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On ‘Defenseless’ and ‘Blasphemy’
Meenakshi Jauhari


Amrita Pritam (1919-2005) belonged to the syncretic, highly poeticized and mellowed tradition of contemporary Urdu poetry. Originally writing in Punjabi, Amrita adopted Urdu as her medium, when she was forced to move from Lahore to India in the aftermath of the Partition. She was 28 years old at the time, and deeply disturbed. Her poetry mirrored her torment; moody, with sad, shimmering edges, her lexicon, the salt of the common man’s everyday tongue.

“Defenseless (1947) is a montage frozen in time. Independence and Partition––the dislocation of fifteen million people and killing of more than a million––the gutted fate of innocents in Punjab, the land of the five rivers. Amrita paints the profoundly schizophrenic experience of a nation divided––a wildly haphazard severing, with women and young girls bearing the brunt of soul-searing humiliations. These fires would not be easily extinguished; they would pass on to future generations, a legacy of torn memories.

“Blasphemy is a translation of “Kufr,” and is a haunting meditation on life, living, and choices made. This nazm also featured in the 1976 Hindi film Kadambari, based on her own novel, its music composed by the renowned sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan. To my mind, this poem presented a great challenge for translation. “Kufr” is a complex, many-sided concept, with shades of abstraction, layers of implications, spiritual and cultural; add to it the poetic latitude a poet of Amrita Pritam's caliber and compulsions takes, and that sums up, a little, the magnitude of the challenge of transplanting it into English.*

*Taken from Amrita Pritam: Chuni Hui Kavitayen, Bhartiya Jnanpith, New Delhi, 2008.

Mark
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©2020 Volume Poetry
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Site design by Nick Fogarty