Amrita Pritam’s "To Waris Shah" Translation by Khushwant Singh. A Feminist Poetic Memoir of Partition Trauma of Punjab

Academic Paper, 2017

17 Pages



1) Abstract

2) Introduction

3) Memories of Partition Trauma: Who Tore Our Punjab?

4) Partition Scars on Women’s Bodies: Marginalised Daughters of Punjab

5) Translating the Lessons of Gynocentric Life Writing

6) Conclusion

7) Bibliography


India and Pakistan have both inherited the collective cartographic anxiety and trauma of the partition that divided the fate of the lands, homes, brothers, neighbours, rivers, blood, and bodies. Amrita Pritam being the first female modern Punjabi writer self-assigned herself as a revolutionary rebel who re-imagined the new meanings of partition trauma, women’s identity, gender, nostalgia, humanity, religion, justice, truth, and beauty. Amrita Pritam’s Punjabi poem, To Waris Shah (Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu, 1948) is translated into English by Khushwant Singh in 1982. Pritam gets hailed as the modernist literary heiress of the Punjabi Sufi poet, Waris Shah. Amrita Pritam in her elegy, To Waris Shah, attempts to wake her deceased idol forcing him to listen and witness the India-Pakistan Partition of 1947 that costed the heart-breaking wails of millions of daughters like Heer, the ‘daughter of Punjab’. Amrita Pritam composed the Sufi-styled poetic life writing as a partition-refugee mother migrating from Gujranwala, Pakistan to India. It documents her escape from the dilapidating domestic chambers of the patriarchal and partition traumas through the representation of the unseen and unheard memories of the ‘margins’ along the partitioned borders. Pritam’s poem sent a shock wave ahead of time nagging the cosy readers to re-experience the raw barbarism committed during partition. The poet wakes the newly partitioned nations to cease the inhuman frenzy in the name of religions which only contribute to the divide and rule tactics of colonisers. The elegiac memoir sings the untold ballads of Punjab, the land between India and Pakistan. The article aims to understand how Pritam’s poem shattered the Gandhian utopia of united India by documenting how the domestic and foreign agendas of communal hatred got drawn on the bodies of women. The article will further analyze how the ‘Great Indian Partition’ got re-written from a feminist and humanitarian angle as a poetic attempt to heal, blend, and console the partitioned borders of Waris Shah’s Punjab.

Keywords: Bodies, Boundaries, Communal Violence, Displacement, Feminism, Homeland, Identity Crisis, Independence, Intolerance, Life Writing, Memories of Punjab, Migration, Minority, Modernity, Partition Trauma, Religion, Resistance, Translation, Women’s Agency, Women’s Writing.


The poison spread to all the lines All of the Punjab turned blue. -Amrita Pritam, To Waris Shah

India and Pakistan are competing to be the global superpower of the South Asian region, once partitioned twin countries born from the same womb. The strained effects of India-Pakistan partition gets reflected through historical events and contemporary politics. Major events are Morley- Minto Reforms (1909); Montagu- Chelmsford Reforms (1919); Amritsar Massacre (1919); Khilafat and Non Co-operation Movements; Nehru Report (1928); Government of India Act (1935); Provincial Election (1937); Cripps Mission(1943); Azad Punjab Scheme (1943); Wavell Plan (1945); Simla Conference (1945); Cabinet Mission (1946); and Direct Action Day (1946). Followed by Declaration of Atlee (1947); Mountbatten’s Plan (1947); Fourteenth Points of Jinnah; Radcliffe Line; Rawalpindi March riots (1947); Great Indian Migration; India-Pakistan Partition; Indian Independence (1947); Islamic Republic of Pakistan and Republic of India; Indo-Pakistani War; and Inter-Dominion Agreement (1947). Major post-independent events are the Indus Water Treaty (1960), Uri Attack (2016), Pulwama Attack (2019); IAF Strikes (2019); downgraded diplomatic ties, and countless cross-border attacks. Both countries have divided, and disputed approaches over different issues, be it Indian Citizen’s Amendment Act or China’s ‘string of pearls’ tactics. However, India-Pakistan relationship is being consistently healed by art, literature, diaspora, spirituality, diplomatic relations, and global assistance.

