, inevitably, travelled to Father. He, of course, did
not until then have the faintest idea about such things. The moment he
did, I succeeded in my revolt. Thereafter, not a single utensil was
labelled "Hindu" or "Muslim".
Neither Grandmother nor I knew then that the man I was to fall in love
with would be of the same faith as the branded utensils were meant for.
Young as I was, I wonder whether the shadow of my fate had not so been
cast on me already.
Shadows have a reality longer than is recognised. Faces too have a
reality. But for how long? Shadows for as long as you like. For a
lifetime, if you will.
Years come and go. They do not wait. Some shadows, on the other hand,
hover around us with an existence of their own.
Shadows are related to entities; they are subservient to entities. Yet
some do not fit into any such pattern.
Sometimes it seems as if a shadow is cast on you from nowhere. Broken
away, it falls in your path, and you have to carry it along with you to
whichever part of the world you go-in search of the entity from which it
Illusions too can be cast over your mind. You measure a particular shadow
to the length of a stranger-and see if it fits.
If it does not, so what? You take the shadow along and move on.
There was one such shadow in my life. Does one name a shadow? I, anyway,
named it "Rajan".
There was a tradition in the family. We said a prayer, Kirtan Sohela,
before retiring for the night. Father believed that with each syllable of
the prayer, faith itself got fortified. And as the prayer ended, you stood
as some sentinel of a fort which was secure from all sides, allowing no
entry. And free from all anxieties and worries, you fell into the sleep of
But, reciting the prayer before going to bed, when we were drowsy, with
eyes heavy, it could happen that half the prayer was left unsaid even
though Father maintained that it had to be said to the very last word.
Should the tiniest bit be left out, the Fort became vulnerable.
I was a child then. I was worried for the complete security of the Fort.
How would Rajan come into my dreams? Whilst I was inside the Fort, he
might be left out! So I would decide to mumble some lines from memory and
deliberately leave out a few while tumbling and tossing in my bed. By this
ruse,' the Fort would not be so firmly held and he could enter from the
gaps purposely left open.
But Father changed the ritual a little. Instead of each of us saying the
prayer separately in our individual beds, he decided to say it aloud from
his bed for us all to sit up and hear. This change was perhaps because we
then had some distant relatives who had come to stay with us, a boy and a
girl, and also perhaps because the little girl was finding it difficult to
memorise some parts of the prayer. In that way no line would be omitted.
Once or twice, I tried some skipping. Father instantly saw to it that the
lapse was corrected. So there was no getting away with my pranks. Yet,
after a good deal of effort, I saw a way out. What if Rajan were called in
before prayer began? So, before the Fort closed on all sides, he could be
by my side.
I was ten then. Forty years later, now when I think of that prank of mine,
it seems that whatever I have wanted with all my heart, I have found.
Around me, forts have been raised and demolished but the reality of the
One, has in one form or the other, always been with me. At one time in the
features and form of a man's face; at another in what has taken shape from
my pen; and at yet another some sort of divinity has arisen from the
leaves of a book or has stepped out from a canvas to be with me. Like a
genie from a streak of smoke it emerges—sometimes from the anguish that
goes into the making of a song, from the budding leaf of a twig, even from
the moon as it shines on the waves of the sea. At times, when I am
engulfed in my loneliness, I have found it gushing forth-coursing in the
veins and speeding up the flow of blood in my body. And with all this, the
pallor that should otherwise come with weariness of a kind, takes on a
It pervades all my thoughts and dreams to such a degree that even fleeting
goodness seems to be a manifestation of that One. And it is so beautiful
that I cry....
Abstractions have no meaning for me. Each entity must take on some sort of
shape or form...that I can touch, that in fact, can thrill me with a
In the years of my nonage, whenever I dreamt of the Gurus-Har Gobind or
more often of Gobind Singh-I always ran my fingertips over the portrait;
the horse he rode on, the sword he carried, the falcon he held in his
hand, anything. I would never pay homage from a distance. If in a slightly
different way, flowers or leafy boughs too I hold to myself as in embrace.
My entire being is filled with such a sense of belonging as to make my
very breath heavy.
Many, many years ago, the One sat by my side. He had a soiled
handkerchief. I took it away giving him a clean one. His, I kept for
years. My forehead burned with a yearning whenever I touched it.
There are certain seeds that once fertilised in the soil, can survive
without leaf and branch, no matter how furious the tempest, how searing
the hot wind of drought. They just cannot be uprooted. In the same way is
the longing for the One, and respect for the Word. Such seeds indeed
sprouted in my womb in the prime of my life, but faith was
shattered-utterly. I feel both these trees should have been uprooted.
Sometimes deep down I have a feeling that they no longer exist. But from
the dry dusts of the mind, they sprout forth again and become sturdy
branches; branches strong enough to blossom and bear fruit. And with the
breath of my life, I receive their fragrance.
One seed I sowed myself; for the other, Father was responsible. Should a
page from a book be found on the floor, he would pick it up with solemn
respect. Should my foot by chance fall on it, he would be angry. Thus has
been deeply engrained in my mind, respect for the written word-and with
that for all those who wield the pen. That was how I came to look up to
Bhai Sahib Kahan Singh, Father's friend. The very threshold of our house
seemed benigned when he entered. A portrait of Father's Guru, Dayalji,
that rare scholar of Sanskrit, hung at the head of Father's bed. Even to
sit with feet stretched out in the direction of that portrait was
So when I grew up, I had the utmost respect for my contemporaries. But my
sad experience with fhem leave me wondering why this respect for the word
and the pen has not vanished long ago.
Sometimes I wonder whether my contemporaries are the only ones with whom I
Beyond time and distance, perhaps, are so many like Kazantzakis, so many
who have watered this tree. Why then do I wonder if this tree is still
I was hardly eleven when Mother suddenly fell ill. Barely a week
later, with pale, drawn faces, friends and relatives assembled at her
"Where's my Binna?" She had asked. By the time her friend Pritam Kaur had
led me by the hand to her, she had lost consciousness.
"Pray to God...maybe He'll show mercy...a child's prayers never go
unheeded..." the good lady said to me.
My feet were glued to the spot where I stood. I had from my early days
learnt the art of disciplined meditation. Now when occasion called, it was
an easy enough exercise. I had just to close my eyes and fold my hands for
the simple prayer: "Please don't let Mother die."
My mother bore her illness calmly. There was no wail of agony from her.
