The end of British imperialism in India and the creation of Pakistan was a time of unparalleled violence. Punjab was centre stage of the violence, and Punjabis saw the ugly and the best of their people on display; friends and neighbours became victims, killers, rapists, arsonists, robbers, refugees and orphans. They lost their kith and kin, near and dear ones, limbs, homes and even shame during those times of insanity. A small minority intervened bravely, whether individually, collectively or under the banner of Aman (Peace) Committees. Approximately one million Punjabis were killed during the transfer of citizenry. A small minority worked selflessly to save others. Mostly, their own communities targeted them. The fate of this section has not been adequately documented in history.
Writers Sayadat Hassan Manto and Amrita Pritam, both among the millions forced to migrate (Manto from Bombay to Lahore and Amrita from Lahore to Delhi), capture the landscape and the intensity of the carnage. In their creative expression, both invoke human feelings of innocence and love. In his short story Toba Tek Singh, Manto talks about a person languishing in a Lahore Lunatic asylum who refuses, when the two governments decide to swap the asylum inmates based on religion, to become another one of the millions to cross the border. The man had retained only a faint memory of his village, his only association with society. The Governments’ decision to swap asylum inmates amounts to his separation from what little association he has left with life. His refusal is the last activity of his body, an act which transcends the boundary of sanity and insanity.
To make sense of the same carnage, Amrita Pritam invokes Waris Shah, one of the best-known personalities in the history of Punjab. When Waris rewrote Heer it was synonymous to social commentary. Waris wrote the story of Heer-Ranjha in narrative poetry and titled it Kitab-e-Ishq, or Book of Love’, during the 18th century, at a time when Punjab was under attack from Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali. The bigotry and the uncertainty of those times is an integral part of Punjabi folklore from that period. Two sayings about rampant barbarity and uncertainty explain ambience in which Waris wrote Heer:
khaadha peetaah lahey daa,
rehndaa Ahmed Shahey daa
consumed and used are gains
rest belongs to Ahmed Shah
Ahmed Shah Abadali was the successor of Nadir Shah and founder of the Durrani Empire. He attacked Punjab nine times between 1747 and 1769, and was notorious for causing bloodshed, religious intolerance and plunder. He took cart loads of wealth and abducted hordes of native women.
The second saying is:
mannu asaadee daatree asseeh mannu dey soyey
jiyon jiyon mannu vadhdaa asseeh doonh savaey hoye
Mannu is our sickle and we are his oats
he chops us, we multiply ourselves.
Mir Mannu was governor of Punjab from 1748 to 1753, and developed a bitter animosity with Sikhs to the point that he handed out a prize for the beheading of Sikhs. During these times Waris was writing Heer which was supposed to be an un-Islamic act. Waris Shah questioned the theocratic nature of the state, the fundamentalist approach of religious institutions and talked about individual as well as social liberties. His importance can be understood in the popularity of Heer cutting across religious, caste and class boundries. Waris Shah himself documents that rewriting the love legend was a call of the people.
Yaraan assaan nunh aanh swaal kitta, ishq heer da nawa
Friends requested a refreshing of the Love of Heer He responded to the call.
