Rita Banerjee’s article, “Amrita Pritam: Sexual Politics and Publishing in mid-20th Century India” is now live as a VIDA Exclusive on VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. In the article, Banerjee translates Pritam’s poem, “Night” from Hindi into English, and writes:
Writing from a minority perspective as an American, it’s often hard to find creative and intellectual predecessors who are writing from your culture of origin but who aren’t necessarily writing in English or just trying to be celebrities in the global Anglophone literary marketplace. For South Asian writers, for women in the literary arts, and for writers who are looking to challenge the patriarchal hegemony of Anglo-American literature, Amrita Pritam is a must-know writer. In the 1940s, she came to prominence as a political and feminist writer in India, first in Punjabi literature, then in Hindi and Urdu translation, and finally internationally. By the 1950s, like Simone de Beauvoir and Bretty Friedan in the West, Pritam was challenging patriarchal values at home, redefining gender roles and narratives assigned to women, and openly challenging heteronormative sexual politics. In doing so, she ushered in a new wave of feminist literature in mid-20th century India even as she faced criticism for her work from her male counterparts and from within the Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, and South Asian publishing industries at large.
That was our tryst, yours and mine.
We slept on a bed of stones,
and our eyes, lips and finger tips,
became the words of your body and mine,
they then a made translation of this first book.
The Rig Veda was compiled much later.
– Amrita Pritam, “First Book”
In Pritam’s poetry, one is not born, but rather becomes a woman. Her unflinching gaze at sex, her exploration of emotional and psychological nakedness, and a sense of self-irony and self-knowledge underwrite several of her poems. In her poem, “First Book,” quoted above, Pritam explores how the very act of physical, sexual love, unbound by the mores of society, collapses the distances between the sacred and the profane. And in her poem, “Amrita Pritam,” the poet takes a hard look at the mythos of her own public identity and the narratives of victimization ascribed to it. She writes: “Pain: / I inhaled it, / quietly like a cigarette. // Song: / I flicked off / like ash / from the cigarette.” (Singh 29).
Read the full article on VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.