But there was a general bewilderment among those around. "Why are they
losing their nerves?" I asked myself. "Mother's anguish is over. I am
imploring Him....He listens to what children say...."
My mother lay there in all serenity. Suddenly I knew it was the end.
Everyone wept and wailed. I burst out in red hot rage, "God heeds no one,
not even children...."
From that day, I gave up all the meditation and prayer I had been brought
up with over the years. Father did not approve. He became stricter, but I
was vehement in my resistance:
"There is no God."
"You mustn't say that."
"He has ways of showing His wrath..."
"Let Him! But how can He when He isn't there...?"
"How do you know?" «
"Wouldn't He have heard me...had He been anywhere?"
"What did you say to Him?"
"I said: Please don't let Mother die'. "
"When did you see Him? He cannot be seen...."
"But can't He hear? Is He deaf?"
During routine prayers, Father firmly stood his ground. I, as firmly,
stood mine. Unable to hold back his anger, he would sometimes take me by
the shoulders and force me down cross-legged to pray, with the command,
"Close your eyes! Concentrate for ten minutes!"
When I could not resist his authority any longer, I would sit down
cross-legged and close my eyes. But giving in to physical defeat only made
me seethe with anger inside. "I've closed my eyes, what can He do to me if
I don't concentrate? I refuse to have anything to do with a God who has
not heard me. I refuse to dwell on what His image looks like. I'll bring
Rajan to my mind instead. He dallies with me in my dreams; he hears my
songs; he makes such lovely pictures of me...That's it...! I'll fix my
mind on Rajan!"
For years I dreamt those dreams I held so dear. Summer and winter, my
dreams became a steady ritual with me.
I dreamt of a great big dark castle, with my little self a prisoner
within. Armed guards stood without. I looked in vain for a door that would
open at my touch. In the murkiness overwhelming me, I groped about, but
the strong walls of rock would not melt or fade away. Helpless, I tried in
vain to fly up and over. I flapped and fluttered my arms till I fell down
breathless. And then... slowly and softly, I felt my feet rising above the
ground...higher and yet higher, up above the turrets and towers to hail
the blue expanse of the sky! Fearless, I flew over the vast expanse of the
earth below...the guards flailing their arms but failing to reach out and
Another dream which lived with me for years was of a crowd of people in
wild pursuit...with me fleeing them. The chase would go on and on...as the
crowd would draw near, my anxiety would increase and I would run faster
till I sighted a river. My pursuers would be wildly jubilant: "Where'll
she go now? There's the river ahead!" Seeing no way out, I'd then calmly
walk across over the water. The flow of the river would take on a strange
solidity, and give support to my feet. The cooling limpidity of the water
was to my mind better than the hard ground which sometimes gave me
blisters on my feel.... The crowd would come to a dead stop. No one would
dare to step into the water for fear of being drowned. They would stand on
the bank and scowl and growl and clench and thrust their fists out... But
I had escaped them all....
My Sixteenth Year
Came my sixteenth year-like a stranger. Inside me, there was an awareness
I could not explain.
Except for Father, there was no one else in our house. He wrote away and
sometimes would keep at his work all through the night and sleep during
the day. Had Mother been alive, my sixteenth year would have been
different; it would have come like a friend, a near relative....But
without Mother, there was a great deal missing from my life. To shield me
from outside influences, Father thought it right that I should have no
familiarity with anyone: not with any girl from school nor with any boy
from the neighbourhood.
Like a thief, came my sixteenth year, stealthily like a prowler in the
night, stealing in through the open window at the head of my bed....
Our house was full of books. Most of them were on religion, about rishis
and about meditation. There were a few books of history but into these
too, apsaras sometimes intruded-like Menaka or Urvashi, out to seduce the
meditating rishis. It was reading them that my sixteenth year broke
through the age of my innocence....
Every apsara disturbing the meditations of a rishi was, mythologically
speaking, the commissary of Lord Indra. My sixteenth year must also have
been Lord Indra's work, invading the purity of my childhood. It was now
that I began to write poetry, and on every poem I wrote, I carried the
cross of forbidden desires. Just as the rishis became restless as each
apsara appeared, so my rebellious thoughts pursued me, giving me no
And yet that year established no kinship with me. It was a clandestine
relationship. Like me, it was scared of Father. As it stood away from me
behind a door, every poem I wrote I tore to bits and appeared before
Father, an innocent, dutiful child. Not that he objected to my writing
poetry. He had himself; given me my first lessons in metrical composition.
But what I he expected from me was religious verse, orthodox and
conventional in style.
That was how my sixteenth year came and went. Nothing! very significant
happened. Yet life took on a different meaning! It was the beginning of
the uneven road of life with all im hairpin bends, its ups and downs. It
was also the beginning of curiosity. I questioned parental authority, I
questioned the value of doing my work at school by rote. I questioned wti
had been preached to me and I questioned the entire stratifie social
scheme. What I had so far learnt was like a strait-jack that gives way at
the seams as the body grows. I was thirst; for life. I wanted living
contact with those stars I had taught to worship from afar. What I got
instead was advie and constraint which only fed my rebellion.
I suppose everyone goes through this phase. But it happened to me with
three times greater impact. First, was the drabness of middle-class
morality; then the dosage of 'don'ts" thrust down my throat which I
somehow felt I would have been spared, had my mother been alive. There was
the overbearing presence of my father, a man of religion. Poor Father. He
wanted me to be an obedient, self-effacing daughter and here was I in my
sixteenth year bearing my cross like the pang of an unfulfilled love. I
was sixteen and the memory creeps into every phase of my life....
I caught its spirit again and again. At the time of the partition of the
country in 1947, when all social, political and religious values came
crashing down like glass smashed into smithereens under the feet of people
in flight....Those crushed pieces of glass bruised my soul and my limbs
bled. I wrote my hymns for the suffering of those who were abducted and
raped. The passion of those monstrous times has been with me since, like
some consuming fire-when I wrote later of a beloved's face; of the
aggressors from neighbouring countries; of the crime of the long
Vietnamese night, or, at one stage, of the helpless Czechs....In the
haunting image of beauty and in the anger at wrong and cruelty, my
sixteenth year stretches on and on....
I thank the fates that conspired to break through the years of my
innocence. That conspiracy relates not only to that one year alone but to
the whole of my life.
Each thought of mine year after year, intrudes upon those innocent years.
