Archana Gupta: Love and Desire in Amrita Pritam’s The Revenue Stamp
The body has ceased to be an object of celebration among Indian women. It is a liability, something which has to be concealed, not flouted.
(Nabar 1995: 37-38)
In Indian society, the normative thrust has been towards the concealment of the female body. For Indian women, to think about their ‘autonomous self’, individual freedom and moreover to confess about their repressed desires is a very difficult task. It is precisely because ‘there is so little room for her desire in society that, because of not knowing what to do with it, she ends up not knowing where to put it or if she even has it’ (Cixous and Clement 1986: 82). Women’s desires are suppressed in their real life; that is why the purpose behind the public proclamation of their life events is governed by the expression of their repressed desires. Amrita Pritam (1919-2005) is a very prolific Punjabi woman writer, who made a candid confession of her desires, dreams and experiences in her autobiography The Revenue Stamp (1998). Through her autobiography, she revealed her ‘inner self’ and her desires as a woman as well as a writer. She explores the desires and passionate experiences of her body as well as the experiences of a truth loving woman writer in it.
Amrita Pritam wrote her autobiography Rasidi Ticket in 1976 and it was later translated into various other languages, including English as The Revenue Stamp (1998). Amrita Pritam goes through the two crucial moments in articulation of her desire in her autobiography—‘One is an examination of the nature of desire in general and human desire in particular, in terms of which the subject seeks to identify, understand and manage its desire, the other is a movement towards the inner, whereby interiority is seen as the true locus of desire’ (Kumar 2002: 132). Amrita Pritam tries to understand her desires and thirst for life first, and later depicts her constant inner struggle for their achievement. In the process, ‘Body’ appears to her as the very site where inner desire can find its true expression. The life narrative depicts some very intimate experiences including her growth into womanhood, her unsuccessful quest for love in and outside marriage and the experiences of her feminine body.
French feminists Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva believed in celebrating their ‘body’. Amrita Pritam, too, celebrates and gives sensuous details of the experiences of her ‘female body’ in her autobiography. Helene Cixous, in her most celebrated essay ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, declared:
Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement. (Cixous 1992: 73)
According to Cixous, women’s desire for sexual pleasure has been repressed and denied expression. Therefore, she seeks to free all suppressed desires and sexual impulses and encourages women to write with their bodies its desires and experiences. She has urged them ‘to resist their silencing within the Law of the Father’ and ‘to steal the language in order to write toward their difference, difference that has been mis/identified in the Law of the Father’. According to Cixous, ‘this new language would be a writing of and from the body’ (qtd in Smith, and Watson 1998: 19). Amrita Pritam, very candidly narrates three incidents of her life when she desired to live solely as a woman’ and in fact she wanted to fulfill the desires of her body.
The first incident occurred when Amrita Pritam desired motherhood. She dreamed of ‘a fair face with finely chiseled features’ and herself watering the plants. She had no child until the age of twenty-five and she longed for a baby as she says, ‘when I woke up, I would find myself all alone—a woman in name, who, if she could not become a mother, could find no meaning at all in existence…‘ (Pritam 1994: 26). She thought that her desire for motherhood would complete her as a woman. This confession makes it clear that her desire to be a mother drew her closer to her husband to be involved in a sexual union despite the fact that it was a loveless marriage. It focuses on the biological factor which makes a woman dependent on man. Shulamith Firestone, in her work The Dialectic of Sex, advocated ‘artificial gestation and communal child rearing’. According to her, ‘these developments would free women from the tyranny of motherhood that made them dependent on men’ (qtd in Waugh 2006: 323). She believed that by artificial gestation a woman will not have to surrender to male sexuality.
The second moment, when Amrita Pritam wanted to fulfill her desires as a woman, irrespective of any caste, class and religion, was to make love to Sahir Ludhianvi, the renowned Urdu poet. She expressed her secret desires for him, as she writes:
The second time was when Sahir had turned up with a fever. He had racking pain all over and was finding it particularly difficult to breathe. I rubbed Vicks on his throat and chest—in fact I went on and on, as if I could spend the rest of my life doing it. The mere contact had rendered me into a mere woman, with no need at all for paper or pen. (Pritam 1994: 26)
The third time the woman in Pritam came to the forefront was when Imroz was working in his studio and ‘on completion of the canvas, he dipped the brush into the red paint and with the tip of it, dabbed a mark’ on her forehead (Pritam 1994: 27). Here, a mark on her forehead with the ‘red paint’ is symbolic of the use of sindoor and bindi by a typical Hindu married woman. She desired to assert the woman within her and continue her relationship with Imroz like a married woman. But the fact was that their relationship flourished beyond the laws of wedlock.
