I was introduced to Imroz saab by a friend who is putting up at his Hauz Khas residence. When she was shifting to the place, she casually told me how excited she was to share the late Punjabi poetess and writer Amrita Pritam's roof. I expressed my desire to meet Imroz saab for an interview. And she was more than willing to organise it.
I had read most of feisty Amrita's works, including her famous autobiography in translation (Revenue Stamp; she owed the title to Khushwant Singh who, when she told him about her desire to write her life story, unwittingly remarked, "What is there to your life? Just an incident or two ... you could use the back of a revenue stamp to write it.") and her another autobiography titled Shadows of Words. I was more than familiar with the duo's love story, the "sacred hymn of their relationship", through Uma Trilok's Amrita-Imroz: A Love Story, published by Penguin. Therefore, when I got an opportunity to meet Imroz saab in person (thanks to my friend), on the eve of Amrita's second death anniversary, I was ecstatic at the idea of Imroz saab narrating to me his love story, how their romance bloomed against all odds and how they went on to share the same roof, despite not having married each other, defying all societal norms and conventions. I could imagine how difficult it could have been for the two of them in an age when live-in was unheard of.
But, then, love conquers all. And Amrita-Imroz's story is a living testimony to this fact.
It's a breezy Monday morning. As I enter the premises of the artist's abode, a whiff of bougainvillaea welcomes me. Barely managing to contain my excitement, I ring the bell. Imroz saab answers. Clad in kurta, he stands tall, with his thin, slender frame. I apologise for the delay, citing heavy traffic. Almost ignoring it, he ushers me in, indicating to come upstairs, on the first floor, which has been the castle of all his creative cravings, hiding in its ambience the memories of the good, old days of their "platonic" communion, of their silent caring and sharing.
Theirs was indeed the most unusual love story. Amrita and Imroz saab lived together for five decades at the former’s residence at Hauz Khas, until death did them apart in 2005. Though not married to each other, they lived under the same roof - together, yet apart, within each other’s sight, yet far from sharing the warmth of physical union.
Amrita was Imroz’s muse, his love, his religion, his society (“Tu meri samaj, aur main teri samaj, isse zyada aur koi samaj nahin"), in life as much as in death. It’s been some years since Amrita expired, but 80-year-old Imroz (his name translates to the word ‘today’ in English), just can’t have enough of his yesterday. He paints and writes poetry in Amrita’s memory. His love lost occupies much of his living space in the forms of photographs, portraits, paintings, calligraphs and drawings.
Every scrap of his memory bears her name. As he shows around the house, you notice that love occupies a pride of place. The words etched on each sketch pay a rich tribute to their love: “A man is not where he lives, but where he loves; If love happens, everything happens; Love has nothing to do with somebody else, it’s your state of being and Love is the purest form of God.”
Bonded together by the sacred thread of love, the couple lived together, despite Amrita being married (she entered matrimony at 15 with Pritam Singh, her editor she was betrothed to in early childhood) with children, defying the conventional norms of society, and despite the looming presence of Sahir (Ludhianvi), Urdu poet and lyricist with whom Amrita was madly in love. “She used to write Sahir’s name on my back. Once someone asked me why I didn’t mind. I said, ‘Sahir was hers and my back too. Why would I have any objection?’"
"While she loved Sahir, he never showed any inclination to settle down with her,” says Imroz saab.
Walking down memory lane, he recounts how he met Amrita for the first time in December 1957 through a common friend. He lived at Patel Nagar (East) and Amrita at Patel Nagar (West). He was then working with an Urdu magazine, Shama. Amrita wanted him to make illustrations for her books. Cupid struck during their first rendezvous. With the passage of time, their love flourished, though they never spoke of the ‘love’ they experienced for each other when they met. An unspoken emotion nurtured their relationship. “She never used to cook, but when she saw me first, she started cooking,” reminisces Imroz, who used to write prose, but started writing poetry, post meeting his love.
The artist maintains that Amrita wasn’t happy with her husband. “Though they never separated, their relationship was always on the rocks,” says Imroz saab, who used to take Amrita’s (“our,” he hastens to add) children to Modern School and bring them back. He also accompanied her to the AIR station she worked for and back. In 1966, the duo even launched a Punjabi magazine called Nagmani. All of Amrita’s writings, Imroz saab holds, explore why “man is bad.”
During her last days, when Amrita broke her rib and was bed-ridden, “she used to ask me to get cyanide capsules every day.” Imroz says, “How could I? I instead got her pain-killers.” When she died, he didn’t cry. He was relieved that death put an end to her sufferings. There was a lot that he knew he could treasure. And today, it’s the memories associated with her that are his most prized possession. They lend a rhythm to his song of life:
Tere saath jiye
Saare khoobsoorat din raat
Ab mere naghmein
Bante ja rahen hain.
(The beautiful days and nights
I spent with you
On Amrita’s death anniversary, October 31st, Imroz pays tribute to her in one of his poems titled Waqt:
Us ka beeta hua kal
Bada udass beeta tha
Itna ki waqt bhi dekh kar udaas ho jaata
Aur aane wala kal
Koi bees saal
Dikhata raha ek hi sapna
Ek ajnabi klaakaar ka
Jo peeth ki taraf paint karta dikhyi deta tha
Aaj to roz hi aata tha
Lekin us ka aaj kabhi nahin aaya
Aadhi umr ke baad
Achanak woh sapna khatam ho gaya
Aur zindagi shuru ho gayi
Woh ajnabi klakaar
Us ka aj bankar
Us ka manchaha ban kar
Aur saath le aaya
Us ke hisse ki
Aur apne hisse ki bhi saari khoobsoorti
Aur saari shayeri
Aur saare rang
Baqi ki umr man chahe ke saath mil kar
Itni khushi jee li
Ke agli pichali zindagi khush ho gayi
Khushi ke itne rang dekh dekh kar
Khada waqt khushi se naach utha
With Amrita not around, it is silence which fills the corners of their love nest. But, even in the all-pervading stillness, Imroz saab can feel her presence (and also of her couplets) everywhere. And his latest poem titled Khamoshi (Silence), which he wrote minutes before the interview, expresses it all:
Main jab khamosh hota hoon
Aur jab khayal bhi khamosh hote hain,
To ek halki halki sargoshi hoti hai
Uske ihsaas ki
Uske sheron ki.
Amrita might not be around, but she lingers on in Imroz’s thoughts and reflections (besides that of her readers), each day, every moment.
As I got up to leave, my heart was heavy. I wondered how love could transform two souls, enabling them to transcend the lures of physical attraction and walk into the realm of the divine.
I thought of Victor Hugo: "Love is a portion of the soul itself, and it is of the same nature as the celestial breathing of the atmosphere of paradise."
And for Amrita and Imroz saab, love did bestow an atmosphere of paradise, in which two souls strum together a ceaseless symphony of 'celestial breathing.' And its rhythm continues to nourish and nurture their relationship, offering an ode to the very idea of love.