I pity the patience and resignation of those who come to terms with wrong,
I am happy I have not had the solace of peace as I go alone on my restless
quest...except, perhaps, that I have acquired since, the sense to discern.
And like in my sixteenth year, I do not negotiate my walls by stealth. I
do not avoid confrontation. As I begin my fiftieth year my feelings have
the same intensity. Even now, everything around seems to constrict the
soul just as the clothes one grows of during adolescence. The lips are
parched with the thirst for life; desire conies back to stretch the hand
and touch the stars. Wherever in the world a wrong is done, I continue to
feel a deep sense of outrage. I
A deep dark shadow walked along my side for as long as I can remember. It
gradually came on me that much was layered into it: the face of my ideal
lover, and mine, that I imagined growing wiser, stronger, more mature. The
layer deepest down was of the freedom of my own and other lands.
Whatever I wrote was inspired by this shadow, to which I gave flesh and
blood, a vague mass in which I sought to reveal something luminous in
Was this out of a longing to embody God-a God with so many faces? The
moments of my life expand to reveal beauteous concepts and forms... Those
moments were painful, like the bird song in the morning, heard one moment,
lost the next. I remember writing once, "I have many contemporaries, only
I am not contemporaneous."
It was well if someone gave ear to my songs. I had no right to claim it.
I was yet a child when I heard those myriad voices of hate and abuse.
There were flags of so many denominations and so many flagstaffs on which
they fluttered. They thought I too wanted to fly one of my own. I wanted
to cry out to them all, "My friends, have no illusions. You're welcome to
your faiths and your flags. I want nothing." But did anyone care? Would a
time come when they would hear? Not when it came to my own language. This
is as true today as it was thirty years ago.
This was my first painful experience. I did not know it would last a
A few elders of the earlier generation in the field of
Punjabi letter-Gurbux Singh, Dhani Rama Chatrik, Principal Teja
Singh-merely smiled. Two of them passed away. Gurbux Singh decided to
create a world of his own-which had little to do with all that was
happening around him.
Deep down in the layers of my mind, was the first impact of a religion
against which I had risen as a child, when I had seen that glass tumbler
touched by someone with a different faith became impure.
This broadened the outlook of my innermost eye, and even after having
suffered so much from the partition, I found it within me to deplore
dispassionately the holocaust caused by the devotees of the two religions.
Thus it was that I came upon that painfully sensitive face around which my
novel Pinjjar (Skeleton) was written.
I had hardly stepped out of my teens then. I saw in that face, the
embodiment of the man of my dreams. (I wrote about him at some length in
Akhari Khat.) It was like leaping into the flames everyday. I was worn out
by the effort and when someone telephoned to give me the news of the
Akademi Award in 1957, my first thought was: "Lord! I didn't write Sunehre
for an award! If the one who had inspired me hadn't read the book, did it
matter at all to me if this entire world had?"
Late that evening, came a reporter and a photographer from the press. The
photographer wanted me to pose as one engrossed in the act of writting. I
put a sheet of paper on the table in front of me and, pen in hand, began
writing in a trance, the name of the one for whom I had written Sunehre. "Sahir,
Sahir, Sahir...." I had completely filled the sheet with that name.
When the pressmen had gone and I was alone, it struck me: "What if in the
photo that would appear in all the papers the next morning, the
incantation ‘Sahir, Sahir, Sahir....' would show?"
It was like living through the classical romance of Majnu madly calling
out "Laila, Laila, Laila...."
But in the photograph my hand had obscured the sheet of paper on which I
was writing. Not a squiggle of what I wrote was to be seen in the morning
papers. Momentarily, I was relieved. But then a cry of anguish when...God
knows it wasn't true...it wasn't!
I have carried a little more of Sahir into the novels Ashoo, Ik Si Anita,
and again in Dllll Diyan Gallian through the character of Sagar.
I wrote also, poems. Sunehre till then, was the longest-longest in fact of
all those under the title Chetter. After an exile as it were of fourteen
years, I felt at long last that I was through with this phase of my life.
Yet the years one has lived through are not like the clothes one wears.
Constrictive corsets leave marks that might mar the beauty of a sensitive
complexion, but the scars left by the years that one lives through, are
Much later, when I was at Varna, a city south of Bulgaria, flanked by the
sea on one side and mountainous forests on the other, my wild imagination
conjured up a ship sailing towards the shore and from the ship he seemed
to have alighted and entered through the window of my hotel room....
The real and the illusive so intertwined, I sat up and wrote the poem
beginning with the line:
Long have thoughts of you lain in exile.
The curse of my lonesome state has been broken through....By Imroz. But
before I met him, I had the privilege of a friendship with a wondrous
soul. Sajjad Haider had come into my life before the partition. I had,
however, never so far come across anyone who had not brought complications
and misunderstandings in his train. Bitterness had been shed all around by
litterateurs... barring, of course, Sajjad. He was perhaps the first real
friend I had.
As long as I was in Lahore, we met often enough and talked-yet only as
occasion demanded. He carried with him always an air of respectability.
Soon after the riots began, dusk-to-dawn and then all day curfews
followed. But at whatever time the curfew was lifted, he would come-no
matter for how brief a while. In between came April 23 and my little
daughter's first birthday. With arson and rioting all around, there was no
thought whatsoever of a celebration. Yet whose was that knock at the door?
Sajjad's. He had braved all and come with a birthday cake for her.
The riot-torn month of May 1947, took me for safety to Dehradun. Letters
from Sajjad came regularly nonetheless. Then, at about the time my son was
born, Sajjad also became a father at Lahore. I named my son Navraj; Sajjad
found a name sounding nearly alike for his, Navi. We saw each other's sons
through the photographs we exchanged.
One day Navraj had fever. My anxiety grew with the days. When I found the
time to reply to Sajjad's letter, I happened to mention something about
the little one's fever. The letter I received by return post is still
engraved in my memory. He had written: "I have been praying all night for
your son. There is nn Arabic saying: "when the enemy prays, the prayer is
bound to be granted.' In the eyes of the people I am an enemy of your
country at this hour....God forbid that I ever become one of yours or your
My poem about the partition-To Waris Shah -came after I had written
Neighbouring Beauty. This poem I had sent to Sajjad. As chance would have
it, I lost the Punjabi version. That explains why it has never been
published in my language. Sajjad, however, translated it into English and
had it published in The Pakistan Times.
