The partition of India, more so of Punjab, was like an amputation, the wound has healed with time but the nagging pain remains. And it will remain; shrouded in memories, tucked away in deep crevices of one’s mind, dusty and cobwebbed, but very much there. The ache, though dull and distant, does not recede even after seventy-five years. It comes back when one least expects it; in the yellow of mustard fields, in the smell of the earth after rains, in the sounds of ‘aazan’, in the beats of bhangra, in the eyes of your grandmother, in the heart of your father. For ‘Punjabis’, of both Punjab, the pathos is real even now, both politically and emotionally.
The joy of independence from a 200-year British rule was overcast and embittered by the silent yet deafening cries of refugees. The plight of women we worship as Goddesses. The mindless massacre of men we call our brothers. The scars are still visible on both sides of the borders. This pain, of a severed limb, however, cannot be felt or understood only with historical facts or journals. To experience it we must re-live it. How you will ask me.
Let me tell you.
Ajj aakhan Waris Shah nu kiton qabran vichhon bol
Te ajj kitabe-e-ishq da koi agla varka phol
Ik roi si dhee Punjab di tu likh likh mare vain
Aj lakhan dheeyan rondiyan tainu Waris Shah nu kahen
Uth dardmandan diaa dardiaa, uth takk apna Punjab
Aj bele laashan vichhian te lahu di bhari Chenab!
These are the opening lines of “Aaj Akhan Waris Shah nu – Ode to Waris Shah”, a poem by Amrita Pritam, written on a piece of paper on a train journey to Dehradun, expressing and remembering her own anguish about the partition in 1947. Before delving into the explanation of these lines, let me acquaint you briefly with Waris Shah and Amrita Pritam.
‘Heer-Ranjha’, our very own version of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo-Juliet’ was penned down by Waris Shah. It is often said that ‘Heer-Ranjha’ which is usually applauded as a tragic romance, quintessentially reflected the social stigma and struggles of women during those times. And Waris Shah wrote it to bring these issues out in the open. Amrita Pritam is a revered poetess and writer who was born in Lahore in 1919 and migrated to India during the Partition in 1947. In this poem, she recreates the horrors she had witnessed herself as she crossed the border, in nothing but the clothes she wore, her two adolescent children in tow.
In the above verse, Amrita implores Waris Shah to rise from his grave and write about the bloodshed in Punjab during Partition. Pritam knows that the events are so traumatic and horrific that a living, breathing person will not be able to put in into words. So, she laments and calls upon Waris Shah to record this paroxysm as a new page in Punjab’s dismal history. The poem decries the violence against women as they were raped, tortured, abducted, or forced to convert their religion. She asks him to write another saga, about the communal situation, almost challenging him that since he had written a legend when just ‘one’ Heer had cried, now that millions of women of Punjab are wailing, he cannot be quiet. He has to wake up and witness the state of his Punjab as fields are littered with bloodied corpses instead of swaying wheat crops and Chenab overflows with blood rather than life-giving water.
“Jutthe vajdi phuk pyaar di ve oh vanjhli gayi guach,
Raanjhe de sab veer aj bhul gaye usdi jaanch”
These lines again refer to the saga of Heer-Ranjha. Amrita goes on to tell Waris Shah that all the flutes which sounded songs of love, like the one Ranjha used to sing to please Heer, have become lost and all men of Punjab who were considered to be romantics and lovers have forgotten how to play the flute, they have lost their charm.
“Preet diyan shehzadiyaan” or “the much-loved women”of Punjab have been captivated in tombs where they cry tears of blood but no one hears them. No one rescues them. In lines before these she draws a heart-rendering picture of the devastation and desolation that lurked around every corner as “galeyon toote geet phir” (songs became stuck in throats) and “trinjanon tuttiyan saheliyan” (friends got separated). Everything in Punjab was devastated. The destruction was as much on a psychological and emotional level as it was physical. Possibly even more so. The poem recounts stopped “charakherry” (spinning wheels), and vacant swings on peepul trees which hung isolated and broken. The boats had become unanchored and floated aimlessly in rivers. Much like the prosperity and cheer of Punjab. People are boats, and swings are giggles and laughter. Both have vanished, leaving behind tears and hatred and blood. Pritam compares the people then with Kaidu, Heer’s cruel uncle who poisoned and ultimately killed her because he did not approve of the caste difference between Ranjha and Heer. “Aj sabhe Kaidu ban gaye, husn ishq de chor…”, everyone has become like Kaidu, opposed to love and beauty, so from where can one find another Waris Shah who can expose this treachery.
It is ironic that people relate to sorrow through poetry and do not realize its seriousness in actuality. This famous dirge immortalized Amrita Pritam as it was the first major poem about the holocaust of Partition in 1947. Amrita came out to scream at the silence and in doing so she awakened dormant, subdued emotions of people. At the time when everyone was shamed, depressed, and haunted, it required a woman to react. After all, major atrocities were committed on women, both Hindu and Muslim. And then there are Indian critics who ask, “Why did she address the poem to Waris Shah and not to Guru Nanak?” The leftists protested that it should’ve been directed at Stalin or Lenin. Well, I will leave it at that because as a writer and woman of Punjab, I find the question demeaning and unworthy of an answer.