The death of Amrita Pritam’s mother at the age of eleven was the beginning of her loneliness and gloom that would last forever. The deep imprint of loneliness reflected in her writings as well as in her autobiography was due to an emotional vacuum in her life. In the opinion of Roy Pascal, ‘Childhood is only the preface of matured man’s life-story. It foreshadows the later development . . .’ (Pascal 1960: 85). The isolation of her childhood impacted her greatly and she kept craving for true love and affection throughout her life. The death of her mother, loss of her faith in God, and the negligence of her father contributed to Amrita Pritam’s growing up lonesome and in turn brought pain and misery for her. Simone de Beauvoir says, ‘If the father’s love is withheld, she may ever after feel herself guilty and condemned; or she may look elsewhere for appreciation of herself and become indifferent to her father’ (Beauvoir 1949: 315). Pritam’s desire to be loved dearly by her parents remained unfulfilled; and in consequence, she started searching for some other sources of true love and sincere care.
Amrita Pritam felt happy at the sudden approach of the sixteenth year of her life. At this age, there are physical as well as psychological changes which take place within an adolescent girl. Simone de Beauvoir writes, ‘At sixteen a woman has already been through painful ordeals: puberty, monthlies, awakening of sexuality, first desires, first fevers, fears, disgusts, equivocal experiences; she has stored all this up in her heart, and she has learned to guard her secrets carefully’ (Beauvoir 1949: 380). Amrita Pritam desires for her mother eagerly to communicate the growing anxiety of her body and mind The absence of the mother from a growing girl’s life is bound to make her outrageous, defiant of the pressures around, and lonely.
As a teenager, Amrita Pritam sought refuge in the library and started reading her father’s religious books. She loved reading the description of rishis and apsaras. Her knowledge about the man-woman relationship developed through reading those books. She says, ‘It was reading them that my sixteenth year broke through the age of my innocence. . .’ (Pritam 1994: 12). She also writes that just like Menaka or Urvashi her ‘sixteenth year must also have been Lord Indra’s work, invading the purity of my [her] childhood’ (12). She desired to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge as she says, ‘The lips are parched with the thirst for life; desire comes back to stretch the hand and touch the stars’ (13-14). She had the same intensity of feeling and thirst for life even at the age of fifty as she had at the age of sixteen. Her desires were never subdued.
Amrita Pritam has entered into Julia Kristeva’s ‘symbolic’ stage, which is ‘the social state, in which bodily desires are controlled and repressed, and the authority of the father is recognised . . . , the semiotic may be repressed, but is never eliminated, and when it surfaces, it disrupts the symbolic order’ (qtd in Waugh 2006: 335). Amrita Pritam’s repressed desires found its outlet in her dream when she started dreaming of a boy and named him ‘Rajan’. In The Revenue Stamp, she doesn’t explain who Rajan is but the mystery behind him is revealed in her other autobiography Shadows of Words. She writes:
Two alphabets, whose shadows were reflected on the bosom of the moon, were R and J. My mother’s name was Raj, and I kept watching its shadow on the moon… With the blossom of youth, one more alphabet ‘N’ got added to the lexicon of the earlier two, and I felt that the shadow of those three words forming a name on the moon, that Rajan must be around somewhere in this world, who’ll meet me at some point… (Pritam 2001: 15).
In her childhood, she used to imagine the shadow of the letters of her mother’s name on the moon but as soon as she reached to the young age the same image converted into the image of her ideal lover. The love and affection which she desired to get from her mother, she started visualizing getting from her ideal lover whom she names Rajan. Rajan was Amrita Pritam’s imaginary soul-mate and the symbol of her repressed desires. She says in an interview with Indian Literary Review, ‘This name Rajan I coined for the imaginary person who embodied my idea of an ideal lover’ (Pritam 1991: 51). Her quest for male companion, thus, originated from her teenage impulse for a friend and a protective lover.
Amrita Pritam’s desires for getting love in her marital life also remained unfulfilled as Pritam Singh was not the man of her choice. Amrita Pritam believed that if the home or relationship is broken for the sake of truth it is good and therefore she took the initiative to divorce her husband. Once in an interview, Revti Saran Sharma asked Amrita Pritam:
“Amrita! If the heroines of your novels in search of truth leave their homes, don’t you think that the effect of it can be shattering—in the social context I mean?” At this, Amrita replied, “If false social values have until now accounted for broken homes, let a few more be broken—but mark you from now on, at the altar of truth!” (Sharma 1968-1969: 77)
It focuses on Pritam’s views about love and marriage and her firm belief that there is no point in maintaining a loveless marriage.