Seven years after I had met Sahir, I wrote a poem Seven Years. Even though
he was in India I had not had the occasion to meet him. When published,
Seven Years somehow found
its way to Pakistan. On reading it, Sajjad wrote to me. "I want to come to
India to see you. I want to talk to you of him for whom you've written
Sajjad was in Delhi for a good eighteen days. Nights he spent at Marina
Hotel, days at my house. This was the first time in my life I realised I
had a friend in the world, a friend in every sense of the word. For the
first time ever it dawned on me that a poem does not need to be created
out of the passion of love. It can waft across the calm seas of
friendship. At parting, I wrote:
Buy me a pair of wings, Stranger— Or come and live with me
Once at a party in Lahore, the wife of a friend of Sajjad's again and
again came around to him with a plate of amriti sweets. He laughed the
offer away a couple of times, then soberly commented, "Sister-in-law, I've
allowed you to joke at her expense this time-but don't dare do it again.
How little you know of the devotional quality of my love for her!"
Another incident comes to mind. We had just returned home in Patel Nagar
from Connaught Place by rickshaw. The rickshaw-man demanded a little more
than his due. I was about to protest when Sajjad paid off the amount
claimed and after the man had left, observed in a philosophic vein: "I
feel I owe something to every refugee from Pakistan."
If only the world of politics had shown such an attitude-or even an
infinitesimal part of it! The lines of communication between the two
countries were snapped. In my most difficult years, when I felt so
isolated, I had not even the consolation of a word from Sajjad.
By the time Imroz came along, for a while the channels of communication
between the countries were reopened. We wrote a joint letter to Sajjad.
Salutations from world historians must, I felt, go with the reply that
followed. "I have not had the pleasure of knowing you, my friend, but I
can from a composite picture from Ami's (the name he called me by)
letters. Your rival salutes you."
In due course, Imroz and I together met Sahir, who was rather ill-at-ease
the first time. The empty glasses we had drunk from, remained long on his
table. Late that evening he wrote the poem Mere Saathi, Khali Jaam. He
read out to me over the phone at around eleven that very night and also
related how he was pouring liquor into each of the three glasses in turn
and quaffing the contents. Imroz was down with fever in Bombay during the
next meeting. Promptly, Sahir sent his own physician to attend on him!
Thoughts of Sajjad have unabashedly come out of my pen-although the
political situation is such that I should not mention his name. In the
course of recent TV and radio interviews, memories of Faiz returned, and
of Nadeem, and of course, Sajjad. Some Pakistani intellectuals saw my
repetition of these names as evidence that we had not accepted the reality
of Partition; that in fact, we were not recognising the cartographical
fact of Pakistan, that our souls and spirits were restless and so on and
so forth.... The sum total of this was that Sajjad wrote to me saying I
must never, even indirectly, refer to his name in my subsequent radio and
TV sessions. From the depths of my depression I can only bring myself to
say: "My friend! Your name comes to my lips today since otherwise my
recollections would remain incomplete. But God forbid, should you
consequently happen to feel any embarrassment, I could never forgive
myself. In the name of amity, not a whiff of the scorching winds of
politics must so much as touch a pure soul like yours!"
As a result of newspaper reports about the controversy, they arranged a
discussion through the External Services channel of Delhi Radio. Among
those on the panel were the
principal of Jamia Millia Islamia, a lecturer, and I. The topic was-what
were our feelings about the separation of Pakistan from India? My only
regret is that there is so little recognition of such a thing as
friendship. The three of us did our best to clarify this one and only one
point during the half hour at our disposal. Whether this had any effect on
them is not for me to assess. All I can say for the three of us is that we
felt considerably relieved after the exercise. Sajjad should have too. But
did he? This I ask as a sincere well-wisher of his.
An Aura of Silence
Oh, the pain of it as I look back on those days before Partition! The very
air was rent with the most fantastic rumours. Apart from my marriage, I
had not been involved in any noteworthy incident. Engaged at the age of
four, I had been married off at the age of sixteen in the usual manner.
But in literary circles, romantic fireworks began to be sparked off. I
learnt that Mohan Singh, the most revered poet of the time, had written
some verses about me.
Speaking for myself, in whichever gathering I had the occasion to see or
meet him, I had exchanged with him a few polite, perfunctory words at the
most. No more. That was perhaps because of his rather aloof manner. I had
nothing to fear from him of course. What I did fear was the sort of story
that had started circulating. I gave him the reverence due an established
poet. Nothing more. I was then being swamped by the lengthening shadows
darkening my own mind. I was of course feeling not a little concerned
about my being talked about in so glib a manner. Yet I had no reason to
complain of him. Mohan Singhji was a thorough gentleman, with a suavity
all his own. One evening, he came along with a friend (Dr. Divan Singh, I
think, but I cannot be sure of the name), to see me. By the following
morning, as rumour had it, he had written his poem Property that began-
"She stood silently in the doorway...on the threshold like a piece of a
I was passing through a phase of mental agony those days since rumours
like this, without rhyme or reason, gave rise to all sort of conjectures.
I was struggling to break through my silence although Mohan Singhji never
lost his tongue in my presence. This silence however, as I reckon it,
bespoke of both his dignity and grace.
One day, Mohan Singhji turned up with another friend-the Persian scholar,
Kapur Singh. I was shy as ever, partly out of courtesy but partly perhaps
because I was basically rather unforthcoming in my attitude. Kapur Singhji
suddenly observed: "Mohan Singhji, don't misunderstand her. She doesn't
love you." The deep and long silence melted. I took courage to declare,
"Mohan Singhji...You have all my respect. I am a friend of yours....What
more do you .want?" I thought I had said enough. Mohan Singhji had nothing
to say to that. He wrote a small poem afterwards with the same refrain.
"You have all my respect....! am a friend of yours... What more do want?"
The next line spoke out with a hollow voice: "Aye, what more do I want?"
Rumours nonetheless kept circulating by word of mouth, and through sly
digs in various pieces of writing. But nothing from Mohan Singhji's
writings caused me any pain and my respect for him in no way diminished.
In passing, another incident comes to mind. A certain officer of the
Lahore Radio Station was versed in literature. A confessional suddenly
came from him directly after I had finished my programme: "Had I met you
years back, I would have sought release from my Muslim religion to
Sikhism... or else you would have been a convert...." These words rose
with the wind and died with it. It was the spell of a fleeting moment,
without a beginning and without an end. Nothing more was
ever said by him. Yet stories began to be spun out of the little he had
said. Perhaps he himself gave cause for the stories. I heard and read
quite a few twisted versions. So often have I felt since, that some
Punjabi writers have no depth from which their writings can take shape.