The purpose of the rewriting, according to Waris, was to make Heer a part of the popular narrative.
Yaraan naal majlisan vich beh key mazaa heer dey ishq daa paayea jee
Then enjoy the rendering of Heer’s narrative at social spaces
Waris was aware of the fact that the rebellious characters of the love legend would become tools to question the socio-religious hegemony of his times. His multi-layered poetic narrative served the purpose. Heer questions institutions meant to exercise social control through approved and authenticated culture and represents the counter culture of dissent and resistance. In oral history, Heer has been listed among folk-legends and revolutionaries
During Partition, writer Amrita Pritam called on Waris Shah, who had responded to intolerance and uncertainty by writing Heer, to make a similar intervention at a time when nobody else was doing so. In her poem Ajj aakhaan waaris shah nunh (I call you, O Waris Shah) Amrita invokes Shah along with the love legend of Heer-Ranjha. The translation from Punjabi to English is my own:
I call you, o Waris Shah
I call you, o Waris Shah, speak from your grave
Browse over the next pages of the Book of Love
When one daughter of Punjab was in tears you screamed in your verse
Now lakhs cry and call you o Waris Shah
O compassionate one, rise and look at your Punjab
Corpses are strewn in fertile land and blood flows in the Chenab
Someone has poisoned five rivers, and
Fields got watered with it, and
Poison sprouts everywhere in the fertile land
Anger grows, wrath is even higher
Poisonous wind blow through dense forest
Every bamboo meant for the flute became a serpent
First stinged snake-charmers lost their tricks
Second sting infects indiscriminately
Snake charmed people sting viciouslyBody of Punjab became blue in no time
Songs got separated from vocal cords,
Thread got cut from the spinning wheel
Spinning friends got separated and the wheel remain unwhirled
Luddan pushed boat into deep waters along with the nuptial bed
Peepal broke away braches along with the swing
flutes which used to blow with love have been lost
Brothers of Ranjha have forgotten the tune
Soil is drenched with blood, graves are oozing
Princesses of love cry in shrines
Today, all became Qaidons, robbers of love and beauty
Where can we find another Waris Shah
I call you, o Waris Shah, you have to speak from the grave, and
Browse over the next pages of the Book of Love
ਅੱਜ ਆਖਾਂ ਵਾਰਿਸ ਸ਼ਾਹ ਨੂੰ
ਅੱਜ ਆਖਾਂ ਵਾਰਿਸ ਸ਼ਾਹ ਨੂੰ ਕਿਤੋਂ ਕਬਰਾਂ ਵਿੱਚੋਂ ਬੋਲ
ਤੇ ਅੱਜ ਕਿਤਾਬੇ ਇਸ਼ਕ ਦਾ ਕੋਈ ਅਗਲਾ ਵਰਕਾ ਫੋਲ
ਇੱਕ ਰੋਈ ਸੀ ਧੀ ਪੰਜਾਬ ਦੀ ਤੂੰ ਲਿਖ-ਲਿਖ ਮਾਰੇ ਵੈਣ
ਅੱਜ ਲੱਖਾਂ ਧੀਆਂ ਰੋਂਦੀਆਂ ਤੈਨੂੰ ਵਾਰਿਸ ਸ਼ਾਹ ਨੂੰ ਕਹਿਣ
ਵੇ ਦਰਦਮੰਦਾਂ ਦਿਆਂ ਦਰਦੀਆ ਉੱਠ ਤੱਕ ਆਪਣਾ ਪੰਜਾਬ
ਅੱਜ ਬੇਲੇ ਲਾਸ਼ਾਂ ਵਿਛੀਆਂ ਤੇ ਲਹੂ ਦੀ ਭਰੀ ਚਿਨਾਬ
ਕਿਸੇ ਨੇ ਪੰਜਾਂ ਪਾਣੀਆਂ ਵਿੱਚ ਦਿੱਤਾ ਜ਼ਹਿਰ ਰਲਾ
ਤੇ ਉਨ੍ਹਾਂ ਪਾਣੀਆਂ ਧਰਤ ਨੂੰ ਦਿੱਤਾ ਪਾਣੀ ਲਾ
ਇਸ ਜ਼ਰਖ਼ੇਜ਼ ਜ਼ਮੀਨ ਦੇ ਲੂੰ-ਲੂੰ ਫੁੱਟਿਆ ਜਹਿਰ
ਗਿਠ-ਗਿਠ ਚੜ੍ਹੀਆਂ ਲਾਲੀਆਂ ਫੁਟ-ਫੁਟ ਚੜ੍ਹਿਆ ਕਹਿਰ
ਵਿਹੁ ਵਲਿੱਸੀ ਵਾ ਫਿਰ ਵਣ-ਵਣ ਵੱਗੀ ਜਾ
ਉਹਨੇ ਹਰ ਇੱਕ ਵਾਂਸ ਦੀ ਵੰਝਲੀ ਦਿੱਤੀ ਨਾਗ ਬਣਾ
ਪਹਿਲਾ ਡੰਗ ਮਦਾਰੀਆਂ ਮੰ੍ਰਤ ਗਏ ਗੁਆਚ
ਦੂਜੇ ਡੰਗ ਦੀ ਲੱਗ ਗਈ ਜਣੇ-ਖਣੇ ਨੂੰ ਲਾਗ
ਨਾਗਾਂ ਕੀਲੇ ਲੋਕ ਮੂੰਹ ਵੱਸ ਫਿਰ ਡੰਗ ਹੀ ਡੰਗ
ਪਲੋ-ਪਲੀ ਪੰਜਾਬ ਦੇ ਨੀਲੇ ਪੈ ਗਏ ਅੰਗ
ਗਲਿਓਂ ਟੁੱਟੇ ਗੀਤ ਫਿਰ ਤ੍ਰਕਲਿਓਂ ਟੁੱਟੀ ਤੰਦ
ਤ੍ਰਿਜਣੋਂ ਟੁੱਟੀਆਂ ਸਹੇਲੀਆਂ ਚਰਖੜੇ ਘੂਕਰ ਬੰਦ
ਸਣੇ ਸੇਜ ਦੇ ਬੇੜੀਆਂ ਲੁੱਡਣ ਦਿੱਤੀਆਂ ਰੋੜ੍ਹ
ਸਣੇ ਡਾਲੀਆਂ ਪੀਂਘ ਅੱਜ ਪਿੱਪਲਾਂ ਦਿੱਤੀ ਤੋੜ
ਜਿੱਥੇ ਵਜਦੀ ਸੀ ਫੂਕ ਪਿਆਰ ਦੀ ਵੇ ਉਹ ਵੰਝਲੀ ਗਈ ਗੁਆਚ
ਰਾਂਝੇ ਦੇ ਸਭ ਵੀਰ ਅੱਜ ਭੁੱਲ ਗਏ ਉਸ ਦੀ ਜਾਚ
ਧਰਤੀ ਤੇ ਲਹੂ ਵਸਿਆ ਕਬਰਾਂ ਪਈਆਂ ਚੋਣ
ਪ੍ਰੀਤ ਦੀਆਂ ਸ਼ਹਿਜਾਦੀਆਂ ਅੱਜ ਵਿੱਚ ਮਜ਼ਾਰਾਂ ਰੋਣ
ਅੱਜ ਸਭੈ ਕੈਦੋਂ ਬਣ ਗਏ ਹੁਸਨ ਇਸ਼ਕ ਦੇ ਚੋਰ
ਕਿੱਥੋਂ ਲਿਆਈਏ ਲੱਭ ਕੇ ਵਾਰਿਸ ਸ਼ਾਹ ਇੱਕ ਹੋਰ
ਅੱਜ ਆਖਾਂ ਵਾਰਿਸ ਸ਼ਾਹ ਨੂੰ ਤੂੰਹੇ ਕਬਰਾਂ ਵਿੱਚੋਂ ਬੋਲ
ਤੇ ਅੱਜ ਕਿਤਾਬੇ ਇਸ਼ਕ ਦਾ ਕੋਈ ਅਗਲਾ ਵਰਕਾ ਫੋਲ
ajj aakhaan waaris shah nunh
ajj aakhaan waaris shah nunh kiton qabraan vichon bol!