Partition literature or riot literature serves as a quasi-historical register of the cataclysm of the primordial sectarian violence that occurred during the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh Partition holocaust of 1947. The partition tales whisper the collective nostalgia, historical elegies, massacre traumas, and survival stories. The literary preservation of the traumatic events and the altered geographies scarred and cracked India. Partition memoirs are life stories of making choices in the aftermath of the partition that articulates the diaspora’s dilemma of the identity crisis, dislocation, uprootedness, and alienation. It documents the partition-migrants’ yearning for homeland and migration for survival. It exposes how colonisers’ divide and the rule mission led to one of the most historical administrative operation, the India-Pakistan Partition. A partition border was drawn by the ignorant colonisers scarring the bodies of women and land of Punjab. It mourns the tales of agitated brothers tearing their homeland by breeding and burning the fires of communal violence and fundamentalist propaganda. A partition brooded by barbaric brutality, betrayal, hatred, bloodshed, mob lynching, lawless disintegration, and mass destruction.

Punjabi Literature sprouted from the seeds of the cultural blending of Punjab and cultural-literary contacts between Sikhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. Punjabi literature gets enriched by the multicultural and indigenous literariness transforms into a universal-regional reservoir of Indian history. Punjabi poetry gets absorbed with the essential nostalgia of the rich historiography, agrarian harvests, ethnic cuisines, communal gatherings, seasonal festivals, military warfare, religious rituals, folk music, and artistry. Along with the Gurbani poetry, the grandeur of Punjabi poetry is nurtured by the influence of Urdu through the classical Sufi and Qissas epic poetry of Sheikh Farid, Shah Hussain, Waris Shah, Hashim Shah, and others. Waris Shah, the Sufi poet of 18th-century, penned the tragic love-story and unofficial national epic of Punjab, Heer Ranjha (1776) that epitomize universal love, religious harmony, and humanitarian unity surpassing the partitions of communal hatred.

Amrita Pritam (1919-2005) the grand literary heiress of the modern Punjabi literature inherited all the cultural traits from Waris Shah and Punjab. Pritam became the multilingual daughter of Pakistan, Punjab, and India whose literary works re-united Urdu-Punjabi-Hindi, and Islam-Sikhism-Hinduism. She awarded with Punjab Ratan Award, Sahitya Academy Award (1956), Bharatiya Gyanpeeth Award (1982), Padma Shri (1969), Republic of Bulgaria’s Vaptsarov Award (1979), Bharatiya Jnanpith Award (1982), Padma Vibhushan (2004), Sahitya Academy Fellowship (2004), and other awards. She also worked in Lahore Radio Station and Punjabi station of All India Radio. She got associated with the Progressive Writers movements. She edited a literary magazine known as Nagmani. She is most celebrated for her novel, Pinjar (Skeleton). Some of her poetic anthologies are Amrit Lehran (Immortal Waves, 1936), Lok Peed (People’s Anguish, 1944), Pathar Geetey (The Pebbles, 1946), Sunehade (Messages,1955), Kagaz Te Kansas (Paper and Canvas , 1981), and others. Her notable autobiographies are Kala Gulab (Black Rose,1968), Rashid’s Ticket (Revenue Stamp, 1976), and Aksharon Ray Saaye ( Shadows of Words, 2004).

Amrita Pritam gets hailed as the perennial symbol of peace between both countries whose papers and canvas still ties together the broken borders. None knew the pathways and pastures of both Lahore and Punjab like Amrita Pritam. Translation of her works surpassed the linguistic partitions gaining a broader readership. Her works are the progressive representation of the marginalized minorities verbalizing their emotional ‘skeletons’ in the domestic corridors of her life writing. She is one of the pioneer proto-feminist who endeavoured the first feminist deconstruction of the androcentric partition history. Her themes centred around folk symbols, self-identification, migration, human existence, ‘nakedness’, communal violence, nostalgia, motherhood, Sufi music, Punjabi language, Sikh traditions, agricultural metaphors, and childhood nostalgia. She as a female writer mocked the brutal futility of patriarchal, religious, sectarian, territorial, national, and literary boundaries. Her headstrong voice dubbed the dialogues of gender politics, non-violence, identity crisis, uprootedness, cultural history, creativity, sexuality, independence, regional landscapes, and patriarchal hypocrisy.

