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Posted at: Mar 8, 2018, 12:35 AM; last updated: Mar 8, 2018, 12:35 AM (IST)INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY

Angst and anguish in her ink

Taking up cudgels against patriarchy in Punjab, a crop of liberal and firebrand women poets have taken feminism to a new level

Amarjot Kaur

At a time when it wasn’t considered all that fashionable to be associated with feminism, more so in the male-dominated undivided Punjab of India, Amrita Pritam’s sharp pen sliced many stereotypes to size. Unintentionally, she had inspired a crop of liberals and firebrand feminists who would give to Punjab’s literary circles a radical notion of feminism. Manjit Tiwana, Manjit Indra, Paul Kaur, Arvinder Kaur, Sarabjit Kaur, Sassi Samundra, Jaspal Falak, Arkamal Kaur, Bhupinder Kaur and Arsh Bindu were to take forward the baton of new-wave radical feminism in Punjabi literature. 

Nursing painful wounds 

“Amrita Pritam had a live-in relationship, back then; so many years ago. Now, was that not progressive?” asks 62-year-old Punjabi poet Paul Kaur, from Ambala. Having taught Punjabi at SA Jain College, Ambala City, Paul is now a full-time poet and is known for penning poignant feminist poetry like Udaan, Focus, Khuda Hafis Tak, and Sandal Paundeya. 

Taking references from her personal experiences, Paul drafted a haunting account of an ‘unwanted child’ in her first poem back in 1980; it was called Khabbal (a grass that grows on its own). “My father, a firm believer of patriarchy, did not want another girl child. I was the sixth daughter born to my parents after four daughters and two sons. I got to know much later that my father wanted my mother to undergo abortion when she was pregnant with me. I was an unwanted girl child,” shares Paul while tracing the course of inspiration that lead her to write Khabbal. The constant discrimination became a source of motivation for Paul.

Faridabad-based Arkamal Kaur was only in tenth standard when her parents told her of their intention to choke her to death when she was born. “They didn’t want a girl. They said they wanted to give me chawal di choonti (a pinch of rice), which was kept in the infant’s mouth. The rice would swell upon mixing with the child’s saliva. Slowly, the child would choke to death. This is how they got rid of girls in the region back then,” remembers the 62-year-old. 

Married off at the age of 18 to a man who lived abroad, Arkamal came up with her first poem called Gilla Mudh, which was printed in Punjabi Tribune in 1985. She rebelled against her patriarchal father, who wanted her to write about God and religion, to write feminist poetry. “It was mother-in-law who got me to write feminist poetry after reading Gilla Mudh,” she says. 

Lessons from the past

Waris Shah, while detailing the scene where Heer fights with her mother to meet Ranjah, makes an innocuously subtle remark at patriarchy in Punjab and Heer’s rebellious streak as he writes: “Waris Shah na muda main Ranjhane toh, bhave baap de baap da baap aave.” 

There have been many poets and writers that inspired Punjabi feminist writers, but Amrita Pritam irrefutably remains each one of their favourites. “I was inspired by her writings, Russian literature, and Pakistani poets like Sara Shagufta. I still remember Sara’s poem, Ik Thi Sara. Also, the writings of Peero Preman, a Dalit woman who redefined gender roles way back in the 16th century, inspire me immensely. That, in my opinion is feminism: To live with freedom and dignity and to recognise a woman’s existence in society without a ‘male tagalong’,” shares Paul. For Arkamal, “Amrita Pritam, Prabhjot Kaur, RS Vaneeta, Manjit Tiwana and Sukhwinder Amrit,” were a driving force. 

Manjit Indra, 67, and a seasoned poet who gave to Punjab a perspective of women’s existential crisis during the Operation Blue Star in her writings Kala Bagh, also wrote a 200-page poem on men’s perspective of women, titled Alakh. She says, “The situation of women in this country will not improve until men change.”

Not-so-literary, men 

Poet Bhupinder Kaur Preet, 55, is based in Muktsar and is a member of Consumer Court, Moga. She is also the convener of Mai Bhago Jabar Virodhi—a group of progressive women fighting for justice and equality of women. Apart from writing poetry and prose, Bhupinder has translated Samkaleen Hindi Kaav, Bhari Bhashavan Di Kavita, and Adivaasi Kavita. “I was married at 18 years. I was 23 years old when I started doing business while I was studying.

 In villages, zamindaars exploited Dalit women and it pained me as a 22-year-old, so I wrote a poem called Suhe Saalu Wich; then came Mard Teh Aurataan and Mere Mulk De Log. As a much older woman now, I noticed there was not much difference between zamindaars who exploited Dalit women and ‘intellectual heads’ of literary circuits (mostly men) who exploited women. Most women poets have godfathers here,” she says. A similar worry came from the likes of Paul Kaur, Arkamal Kaur and younger Punjabi writers like Arsh Bindu. 

Bindu, known for her poems Thandu Ram, Udasi Kavita Hai, Maya Udaas Hai, Aakhari Kut, Ik Katputli, remembers attending a kavi sammelan.

“Sukhwinder Amrit was to go on stage and recite her poem. Just then, a few men started commenting about her and I could not stand it. I got up and gave them a piece of my mind. I have noticed men who call themselves comrades and leftists acting like hypocrites when it comes to their women. This needs to stop,” says the 36-year-old. 

Bhupinder is all too happy about it. “I feel young women are very angry and this anger has piled on from generations and generations of women being oppressed by men. They are striking back with vengeance and they are fiercely radical. They are not like us. I am just glad that our struggle gave them the courage to fight this battle for equality,” she opines. 

amarjot@tribunemail.com

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