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Feminism Of The Subversive Amrita Pritam And Kamala Das Who Challenged Gender Roles Through Writing

Posted: August 5, 2020

Both Kamla Das & Amrita Pritam were seen as social deviants. And were seen as blasphemous women, who talked about brutalities, & didn’t filter their voices.

“I started writing very early, earlier than fifteen. I was less than that. My father was a writer. And I was the only child. My mother died when I was eleven. I was absolutely alone. So out of loneliness, I started writing,” says Amrita Pritam.

Amrita Pritam shares that when she was ten she wrote her first love poem to an imaginary boy called Ranjan. However, when her father found it out, she began to deny the authorship. She says, that her father could still read the truth from her eyes and slapped her.

Amrita Pritam’s writing provoked anguish among the people

One could derive how women in our society fear taking the ownership of their own creative work. Simply because it is threatening to possess an entity, a thing of authorship, that is to be kept distant from a woman. It was very transgressive to see a woman writing, and that too about something that falls in the territory of taboo.

Amrita Pritam’s writings of such issues -matrimony, economic slavery, extra marital affairs, annihilation of oneself and women, she provoked anguish among the people. Her writings were read as blasphemous and without the filters that a woman must use while expressing. Today, we see her as progressive, and we realize how her infamy makes unforgettable, effective and keeps her alive.

While considering men with the association of Amrita Pritam, we come across various layers of her. When she was very young, say four, she was engaged. Soon after her marriage with her husband ended, she shared a very platonic relationship with a very popular poet of those times called Sahir Ludhianvi.

Her writing often made people insecure

Her relationship with Imroz, the one she would write with was one to remember as well. She calls her work, her art – her children, they were born when she and her muses had intimacy. It is very surprising to see a woman like Amrita Pritam in those times. These were times when women would mostly accept their fate, as it was handed to them – shallow, lacking agencies, and relying on patriarchs.

She was sixteen when she got married, she says she was very unaware when she was engaged, this is how women’s lives have always been. You build their lives around men, for men. She explicitly talks against the institution of matrimony.

We can see that in a few lines from her poem ‘The Breadwinner’

‘My breadwinner

I have eaten your salt

And I must obey the salt

As my father will.’

She later says-

‘My breadwinner

I am a doll of flesh

For you to play with’

Amrita Pritam is a connoisseur, who uses the usual language to say such unusual things. Back in those times, when she wrote she made everyone insecure.

She was a liberated woman who spoke her mind

In the lines from this poem, we see how she’s asserting the fact that women have to obey their patriarchal guardians as they are their breadwinners. The lack of economic independence paralyses women of owning their agencies, she later says how women fail to have ownership of their bodies too. It is the men who have perpetual entitlement to their bodies, as she says – I am a doll of flesh for you to play with.

She says her husband would try to restrain her in household, asking her to not recite her poetry on the radio. The kind of ‘disgrace’ that the woman was bringing to her name was also affecting her family.

Amrita Pritam couldn’t stay in the marriage after she found out that her husband was having an extramarital affair. And chose to not be an obstacle. She wasn’t blaming her husband to be disdainful, rather she liberated him. And that act of liberating someone else automatically liberated her too.

Well, it’s inevitable to not digress while discussing Amrita Pritam, someone with so many layers to her work, could not be deciphered and explained in one go.

Her book Pinjar shows the realities of communal enmity

We often see her as a partition writer/poet. Yes, the major turmoils were occurring leaving her in despair, but she could notice the intricate details, the nuances that were largely missed. Her take on atrocities faced by women during the partition, and also before and after that makes her writings an immortal one.

The very famous novel by Amrita Pritam- called Pinjar (Skeleton) reflects the communal enmities and the harsh reality that follows it. Pooro, the protagonist, a Sikh woman is kidnapped by a Muslim man called Rasheed.

Rasheed says that he had to do it as he was pressurised by his community. That it was an act of vengeance that a Muslim man was trying to take from Sikhs by abducting a Sikh woman. Women have lived like battlefields when two parties are fighting. They might be fighting for her, or about her her, and in the end, they leave behind the ruins for a woman to live with, just like a battlefield.

One could say that major battles in the world have happened due to women, but do we not forget how those major battles have ruined them. Pooro tries to escape that entrapment, and get back to her previous home, her community, but is denied access to her real identity.

Pinjar reflects on women and their identities

She’s left with no other homeland and returns to Rasheed. He is the only home, the only cage and the entrapment she could live in, live with. We realize, how homeless a woman is depicted in the times when men were fighting for homelands.

Women, on the other hand, were perpetually homeless, perpetually at a loss of identity. Pooro then becomes Hamida and lives a shattered identity throughout. Women have been a tool, the wreckage of major wars. Men have used their bodies for possession, entitlement, and have ruined them.

