A story of love torn apart by wars between nations, or stories of gut-wrenching pain. It probably seems easier to not love at all; having nothing to lose seems like a better prospect than knowing your love is gone forever.
The reason to advocate for nothingness over love was born out of the enduring love and pain that the poem “Ajj Aakhan Waaris Shah Nu” boldly puts forth – a true grit that stirs the imagination and sheds light on the fables of war that we only heard as stories, stories that lay the foundation of patriarchy. If “Still I Rise” awakened the strength of the woman inside its reader, then Amrita Pritam‘s Punjabi poem “Ajj Aakhan Waaris Shah Nu” awakens the endurance that pain provides.
What makes this poem a memorable and celebrated piece is the fact that it is written by a woman, for women, in a society where war stories conventionally celebrate or lament men. It does not narrate the story of beautiful creatures like a bird or cloud but sings boldly of how society failed to protect its people, the people who were divided, families torn apart, women not considered human enough to exist and abused. It is a poem about women who witnessed Punjab blowing in the wind and everything burning down, a home they built all their life was gone in a day. It is a poem about how humans failed to live up to each other, for their own expectations, a poem that is unable to find happiness.
So, what is love gone wrong? Hate? Or just nothingness?
“Ajj aakhan Waris Shah nu kiton qabraan vichon bol
Te ajj kitaab e ishq da koi agla warqa phol
Ik roi si dhi Punjab di tu likh likh maare vain
Ajj lakhaan dhiyyan rondiyan tenu Waris Shah nu kehn”
Dedication, accusation, and invocation. This stanza sets the tone for the poem, where multiple things are happening simultaneously. First, she is invoking a poet who inspired her, Waaris Shah, like Don Mclean did in his song “Vincent” for Van Gogh. The song opens with the lines: “starry starry nights/paint your palette blue and grey/look out on a summer’s day/with eyes that know the darkness in my soul….” In the fourth stanza, he calls him by his name. Like Mirabai does in her poem “I have found my Guru” to Raidas: “I have found a guru in Raidas/he has given me the pill of knowledge/……”
But unlike these two poems, where they are praising their talents or scholarship, Amrita Pritam is challenging Waaris Shah’s legacy. This invocation shows how deeply the partition has affected women. Instead of singing songs of praise or appreciation, she approaches him with a voice forged in pain, unheard, unnoticed. Hence, she creates a strong sense of juxtaposition to bring out the unseen or lesser comprehended side of division. Building her context over the love story of Heer & Ranjha, she writes on behalf of all women of Punjab and their lost love and ravages.
“Uth dardmandaan dya dardiya uth tak apna Punjab
Ajj bele laashaan vichiyaan te lahu di bhari Chenab
Kise ne punjaan paniyan vich ditti zehar rala
Te onhaan paniyan dhart nu ditta pani la”
She is asking the poet to rise from his grave and write the stories of these women who are enduring pain and suffering for no fault of their own. As a writer of pain and tragic stories, Pritam wants him to speak for these women too, make their voices be heard. She wants to immortalize their suffering, bring poetic meaning to their lives. There is a parallel story to the events described in Pritam’s poem: during the Kalinga war, when Ashoka was ruthlessly killing soldiers, it was believed that the river Daya, where the war took place, turned red. At the war’s end, when Ashoka went to wash his face, he witnessed streams of red water flowing down the riverbank in an endless motion. Rivers and their tributaries have held significant positions in India’s mythology, making them sacred and revered.
When river Daya was poisoned with blood, Ashoka is known to have changed his approach to life. India is a farming-oriented country. Punjab is known to have abundant lands and long flowing rivers, but during partition, these lands of lush green farms and strong water currents had become grounds for lifeless bodies waiting to decompose. While wives and daughters faced abuse, homelessness, and merciless treatment, devoid of any compassion or respite. Chenab river currently doesn’t flow through Indian Punjab. It used to flow through undivided Punjab before partition. So, Pritam is writing this at the cusp of the wars unfolding in a nation that was being divided at that time into two. Just like the fables of river Daya, the five rivers of Punjab from which its name comes were poisoned too with blood and scraps of war.
“Es zarkhez zameen de loon loon phuttya zehar
Gith gith charrhiyan laaliyan phutt phutt charrya qehar
Dih vilsi da pher van van waggi ja
Onhe har ik sans di wanjhali ditti naag bana”
The poison that flowed in the rivers of Punjab has now thickened and permeated the depths of the water. This intensifies the impact of the war, revealing the fragile nature of humanity, its vulnerable mortality, and the haunting silence filled with screams and horrors. This poison has now evaporated into the air, poisoning the entire atmosphere. Punjab is fertile because of its water and this is bringing into the lands its poison where the fertile soil is now barren and dead. Ravages of war. The spread of the impact of partition is so deep that even human skin is unable to tolerate it and is bleeding metaphorically as well as physically.
