Return to the poem

Translator's Note: A Letter

Along with Mohan Singh (an acquaintance and near-contemporary), Amrita Pritam is widely credited with advancing Punjabi poetry out of a romantic-mystical mode and into a modern one where sex, politics, urbanity, and self-involvement are viable subjects. Pritam escaped from an orthodox (but very literary) Sikh background; born in 1919 and raised on what would become the Pakistani side of the Punjab, she was of a time and place in which Partition would eclipse the war and even independence as the formative historical event. The displacement and violence associated with Partition were concentrated in the region, and they occasioned her famous early poem “To Waris Shah,” a plea for peace invoking the spirit of her eighteenth-century predecessor. Pritam herself migrated from Lahore to India and settled in Delhi, where she had a career in radio. As a writer, she enjoyed great success in her time: on top of the poetry she published twenty-eight novels, a few of which were made into films, and many works of nonfiction. She was an active editor and maintained international literary friendships, notably in the Communist world, and was friends with Indira Gandhi.

Most of Pritam’s poems have a psychological charge but more or less speech-like diction and syntax. If an Urdu or English word is convenient, she uses it. One does not have to be adventurous to reach a workable English idiom, and these three translations, all done with my mother (I blame her for any inaccuracies), are reasonably close in following the originals line for line. The overall feel usually conforms to an American free-verse monologue (I sometimes think I hear Louise Glück), though in a roundabout way that is probably not an accident.

Regarding “Me,” the same first-person pronoun can function as subject or object, so at the risk of stronger Rimbaud associations one could equally have the poem say “‘I’ is not my contemporary.” The collection plate is of course a transposition; the original refers to a sort of salver used to bring alms to a shrine or temple. The word committing suicide in the third stanza seems grim, but it made my mom laugh—it has some absurd, deadpan quality I’m sure I haven’t gotten at. In her autobiography, Pritam explicitly traces her sympathy for the Vietnamese and Czechs to her memories of 1947. Knowing oneself, she seems to say, depends on knowing people you don’t know. In the last line, Punjabi syntax allows “my ‘me’” and “my contemporary” to abut without strain.

In “A Letter,” the word for the police’s stamp sounds like the word for an attack or ambush, and so elegantly we have the police raiding the revolutionaries even as they mark their documents. Pritam seems determined in the last stanza to go off the rails of the conceit, with the book suddenly capable of smell. The word for the cloud of stink can also indicate anger, as with the English “steamed” or “fuming,” and there is also an expression in play meaning to have a bad memory of something. The ending is very compressed and means something like “taking my situation as typical, our collective future must be obscure indeed.”

“Empty Space” is a sparely mythologized history of two lovers at the mercy of destructive forces from within and without. They hope for some bolt-hole where human freedom might play out unhindered. In the string of location adverbs in the second-to-last line, there is a hint of something receding. The poem is in a plain style, absent of acrobatics. So far I find it her most affecting. —dht


This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.