They create the stories and then work themselves up to relish the romantic
fancies they embellish their stories with.
Years later, when I worked at the Delhi Radio Station, I came across
Pandit Satyadev Sharma, who incidentally had served as staff-artist at the
Lahore Radio Station before he took up work in Delhi. He wrote a story in
Hindi entitled Twenty-six Men and a Girl. He had been influenced in this
by a story of Gorky's. His was really only another variation on an earlier
theme. So when he read it out to me, he related in detail how many had
been interested in me, with special reference to that officer, and how
everyone eagerly watched, month after month, for developments they
imagined would follow. The anticlimax was, there were no developments.
Sharmaji would perhaps never have written that story had his memories not
been stirred up by sight of me. Innumerable petty characters, with ears to
walls in the vain hope of having something fresh to regale each other
with, filled the story right through. Hearing nothing, they kept falling
back over each other imagining that they were alas too late to smack their
lips on the juiciest bits.
Sharmaji was a very ordinary writer. But even the most ordinary writer can
sometimes write a masterpiece. This was his. He had made an all-out effort
to describe a thickening atmosphere. The marvel was that he had not, like
those Punjabi writers, come to any forced conclusions. Through the
simplicity of the treatment, the truthful character of the writer reached
The Cycle of Hatred
This too is a simple, straight incident basically; only it becomes
deviously mixed up in an ever-widening web of hatred. There was a certain
Punjabi poet. I had never come across him. It was during the earlier years
of my literary career at Lahore. I had heard often enough of what he was
in the habit of fabricating against me. Never having met him, I often
wondered what the cause of his animosity was. Just before Partition, I
contracted fever. The editor of a weekly came to inquire about my health.
A man accompanied him whom I had never seen before. On his introduction, I
sat bolt upright in consternation. He was the one who could not stand my
very existence. What baffled me was why he had come to my sick bed.
Two or three days later, I read a poem of his in the weekly. Beneath was
published the date of his visit to me. A strange passion. Just as there
was no justification for his animus, there was none for his new pose of
friendship. When he took the liberty of repeated visits, I asked the
reason for this sudden somersault in his character and attitude. I could
never really get down to fathoming him. True, there was nothing loud or
objectionable about him; indeed I detected a strain of sternness in the
way he conducted himself. He also had about him an abominable air of
superiority...as if everyone he came across was no better than a worm!
While I wrote my periodic reviews for the radio, he would inflict himself
on me and insist on dictating to me who exactly to include and who to
leave out and how much was to be said about whom. So unbearable were his
literary pretensions, that I became rather impatient with him. I had
barely begun to give vent to my feelings, when Partition happened. That
released me from his intrusions. Years later, I heard that the eventful
historical happening was because of the fact that I did not want such a
friendship to grow! The blood of millions was shed to satisfy his
perverted logic. Let psycho-analysts put such a mind to clinical tests if
they will, I have nothing to say. Of course, I have occasionally read what
he has continued to write about and against me. Its roots are to be found
at the point where this cycle began.
The most gruesome accounts of marauding invaders in all mythologies and
chronicles put together will not, I believe, compare with the
blood-curdling horrors of this historic year. Tale after tale, each more
hair-raising than the last, would take a whole lifetime to retell.
Uprooted from Lahore, I had rehabilitated myself at Dehradun for a while,
but later went to Delhi for work and a place to live in. On my return
journey, I could not get a wink of sleep on the train. The pitch-black
darkness of the night was like a sign of the times. So piercing were the
sighs the winds carried and echoed, it seemed we were back in mourning
over this Watershed of History. The trees loomed larger and larger like
sentinels of sorrow. There were patches of stark aridity in between like
the mounds of massive graves. The words of Waris Shah, "How'll the dead
and departed meet again?" surged back and forth through my mind. I
thought, a great poet like him alone could bewail the loss a Heer once had
to bear. But who could lament the plight of millions of Heers today? I
could think of no one greater than Waris Shah to chant my invocation to.
In the moving train, my trembling fingers moved on to describe the pangs I
From the depths of your grave, Waris Shah,
Add a new page to your saga of love Once when a daughter of Punjab wept
Your pen unleashed a million cries,
A million daughters weep today, their eyes turned
To you, Waris Shah.
The published poem found its way to Pakistan. Later still, Ahmed Nadeem
Kazmi disclosed in his foreword to a book by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, that he had
read the poem in jail. On his release, he recounts having seen copies of
it with common men who would weep when they read it.
At a BBC interview in London (1972), I was introduced to Sahab Kizilbash,
the Pakistani poetess, who exclaimed: "Am! So this is Amrita...the writer
of those lines! I ought to be embracing her...!" At SurinderKochhar'san
evening later, Sahab and other Pakistani poets, Saki Farruqui, Famida Riaz,
Abdullah Hussain, the famous author of Udas Naslain, Nizakat Ali, and
Salamat Ali had assembled. The cultural life of London that night was
enriched by much reciting of poetry. When it was Nizakat Ali's turn,
someone pointed out that he had never recited without some instrumental
accompaniment. Yet, for one who had written on Waris Shah, he was
chivalrous enough to consent and his superb voice enriched the airs afloat
that memorable night.
In 1975, Mashkoor Sabri, a famous poet from Multan came to Delhi for an
Urs recital. He told us of the Waris Shah annual celebration at which a
folk-art exhibition is held, folk-dances are performed, and folk-songs are
sung. The climax of this cultural evening is a Poets' Symposium. This
multifaceted programme ends with a half-hour recital of Heer-Ranjha. The
grand stage (100' by 80')on which the Heer-Ranjha sets form the darkened
background, gradually lights up showing Waris Shah arising from his grave.
The sets then continue to change with the shifting light, to synchronise
with the lines of the poem. The reverberating sound effects of the finale
acclaim a new dawn awakening a new spirit of love.
It was ironically the same poem that a quarter of a century earlier had
evoked so much censure and disapprobation, with the Sikhs holding me
guilty of not having addressed my invocation to Guru Nanak, and the
communists, to Lenin or Stalin. Many a poet conspired to rant against the
In the totality of myself as a writer, the woman in me has had only a
secondary role to play. So often have I nudged myself into an awareness of
the woman in me. The writer's role is obvious. But the existence of that
other being have I increasingly discovered through my creative works.
When she came to life, three distinct incidents come to mind.