She draws an image of a city where Ranjha used to play flute and the air was filled with melodious joy. Punjab’s joy was robbed from it because of partition. Something that T.S Eliot does in his poem, “The Wasteland,” where he talks of the London bridge where soldiers marched with pride into the war and people who were left behind after the war walked with their heads low, in a ‘done with life’ sense. The rhythm of life is dead in both Amrita Pritam and T.S Eliot’s poem.
“Pehla Dang Madaariyan, Mantar Gaye Guwaach,
Doojey Dang Di Lag Gayi, Janey Khaney Nuu Lag
Naagan kile lok munh bis phir dang hi dang
Palo pali Punjab de neele pe gaye ang”
In these lines, her development of the imagery of the ravages of war is stronger. She compares the destroyers with snakes, who are biting people relentlessly and this is happening because the first line of defense that was supposed to protect its people is down, the government is responsible for the partition. So, the spree of killing got wider, and the lands became pale and lifeless. It was morphing into the pale yellow effect that a dead body gives when it dies of a snake bite. There is a sense of frenzy and madness in these lines that she is talking about, a ruthlessness that the enemy seems to have been granted without limits. Laden with wounds throughout, Punjab is described to be so helpless that it could not even shed a tear without bloodshed or poison.
“galeyon tute geet phir traklio tuti tand
trinjhno tutiyaan saheliyan charakhde ghuukar band
sani sej de beriyan luddan ditiyaan rohar
sani daliyan peengh aj piplaan diti torr
ajj aakhkha warish shah nu
kito qabraan vicho bol”
In these stanzas, she is acknowledging the absolute downfall of the nation, she is taking a regional example to talk about the entire country’s scenario. The farmlands of Punjab were destroyed, its cotton production was affected. Similarly, ‘Trinjna’ (a group of women who sit together to spin the charkha) couldn’t come together to use ‘traklio’ (which is a spindle used to produce threads from balls of cotton) to weave clothes together. They sang work songs to enrich their weaving time. This had instantaneously turned into a farfetched dream because the thread that builds the clothes was as broken as the thread that weaves the nation together. They were both falling apart. So, these spaces that weaved joy were broken and closed, just like the country at that point of time.
One cannot weave after the thread is broken and a nation burned with screams that continue to haunt it. These women lost more than their livelihoods. Pritam further says that their wedding beds had floated away in the rivers of Punjab, so mighty was the water of the land. This metaphor simply reflects upon the countless broken marriages as the death toll was rising everywhere. Like one gives away the ashes of the dead body, like Kunti gave away Karna into the hands of Ganga, but here the marriages of these women of Punjab floated away without ash or body. Similar acts definitely but a different pain. The women who were left behind had very little option of escape, it was either ravage or death. So, the family life that prevailed before the partition was destroyed, the veranda that was earlier used for socializing had a broken swing, families torn apart. Whatever remains is being consumed by the powerful at the expense of the weak.
“Jithe vajdi si phook piyar di oh vanjali gai gawach
Ranjhe de sab veer ajj bhul gaye us di jaach
Dharti te lahu wassya qabraan paiyyan chon
Preet diyan shehzadiyan aj vich mazaran ron”
She says the people who are causing the destruction are the same brothers who were with their friends and families living a melodiously loud life, playing flute and other instruments, naïve of societal destruction, harmless like the brothers-in-arms of Ranjha. These men have been soiled with war and are murdering each other without a thought. This was a harsh reality where dreams couldn’t breathe. These people were unable to rise over hate, limiting their minds and killing their souls. Was it fear or anger that made them do this? No reason can compensate for the loss of life, the graves that won’t bury anymore because they were outpouring death and horror. While the graves could not accommodate bodies anymore, the city markets were filled with young girls beating their hearts out with tears of pain and loss, nothing to love.
“Ve ajj sab ‘gaido’ ban gaye, husn ishq de chor
ajj kithon liyaiye labh ke waaris shah ek hor
Ajj aakhan waaris shah noon kito qabraan vicho bol!
Te ajj kitab-e-ishq da koi agla varka phol!”
‘Gaido’ is the villain in the story of ‘Heer and Ranjha’, so here Pritam is saying that everyone has turned into villains, humanity has turned against itself. Women of this time needed hope to live the life bestowed upon them, they required immense strength because a part of the loss they had to endure was more than death. For some, death seemed to be a better option. So, Amrita Pritam asks Waaris Shah again after narrating the horrors of the war during partition, to give them the strength that he provided to Heer. She asks him again to wake from his grave and write them stories of strength.
Do you see how love went wrong here? I guess the pursuit of this essay is trying to underline all conflict resolution, be it at the scale of nations, communities or individuals. What would you pick to define love gone wrong?
Born and brought up in Bhubaneswar, Ankita is an architectural historian with a master’s degree from CEPT, Ahmedabad. Professionally, Ankita’s passion lies in exploring conventional and unconventional spaces, writing about them, and adding a touch of graphics. During her masters, she underwent intensive research and academic writing, which she intends to apply to various fields of interest related to art, architecture, and literature. As she navigates the colonially obsessed world, Ankita sees herself as a clumsy human trying to create her subaltern identity, a trait she resonates with in the Blahcksheep community.