Khushwant Singh translates Amrita Pritam’s Punjabi poem Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu (1948) with the title To Waris Shah. The poem originally composed in the Punjabi language has different versions of English translations carried out by different people. The article primarily focuses on Khushwant Singh’s English translation of the poem published in Amrita Pritam: Selected Poems (1982). The poem modelled on Qissas tradition gets addressed to the Punjabi Sufi poet, Waris Shah. Amrita Pritam scribbled this immortal masterpiece while boarding on her migration rail journey from Gujranwala to Delhi as an unaccompanied refugee mother pregnant with her son. It murmurs the trauma of the collective helplessness, shame, uncertainty, grief, hatred, and fear that gets accumulated in its gravity with the nearing disillusionment of nation-building. It is an evocative poem that documents the harrowing scenes from the borders partitioning Lahore and Amritsar. A border was drawn out of the blood oozing from the piles of mutilated bodies, and smoke rising from the religious shrines. An August announcement marked the birth of twin nations while crying orphan children sat beside their mothers’ sexually violated corpses who were once the ‘daughters of Punjab’.

1) Memories of Partition Trauma: Who Tore Our Punjab?

Partition poetry document how the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh borders were ignorantly drawn by an unconcerned foreigner who lacked any first-hand knowledge of the undivided Indian demography. The ‘Great Indian Migration’ along rails and roads questions the disillusionment of national homogenisation when a coloniser partitioned the bodies of not just sisterly nations but also women of the land. The partition resulted in the ‘Great Indian Migration’ that recorded 8 million Pakistani Hindus and Sikhs migrated to India and 6-7 million Indian Muslims migrated to Pakistan. It was a colonial declaration that hastily partitioned the hearts on two sides of India. The partition boundaries got inked with the crimson blood of the innocents; glazed with the flames devouring the corpses; reeked with the smell of putrefying flesh; drenched with the tears of orphaned children; warned by the siren-like shrieks of abandoned women; and queued by a herd of both people and cattle. It records the days when the war-torn fathers desperately searched for their little girls amidst the burning streets frequented by atrocious rioters. The partition, with its excuses for ethnic cleansing and genocide, resulted in around 1.5 million deaths.

The vulnerable communities mostly the religious and linguistic minorities were worst affected. The partition aided the violent conquests of z an (women), zar (wealth), and zamin (land) which severely damaged the history of Sikh community who lost their ‘homeland’, the land of Punjab. Pritam’s poem from a Sikh perspective substantiates the atrocious historical events against Sikhs like the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, mass suicides of women in Thoa Khalsa, and anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The poem also stresses on the Sikh community’s significant charitable national, transnational, and global contributions. Punjab during partition witnessed the non-inclusiveness and sectarian denial of ‘infrastructural facilities’ like drinking water, healthcare, sanitation, education, transportation, and food. Young Amrita Pritam raises a significant question in her autobiographies, “Is water also Hindu- Mussalman ?”(Pritam 1999:14-15) when she notices the railway water pots communally labelled as “Hindu pani and Muslim pani”(Pritam 2001: 7).

The partition memoirs, personal interviews, and survivors’ recollections get validated by historical events. It transforms partition literature into attempts of resistance, rapist shaming; justice; acceptance of plurality; trauma recovery; and relocation. In the poem To Waris Shah, Amrita Pritam juxtapose between past of undivided Punjab and present of partitioned Punjab. The glorious past gets illustrated through phrases like “rich land”; “Chenab”; “Waris Shah”; “daughter of Punjab”; “our book of love”; “flute bamboo”; “antidotes”; “all of the Punjab”; “hum of spinning wheel”; “swings on the peepuls’ branches”; “all boats”; “windpipe grilled songs of love”; and “graves”(Singh 1982:93-95). The partition reality of Punjab gets described in the poem as “Corpses are strewn on the pasture, / Blood runs in the Chenab. / Some hand hath mixed poison in our live rivers/ The rivers in turn had irrigated the land. From the rich land have sprouted venomous weeds/ Flow high the red has spread” (Singh 1982: 93-95). The five rivers of Indus (Chenab, Beas, Ravi, Jhelum, and Sutlej) that once nurtured the fertile land of Punjab boring the bountiful crop pastures in its fields now got jumbled with piles of putrefying corpses. The deceased were both victims and assailants who got infected by the intoxicating venom of communal hate. The fresh corpses’ blood painted the earth crimson red and polluted the pure waters of rivers. Pritam denotes how ‘some’ people poisoned the already red river streams that irrigated the muddy fields to sprout spoiled seeds and poisonous weeds of violence. ‘Some’ refer to the greedy colonizers, selfish politicians, unconcerned administrators, religious extremists, biased press, criminals, and intolerant citizens. Such corrupt humans are poisoning the innocent people of Punjab by dividing them, distracting them from their agrarian normalcy and allowing blooming of riotous weeds.