Paradoxically again, there was no possibility of finding a place for her
as she exists in the world of creativity. This fact I can realise and
assess since the distance of years alone can make possible such a vision.
The first time was when I was twenty-five years of age. I had no child
until then. Very often I dreamt of one: a fair face with finely chiselled
features looking into my eyes. I began to recognise it after its repeated
appearances. I used to dream of it speaking to me-so I began to recognise
the voice as well. In one of these dreams I was watering plants. From one
of the pots, instead of a flower, the face would suddenly spring up.
Aghast, I would ask: "Where were you?" "Right here!" He would break out
into laughter with the reply. And I would hurriedly lift the little one
from the pot.
But when I would wake up, I would find myself all alone-a woman in name,
who, if she could not become a mother, could find no meaning at all in
The second time was when Sahir had turned up with a fever. He had racking
pain all over and was finding it particularly difficult to breathe. I
rubbed Vicks on his throat and chest-in fact I went on and on, as if I
could spend the rest of my life doing it. The mere contact had
magnetically rendered me into a mere woman, with no need at all for paper
The third time the woman in me came to the forefront was when Imroz sat
once, working in his studio. On completion of the canvas, he dipped the
brush into the red paint and with the tip of it, dabbed a mark on my
This secondary role as a woman, however, rakes up no quarrels with my main
being as a writer. Rather, the woman in me has in a disciplined manner
learnt to accept that secondary role. Only three times over the years did
she wish to assert herself and the writer move aside to make way for her.
I know nothing about the Mutiny of 1857. But the word "mutiny" had stuck
somewhere deep inside me like a story from Grandmother's lips.
This word was associated with something alive-and as intriguingly at the
same time, with something dead and buried. So many voices kept recurring
from it, voices that I could neither define nor divine. They were human
all right, but one got lost in another, one found another, each clashed
against the other like swords and inflicted wounds that bled with all
those thrusts and parries.
So many colours were drained out of this word, like blood glistening in
the sun. But in the end it was all so hollow, dead. My thoughts would
sometimes rally round it like ants quickening their movements over a dead
Only one sign of the Mutiny had I seen with my own eyes. The family I
married into had inherited a carpet. A sardar had looted the priceless
article in a melee at some place in Delhi. What colours were originally
woven into it I cannot say, but I knew it as a faded, worn-out ancient
mass of silk almost falling apart. Grandfather, however, always preferred
to sleep on this relic when the family lived in Lahore.
During the mass exchange of refugees in 1947, the move to Delhi became
inevitable. But the head of the family-Grandfather, that is-refused to
leave. He could not bear to tear himself away from memories and
possessions handed down from generation to generation. He had the firm
conviction that the chaos and confusion would get sorted out in time.
Governments could not seize peoples' homes. He wanted to stay back. But
when conditions worsened, the military packed him off in a truck to Delhi.
All that he could carry as bedding was the tattered silk carpet. The
anguish of leaving behind all his treasures and belongings and the
discomforts of the journey were too much for him. He lived only a few days
after reaching Delhi. He was lying on that carpet when he died and after
his death it was given away to a fakir. One thought came to all members of
the family: "This carpet was looted from Delhi during the Mutiny. Today,
accounts have been squared up. What belongs to Delhi has been returned to
it after a century."
If loot too is a sort of debt that one day has to be paid back, the
fearsome thought that time and again surfaced in my mind was that I too
might have to return something. What it was, to whom, and when, I could
Like a comb in tousled hair, my thoughts too would often get tangled. My
mother's mother and her mother's mother-every woman's mother had looted
the sixteen graces in some mutiny against society. Those graces and arts
should have passed on from generation to generation. I had to repay that
debt to society. How and when I still do not know. All I know is, some day
I will have to render accounts. How many more women will, I cannot say. I
cannot presume to comment on how they feel. But speaking for myself, I
sorely feel the weight of that debt.
I had that sort of feeling long before Partition. Out of that very pain I
had written a poem once:
Fellow-traveller, we are parting company today
This distance between us will grow....
But this distance was not related to any event. It was something personal.
This distance grew with an avalanche in 1960, I feared the self within
would fragment. The voice from the depth of my heart could no longer go
unheeded. And I thought, "I cannot retain anymore what is due to my
husband. I have stolen shelter under his roof. Like what was looted once
in the Mutiny, I must return what is due to my husband. I have stolen
shelter under his roof. Like what was looted once in the Mutiny, I must
return to him what is his...I must...I must."
To him both ways were equally painful. The distance between the way our
minds ticked and our nerves reacted was immeasurable. We could not work
out a living together. Yet, must we carry on because it was the socially
acceptable thing? There had to be another course. Between the two, after
due deliberation, I thought it better, and so chose in all honesty, the
Neither of us had any grievance against the other. The decision was
reached after long discussions in a friendly fashion. The question of any
humiliation for either of us at ' any stage did not arise. What we had
gained from each other, was undeniable; what could not be had, was no
ground for unpleasantness. What was imperative was the distance between us
to be recognised. A genuine need for the acceptance of that fact had
arisen. To my mind, it was in the interest of both.
We divided the areas of anguish. But our expressions were immensely
relaxed because of the candour of our approach. There was really no need
to conceal the pain of parting. And so we accepted it, as we did each
other's features and form, warts and all, as a constituent factor in the
reality of our existence.
We took it to be a strange enough way out anyhow. Nothing was said about
laws and courts. Nor was it at all necessary. We were far too immature
when we were married. But the supremacy of law could not be denied. When
the parting came, the truth that had to be faced by both of us was
stronger than any code of law.
I have been treated better by fate than the fellow-traveller I had parted
with. In the years that followed, I had Imroz; he has had only loneliness.
Fate has also been all too frugal in giving him anything that gives life a
We still meet but like friends, fully aware that loneliness cannot be got
over with in such meetings. I bow my head low before anyone who has to
bear the curse of solitude....
I have nonetheless a sense of pride in this bowed head of mine. I have not
had to pay the price of security. I have not allowed the prestige of
family life to suffer, nor have I fallen for any of the usually accepted
social sanctions. I have always had, in the course of my journey over each
milestone in life's mutiny, the realisation of having been able to pay
back the debts I owed.
What usually happens in such cases did not happen to •me. Characters in a
story have normally roles of protagonists or antagonists. Some remain in
the periphery even though they share or are the cause of the sufferings of
the central characters. In my case, those who for years have risen up in
arms against me are ironically the ones who have had nothing to do with
the tenor of my life.