Amrita Pritam’s harsh stake on matrimony baffled so many people back then. ‘How could a woman ever challenge the major institution that she is built for?’ Back in those times, the sort of literature that was popular was regarding idealising wife roles and domesticity. But when Amrita Pritam blatantly denies being a meek wife, everyone raises their eyebrows.

According to her, marriage gave one the kind of convenience that made her very uncomfortable. A woman had to keep fighting between the two binaries of what a woman could be – a meek, helpless, broken wife or a whore. And a woman with free will, striving to get what she has been looking for, say mostly happiness was called a whore.

Her work may be set in the 1950s but is a reality even today

To come across her is a liberating revelation in itself. And through her writings she has touched those pores that invoke a sense of resonance. To understand Amrita Pritam, one needs to go deep down in her personal history and empathise with the struggles of women. This was an era when they were barely aware of the idea of feminism.

Amrita Pritam shares very thought-provoking, intellectually stimulating snippets from her life, from the lives of women and men around her. She is a writer of 1950s, but when you sit down to read her work today, you feel it all happening in the moment right now. How she thought, her ideas haven’t yet lost their relevance, the prominence has remained intact.

Khushwant Singh translated the very popular poem by Amrita Pritam – ‘A call to Waris Shah,’ and said that the poem immortalised her. It is only the fluidity of art that can surpass the boundaries that nations draw between them, against each other.

People have criticised her for addressing it to Waris Shah

The pain, the anguish was mutual, shared one. As was the loss of lives, the rapes, the humiliations which tormented both sides. It is hard to define what nation, or community Amrita Pritam wrote it for.

The fact that she addresses the poem to Waris Shah and not to someone of a religious stature aggravates people. They go on criticising her for not addressing it to Guru Nanak. At the same time, the left-wing writers would say, that she should have addressed it to Lenin or Stalin.

The point is, why is a woman not given full control over her creative agency? Why should someone could criticise her for even addressing it to someone she wants to? Waris Shah was a Sufi poet, who had penned the tragic story of Punjab’s folk heroine – Ranjha. The angle of boundaries and the trauma is resembling in Pritam poetry as well.

Kamla Das and Amrita Pritam

Like I said, Amrita Pritam used common language to say unusual things and she left her readers wondering. Similarly, we have another poet from the same block – Kamla Das. Her poems remind you of unlearning the burdens that gender constructs draw on you.

And her narratives are fragile and striking at the same time. Both Kamla Das and Amrita Pritam were seen as social deviants. They were seen as blasphemous women, who talked about brutalities, and didn’t draw filters while expressing body-related thoughts.

Kamala Das explicitly talked about lovemaking, the loneliness of women, their physical, psychological needs, and exploitation. She was one of the most prominent voices amongst the post-colonial feminists.

Kamala Das has often been compared to Sylvia Plath because of their confessional writing. Her fascination with writing began at a very young age.

Kamal Das wrote of being isolated in the male-dominated world

Later as she grew up and began identifying as a woman, she says – ‘A woman had to prove herself to be a good wife, a good mother, before she could become anything else. My husband appreciated that I was trying to supplement the family income, so he allowed me to write at night. After all the chores were done after I had fed the children cleaned up the kitchen, I was allowed to sit awake and write till morning.”

Similarly, Amrita Pritam too talked about her marriage and was putting limitations on her creative agency. She was too guided to be a thing participating in household chores.

We see, Kamla Das in her poem- ‘A Window’s Lament,’ she feels isolated in a male-dominated society. She writes-

This has always been someone else world,

Not mine.

My man my sons forming the axis

While I, wife and mother

Climbed the glass panes of their eyes.

Kamla Das was also subjected to controversies when she changed her religion to Islam. The Islamophobia amongst the people had made her feel almost naked in the social settings. Similarly, talking in reference to Amrita Pritam, we realize, both the men she was in love with were Muslims.

Both women challenged gender roles when it was unheard of

Amrita Pritam shares that when she was a young girl, her grandmother would keep separate cups for the Muslim guests. And she would deliberately drink water from those. She was unaware that she would end up falling in love with men, who are Muslims.

Amrita Pritam in her autobiography – Rashidi Ticket (Revenue Stamp) reflects various thought-provoking snippets from her life. Similarly, Kamla Das too writes about her fragile adolescence and her becoming a woman in her autobiography- My story. They both have substantially challenged the needle and the pen metaphors.

Both of them highlighted how in a strictly stringent society tightly packed up with the ideas of xenophobia and greed, women struggle to make a voice and appear beyond their peripheral gender roles.

Picture credits: Amazon books

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