tey ajj kitab-e-ishq daa koi agla varka phol!
ik roi see dhe punjab dee tun likh-likh marey vainh
ajj lakkhan dheeyan rondian tainoon waaris shah nunh kaihan
vey dardmandan diya dardeeaa uth tak apna punjab!
ajj beley laashaan vicheeaan te lahu dee bharee chenab!
kise ney panjan paanian vich dittee zahar rllah!
te unhaan paaniaan dharat nunh dittaa panee laah!
is zarkhez zameen dey loon-loon phutia zahar
githth-githth chadian lallian phut-phut chadiaa kahar
vihu valissee vaa phir vhan-vhan vaggee jaa
ohney har ik vaans dee vanjallee dittee naag banaah
pehlaa dang madarian mantar gaye ghuaach
doojey dang dee laggh gayee janey-khaney nunh lagh
naagaan kiley lok moohn bass phir dang hee dang
palloh-pallee Punjab dey neeley paiye gaye angh
gallion tutteh geet phir traklion tuttee tand
trinjanon tuttian saheliaan charkhadey ghookar band
saney sez dey bediaan Luddan ditteeaan rodh
saney dhaliaan peengh ajj piplaanh dittee todh
jitthe vajdee phook pyaar dee ve oh vanjhalee gayi guaach
ranjhe de sabhey veer ajj bhull gaye usdee jaach
dharti te lahu vasiya, qabraan payiyaan chonh
preet diyan shhazaadeeaan ajj vich mazaaraan ronh
ajj sab ‘qaidon’ ban gaye, husan ishq dey chor
ajj kithon liaaiiey labhbh key waaris shah ik hor
ajj aakhaan waaris shah nunh toohey qabraan vichon bol!
te ajj kitab-e-ishq daa koi agla varka phol!
Ajj aakhaan waaris shah nunh is one of the most celebrated poems among Punjabis living all over world. It is a part of Punjabi collective memory like folklore and its popularity suggests that the idiom of the love legend is deeply entrenched in Punjabi society. Though Amrita wrote many works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry in her five decades after Partition, this poem remained her most revered creation. It even raised certain expectations of intervention from her during the riots of November 1984, when more than 3000 Sikhs were butchered in broad daylight in the Indian capital. Living in Delhi at that time, Amrita Pritam enjoyed state patronage in a number of ways. She was also a vocal support of Indira Gandhi, responsible for ushering in the most undemocratic years in the history of Independent India. In this sense, the carnage of 1984 was not merely a response to Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh body guards – her policies and politics had created fertile ground for such targeted violence.
Most of the victims of the November 1984 violence were people who had been displaced during 1947, and they viewed the new wave of violence as a revisiting of Partition in a new form. Against this backdrop, Amrita was expected to intervene with something as powerful as I call you, O Waris Shah. But the criticism she ventured in 1984 was considered mere lip service, a face saving exercise. For the next fifteen years, Punjab, the eastern part laying in India, became a playground of militancy, state terror, and violence. Fake encounters, the torture of innocent youth and unclaimed dead bodies are a painful part of the collective memory of Punjab.
It was in this context that Jasvir Singh Sheeri, a young Punjabi poet, wrote a poem, in 2004, addressing Pakistani Hockey player Sohail Abbas. Sheeri engages with contemporary sports hero of most popular game in Punjab and questions Amrita for her silence in November 1984. The poet comments that Amrita advanced Waris Shah’s tradition during partition but failed to respond to the similar call in 1984. The next article will provide a translation and analysis of the poem.
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