Some of my contemporaries had nothing to do with me and so could not have
even recognised me had they passed me by in the street. To a certain
extent, Punjabi journalists fall in this category. (A contemporary of mine
went to the length of imploring my fellow-traveller to sign a paper so I
should for the rest of my life be plagued by lawyers and court cases). But
those woven in the warp and woof of my story followed the pattern of their
lives in the silence of suffering that knows no words. Should we by chance
meet after some time, our eyes fill with the sacred tears of love and
respect. So much so that even today, my sight is dimmed by the tears of
The one exception to these antagonists has been Davinder. While I had no
idea as to whom Kalam da Bhedh -his book on me-was dedicated ("To the mind
and threshold of a door that would always remain open for Amrita."), he
had, with deep reverence, gone ahead to present the first autographed copy
to the person from whom I had separated. He fully understood that
separation had not meant that we were not to extend common courtesies to
each other. On the contrary, at an hour of a child's need or over a
problem concerning my income tax-even otherwise, after every few days-we
would call each other on the telephone. If ever anyone outside the family
has understood such plain dealings, it has been the Australian writer,
Betty Colin, who in times of distress trots along for advice to her
friend, her divorced husband-indeed, whose second wife rings Betty up
whenever she is disturbed over the very same man. To share tea and
Such plain dealings have to be lived through to be appreciated fully.
An Exhumation from a Grave of 1959
The first raw deal that had left him stupefied, Father used to relate
repeatedly, was at the hands of a devotee in Gujranwala, his hometown.
Before going abroad, he had left in her safe custody a chest full of the
treasure he had inherited: jewellery and gold mohurs. And, without batting
an eyelid, the woman had on his return blandly asked him, "Which chest?"
I seemed to have gone though a similar experience in 1959: "I saw a
devotee in the same revered seat, with whom I had deposited my basket of
trust, and who was now as tersely shrugging me off with, "What trust'?"
Such dealings had left me stunned. Deep darkness, like a cloud, blanked
everything out; the oppressive atmosphere would not disperse. I had
reposed much love and faith in that sweet face of hers. Like somebody
gazing into the ever changing pattern of clouds, I have since wondered
whether the clouds in the sky were formed to awaken memories of trust
It was as if I had been pricked sore all over. Each such experience of
mine found an outlet in a story-Kale Akhar, Karma Vali, Hath Toka, Kaile
da Chilka, and so on. The character, Shanti Bibi, in the novella Ik si
Anita somehow could not express all that was welling up in me. I therefore
felt compelled to write a fairly longish story (Number 5), so that the
lack I had in mind could be dealt with to some extent.
She was a child of tender years when I first met her. (A fuller sketch of
hers is drawn in Do Aurtan: Number 5.) At the time of her marriage, I gave
her whatever ornaments I had on me from the day of Partition. Not that I
regretted parting with what little I had. What mocked at me in the raw
weather was the glint and tinkle of those trinkets...as if bits and pieces
of broken trust danced weirdly and scoffed at me in the surrounding
I had strung her child's prattle on a silken skin and hung it around my
neck. Lord Shiva had garlanded himself with snakes, surely not under the
illusion that they were skeins of silk. And I wondered why Lord Shiva had
hung his fate around my neck....
I had the sensitivity to react to the faintest of odours...and I simply
could not stand stinking lies....
Even Father could not. I had observed that fact in childhood. He was tutor
to a young man from Sialkot who lived under our roof until a job was found
for him. But the man one day tore off part of what was written on a sheet
of paper and inserted a certain figure (I cannot recall exactly how much)
in the blank space above the signature. That amount, he said, was due him.
He did not stop at that. He went further and filed a lawsuit for
non-payment of the debt. And I used to call that man "Uncle"! A pain
similar to the one I had seen in Father's expression then, I had in 1959.
I wondered how close a resemblance experience can have. I too had paid for
this child's education and had her living with me just as Father had a
relative's son in the house. Later, Father had bought some land at Hazari
Bagh, and had plans of raising on orchard. He had taken the boy with him.
But the project did not work out. Father contracted typhoid, from which he
did not recover. I got a few letters about that landed property for a
while. Then followed dead silence. The trustee had illegally disposed off
the property and pocketed the money. Thinking of him, and of her, I find
myself muttering again and again. "How could anyone? How could...?"
That was the moment in 1959 when I saw the last of her. A star had fallen
from the sky-the star of truth.
This is the saddest year: like a torn page from the calendar of my life.
Having taken a decision , my mind had leapt over the threshold, yet
tremblingly I did not know which way to
I had just about stretched my hand to pick up the phone to put a
trunk-call through to Sahir, when I was flabbergasted at finding myself
glaring at a page in Blitz. It blared forth the news-supported by a
picture of his and his newly found friend. My hand stood suspended in the
air inches away from the dial; my mental state corresponded to that of
I determined to commit suicide. After a time that evil mood passed
away, and I made up my mind to live, but to wear gloom as a king wears
purple: never to smile again: to turn whatever house I entered into a
house of mourning: to make my friends walk slowly in sadness with me....
Some people advised me to forget all this. It was ruinous advice. It would
mean-the beauty of the sun and the moon, the music of daybreak and the
silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew
creeping over the grass and making it silver-would all be tainted for
me...to deny one's experience is to put a lie into the lips of one's own
life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.
It was still vacillating in my friendship for Imroz. My saddest verse
belongs to this year. I vividly recall a weird dream I had. I was sitting
in a moving train. Opposite me was an aged man with flashing, piercing
eyes. I kept turning over the pages of my book as he began to talk:
"Have you ever seen a black rose?"
"A black rose? I don't think I have!"
"A path from the next wayside station leads to a small village. I know of
a rose garden there with a few red roses, a few white...but the rest of
the vast field is full of deep black ones..."
"Do I appear reliable enough to you, or do I not?"
"Have I said anything that makes you ask that question?"
"Would you like to see that rose garden with your own eyes?"
"I was wondering whether I could..."
"There is a myth about it...."
"And that is....?"
"Should you make up your mind, I'd rather relate the
story there itself."
We got down at the next station. Picking our way along a fairly long
half-beaten track, we discovered to our dismay that no transport was
available. But eventually, we got to the place we had set out for. Such
winsome beauties I had never before imagined could exist anywhere in the
world. There was a bright red patch; there was also a milky-white one, but
what melted the sight was acre upon acre of deep black blooms melting into
"And now the story...."