Amrita Pritam pined for true love and therefore, when she didn’t meet up with her expectations in her marital life, she took to an extra-marital love affair with the renowned Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi. He resembled the image of her ideal lover, the image that she used to visualise in her dreams. The intensity of her love for Sahir can be noticed in an incident, when during a press conference, a photographer asked her to pose as one engrossed in writing; she began writing the name of Sahir and ‘completely filled the sheet with that name’ (Pritam 1994: 15). Amrita Pritam does it unconsciously as she tries to suppress her desires for Sahir. According to the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, there are two kinds of consciousness:
…one which is transformed into conscious material easily and under conditions which frequently arise, and another is the case of which a transformation is difficult, can only come about with a considerable expenditure of energy, or may never occur at all… We call the unconscious which is only latent and so can easily become conscious, the “preconscious,” and keep the name “unconscious” for the other. (qtd in Guerin et al 2005: 155)
Amrita Pritam’s desires for Sahir are only latent and preconscious, therefore they come to the forefront frequently.
In his text Interpretive Biography, Norman K Denzin distinguishes between various forms of self, such as the phenomenological self, the linguistic self, the material self, the ideological self, and the self-as-desire. Defining the self-as-desire, he writes, ‘Desire is that mode of self-consciousness which seeks its own fulfillment through the flesh, carnality, sensuousness, sexuality, and bodily presence of the other’ (Denzin 1989: 32). In the same way, Amrita Pritam strives hardly for the satisfaction of her craving for sensual pleasure and her desirous self seeks its fulfillment when she had a relationship with Sahir out of the laws of wedlock. Denzin quotes Lacan and says, ‘Sexuality and jouissance are at the center of the self-as-desire’ (qtd in Denzin 1989: 32). Amrita Pritam achieves her ‘brahmam’ as ‘the word brahmam signifies a lack of control, a lack of mastery over the senses and their craving by the subject’s interiority’ (Kumar 2002: 135). Amrita Prtiam’s physical relationship with Sahir, when she stayed with him for two days, was an ecstatic experience for her as she says, ‘Strange meeting-after many years/When two lives throbbed like a poem. . . .’ (Pritam 1994: 116). Amrita Pritam’s relationship with Sahir touched the heights of love and she neither bothered to name their relationship nor feared social criticism of any sort.
It was Amrita Pritam’s friendship with Imroz which went far in her life and it continued till her death. He was her friend, confidante, her ideal lover and the object of her desires. Imroz was the man with whom she found herself complete and she found all her desires complete. Amrita Pritam also confesses that after Imroz came into her life, she identified her real self as a woman and enjoyed her individuality. She got liberation, emancipation, her private and personal space and it was not a stereotypical marital relationship. She writes, ‘…I would say you are the 15th of August for me, since with you came the emancipation of the being that is me…’ (Pritam 1994: 83). With Imroz, her individual autonomous self-found recognition, and she could view herself as an emancipated woman.
Describing the man-woman relationship in an interview by Indian Literary Review, Amrita Pritam says, ‘…this relationship must not be bound by constraints of time or of a social set up. It should be limitless’ (Pritam 1991: 39). She also says in the same interview that ‘My concept of an ideal relationship between a man and a woman is based on the mutual admiration of two complete individuals. There is no place for hierarchy, domination, or even merging into each other in love’ (43). She didn’t compromise with her principles in her life also and kept searching for such relationship until she found Imroz. The ‘incomplete lovers obey the injunctions of social morality while the complete love does not recognise these norms’ (Kumar 2002: 138). Thus, Amrita Pritam and Imroz were complete lovers as they never bothered about the societal norms and ‘the injunctions of social morality’. She not only defied the codes of feminine conduct, but also revolted against the age-old system of marriage.
Amrita Pritam is the first woman writer in Punjabi who has explored women’s inner experiences under patriarchy in her writings. The Revenue Stamp too seems to be an externalszation or verbalisation of the inner experiences of the author. Amrita Pritam is unique in her unconventional and reckless living, and above all retains her individuality with unusual determination. Love, to her, seems to be the crux of the total human situation. For her, ‘Love was her creed, the world her home and her Quest the only law that bound her’ (qtd in Banerjee 1995: 33). She was passionately concerned with her womanhood. She finds her life with Imroz peaceful and harmonious without the stamp of any social bondage. She appears to be a complete woman, who lived her life fully as, ‘A complete woman is one, who is free, independent on economic emotional and intellectual plane. Freedom or independence cannot be demanded or granted. It cannot be worn. It comes from the very grounds of existence (qtd in Varma 2007: 143). Amrita Pritam’s emancipation arises from within and therefore it is natural. Thus, Amrita Pritam dares to stand out alone in such a patriarchal society, where women’s creed is to merge her whole identity with the male’s, and remain forever in the negligence.
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