“The poisoned air blew into every wood/And turned the flute bamboo into snakes/ They first stung the charmers who lost their antidotes/ Then stung all that came their way/ Their lips were bit, fangs everywhere./ The poison spread to all the lines/All of the Punjab turned blue”( Singh, 1982: 93-95). The air quality is severely contagious with the poisons of partition that seems to intoxicate not only humans but also Nature. The air can be poisonous due to the massive smoke arising from the widespread burning of buildings or corpses that haunts the distant viewers with fear. The air has exorcised the musical flute bamboo into deadly snakes that undulate and strangles everyone who visits the woods. The dangers lurking in the woods suggest that even shelters are unsafe. People soon realised the truth that during communal riots, there are no safe havens but only hells. It apathetically injects its deadly venom into the bodies of children of Punjab with the symptoms of blueness. Here the unequipped snake-charmers resemble the unprepared politicians for their impending ‘administrative collapse’ in the process of utopian nation-building. Snake-charmers neither possess anti-venom nor can identify the new variety of invasive snakes foreign to the of South Asia colonial aftermath. It damaged all the cells of ethnic groups, religions, and sects with its neurotoxins paralysing the entire bodily territory of Punjab failing to be safe under the leadership of the snake-charmers.

“Song was crushed in every throat; / Every spinning wheel’s thread was snapped; /Friends parted from one another; / The hum of spinning wheels fell silent. /All boats lost the moorings/And float rudderless on the stream/ The swings on the peepuls’ branches/ Have crashed with the peepul tree” (Singh 1982: 93-95). In the frenzy of partition, the inhabitants of Punjab have now forgotten to play the mellifluous flute that once enamoured Heer, the beloved daughter of pre-partition Punjab. While those who still remembered the lyrics of old folksongs are unable to sing fearlessly even within the privacy of domestic kitchens fearing that the assailants will come to know their ethnic-religious identities. It can also mean there is no one alive to sing, and all women and children had fled their ancestral courtyards. It reminds the ban on music imposed by a Mughal ruler and by a priest on both Waris Shah and Ranjha respectively. The flutes and songs connote the intolerance and censorship on writing, creativity, and freedom of expression during the peace-time crisis. The unbroken swing on the peepul branch gets interpreted as a symbol of past togetherness, communal harmony, childhood innocence, security, and safety. A tree that once stood as a symbol of childhood memories and community friendship seems to have lost its relevance as there was no community left anymore but only enemies. The tree got chopped off as it stood in the line of the border. Now there is neither the useless swing nor the peepul tree. The leftover timber was used for burning by rioters and for campfire by refugees. The spinning wheel gets represented as the symbol of peaceful normalcy, wheel of time, the path of independence, and policy of Gandhian Non-violence. The broken spinning wheels, freely floating unanchored drifted boats, and broken peepul tree all hint the loss of self-control, destruction of peace, lawlessness, lack of leadership, lack of agreeable solution, astray from ethics, the disillusionment of promised ‘ideal nation’, homelessness, and moral breakdown.

Gandhi’s Calcutta Fast and his dream for a united India through non-violent Hindu-Muslim unity soon became impossible. His dream got partitioned due to the power struggle between the dichotomies like Mohammed Ali Jinnah- Jawaharlal Nehru, Urdu-Hindi, Pakistan-Hindustan, and Muslim-Hindu. The Gandhian policy of Non-violence turned into a disquieting dilemma on how to entrust the task of non-violent nation-building to subjects who are busy tearing the nation with their blood-stained hands. The peace-time riots get equated as the communal homicide of law. The violence unleashed during partition failed to preach Gandhian policies amidst ethnic cleansing; power negotiations; honour killing, and mob violence.The ‘Great Indian Migration’ was the sum total of the excuses for forbidden desires, obsession with territoriality, state’s ignorance towards human sufferings and unofficial legitimatization of violence. Hence, the dispersed ethnic minorities as refugees migrated for survival with their new baggage of diaspora culture, shuttled between the borders of the past (analepsis) and future (prolepsis) in search of their long-lost imagined homeland.


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Amrita Pritam’s "To Waris Shah" Translation by Khushwant Singh. A Feminist Poetic Memoir of Partition Trauma of Punjab
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amrita, pritam’s, waris, shah, translation, khushwant, singh, feminist, poetic, memoir, partition, trauma, punjab, partition literature
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Aparna Lakshmi (Author), 2017, Amrita Pritam’s "To Waris Shah" Translation by Khushwant Singh. A Feminist Poetic Memoir of Partition Trauma of Punjab, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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