"A fair lady, so at least goes the legend, was pure of heart and... as
pure of soul...One day, he, whom she loved, decked her hair with a damask
rose, and she wrote and sang sweet and soft airs.
"The course of true love did not run smooth, and the lady spent the rest
of her life thinking about what makes things go wrong. And verse after
verse she wrote from the depths of her broken heart.
"Only those who have felt deep pain can understand the suffering of
others. Merging herself in that general suffering, she continued to write
of depths unfathomed..."
"And then what happened?"
"She died... and was buried here. And then as if by magic, three roses—one
red, one white, and one black, came forth from her grave!"
"The bushes kept getting bigger and bigger. Not a soul was around to bud
or prune them...no one to water them. Yet they kept growing till the rose
garden you see, took shape...."
"Oh And what have people to say to that?"
"They say the red blooms shot up from the love-poems; the black ones from
those of pain; and the ones she wrote out of compassion for all, were
A shiver went right through me. I brought myself to ask: "And will you not
tell me your name?"
"My name? Er....well, call me if you must....Time."
"Time! How's that? How can you be digging out of me the story of my own
Time's smile and my own shiver then woke me up from my sleep....
And I wrote: "When you cannot fill the goblet of night with the nectar of
life: when you cannot taste the honey life offers you, you cannot call it
"Tragedy is, when the silver plating peels off and the contents of the
bowl turn poisonous and penetrate into your imagination....
"Tragedy isn't, when fate cannot read the address of the one you love, and
so your life's letter goes undelivered....
"Tragedy is, when you write your life's letter to your love and you
yourself go and lose his address....
"Tragedy isn't, when social and other ties strew the long road of your
life with thorns and nettles, and your feet bleed sorely....
"Tragedy is, when with sorely bleeding feet you stand where no pathway
opens before you....
"And tragedy isn't when you keep covering the shivering, cold form of your
love with ragged verse...."
Towards the end of that year, I underwent treatment at the
psychiatrist's.... really to get to know myself. I read the standard books
on psychology. At the instance of the psychiatrist, I put down on paper,
to the extent I could, all my dreams...some of which still remember:
I stand on the top of a tower, all by myself, talking to the pen I have in
hand, "Will you always be with me? Always?"
Suddenly someone clutches my hand.
"You're an illusion. Let go of my hand!" Sternly I command and breaking
myself free, flee down the stairs....
No matter how fast I speed, the stairway goes on and on....Down and
farther down 1 go, gasping for breath—yet I dare not stop, or I will be
swooped on from behind.
Finally, I reach [he landing... and there spreads before me a fantastic
garden... with a whole sea of thronging crowd! Was it a fair-ground right
round the base of the tower? There was a spectacle of some kind a( one
end: at another, a match.
Suddenly out of nowhere I spot an old bicycle of mine. Grabbing it, I hop
onto the saddle...trying to find a way out But whichever direction I take,
again and again I come up against a stone wall. When I wake up I still
have this maddening feeling of wanting to escape and not being able to...
A huge statue of white alabaster lies flat at my feet. Looking at it in
dismay, I finally accost it with the words: "What do I do with you? You
have not the breath of life in you; you cannot speak! I'll break you to
bits! I'll pack you off right away. You've wasted all my life.... You....
my image! My ideal!... Mastering all the strength I have in me. I hurl it
And with that my dream breaks.
A damsel of twenty years or so, stood by my side. She was the very picture
of perfection. But she was ebony-black, carved out of black marble.,..
"Who is she now?" someone asked of me.
"Come now! You're pulling a fast one on me, aren't you? I've seen both
your children. So fair....so charming they are...but this one...."
"The fair ones are small.... She is the eldest.... Do you know something
about the manifestation of my art? His Goddess Parvati was churned from my
wrath. And do you know that her son Ganesh was in turn kneaded from the
dough of her own body?"
I passed through a desolate region with neither face nor form in sight. A
voice came to my ears. It was a song, "you've been the undoing of me,
Sahiban, You've hung my arrows on a silver."
"And who are you?" 1 looked around on all sides and asked.
"I am the valiant Mirza. Sahiban, my beloved, went and hid my
arrows....That was not fair....the way she had me shot dead...."
I again looked all around. Seeing no one, I said: "Stories have a way of
changing sides....Today a certain Mirza has gone and hidden my arrows..,,
is it fair.... the way he has had a courageous woman like me shot
The clouds thunder and roar. The sky shakes with wind and rain. A jagged
streak of lightning flashes through the sky and falls on my right hand.
The shock of it goes right through my body. When I regain balance, 1 look
at my hand and shake it. It is a relief to find only a slight scratch,
from which oozes a drop of blood.
Another peal of thunder, and on the same hand, strikes lightning again.
Recovering from it, I examine the hand. A slight scratch....
Thunder and lightning a third time. Now I cannot move my hand-one finger
is bent. Holding the parallel finger of my other hand as a supporting
splint, 1 press it hard again and again. It straightens out-as before. And
as a last test, I take up my pen. T can still write, as well as ever. My
mental state at the time is like Baudelaire's in his Ode to Beauty.
On the eve of Republic Day the same year I was deputed to go to Nepal. I
was still a mental wreck then I wrote the following two letters to Imroz:
Yesterday Nepal honoured the same pen with which I had written my
love-songs for you. All the flowers showered upon me are therefore my
offerings to you. How did some light kindle this inky night of separation?
Thoughts of you will ever remain lit in this poem of mine. Talk of this
light-and much more besides, went on until as late as late could be. A
Persian poet's lines come to mind:
Under the desert sun They run.
The shimmering sunds as though water,
But the tortuous illusion soon passes.
'How can sandshine,' wise men opine-'
'Blinding sand's continuity
Confine them ?' But the thirst of those
Must, say I, first be seen-how it goes.
I might have illusions about my wisdom, but not of my thirst....
Wayfarer! Why did you the first time meet me at an evening hour!
I am approaching the turning point of my life.
If you had to meet me at all why did you not meet me at high noon
When you would have felt its heat.
The Hindi poet, Shiv Mangal Singh Suman, read this poem. Each feels his
own pain. But sometimes such pains bear striking similarities. These
longings of mine have been bruised against that stern citadel of yours in
the same city of my earlier hopes. The first waiting too lasted a good
fourteen years (like Lord Rama's period of exile); the remaining years too
might well get added to those gone by...."