The best poetry, it’s said, is born out of felt experience. Pain. The more intense the pain, the more sublime the verse.
String instruments have to be plucked, percussion instruments thumped for them to emit their soulful music. In the words of Rahi Masoom Raza, `Hum bhi goya kisi saaz ke taar hain, chot khaate rahe, gungunate rahe..’
She was a poet herself, and would have known this. Why then, when she went for a rendezvous with the love of her life, did she take her live in partner with her? Didn’t she foresee the pain that it would cause him?
Of course he tried to shrug it off. He dutifully brought out the single malt, and poured the amber gold into the three goblets that were now the proverbial `crowd’. She, and the live in partner took their leave after a while, leaving him alone to stare balefully at the empty glasses they had left behind.
He grabbed a pen and a hotel napkin, and furiously scrawled what was to become one of his most popular poems.
`Mehfil se uth jaane waalon, tum logon par kya ilzaam?
Tum aabaad gharon ke waasi, main awara aur badnaam..
Mere saathi, khaali jaam...'
Mere saathi, khaali jaam...'
The lady was Amrita Pritam, her live in partner was the artist Imroze, and the love of her life was Sahir Ludhianvi, arguably the greatest living poet of his time. The poem he scrawled on the hotel napkin that evening, as despair and scotch swilled inside him in equal measure, was later immortalised by Rafi, picturised on a drunk Bharat Bhushan in the 1964 film `Dooj ka Chand’.
Sahir was, by all standards, a complex man. As a child, he had witnessed his mother being verbally and physically abused by his alcoholic father, and had been so traumatised as to develop a fiercely protective, almost Oedipal fixation with her! Maybe that was what stopped him from committing himself wholly and unreservedly to any other woman.
Even the other lady he is said to have loved, the singer Sudha Malhotra (Tum muhje bhool bhi jao toh yeh haq hai tumko, meri baat aur hai, maine toh mohabat kee hai) drifted away from him because of his apparent and, to her, infuriating reluctance to commit.
But Amrita should have known, he was everything to her. She would even trace his name with her fingertips over Imroze’s back! `Sahir, Sahir, Sahir’, over and over again! `You are the sky I soar in, Imroze the earth I tread on’ she would try to rationalise.
Yet Sahir remained mired in self pity. His morbid obsession with his darkness and his gloom, real or perceived, could never sync with Amrita’s desire to have a working, a normal if not exactly a happy relationship. As he put it..
`Tumne dhoondhi sukh ki daulat, maine paala gham ka rog
Kaise banta, kaise nibhta, yeh rishta aur yeh sanjog..’
He probably couldn’t fathom her apparent inability or unwillingness to be part of the darkness he had surrounded himself with. In another poem addressed to Amrita, his emotions on seeing her living a seemingly `content’ life with Imroze, spill out thus..
`Teri tadap se na tadpa tha mera dil lekin,
Tere sukoon se bechain ho gaya hun main..’
Did Sahir really know what he wanted? The price of true genius is that one is, for the most part, involved in a constant struggle with oneself, one is constantly fighting off the demons of ones own making. His struggle finds eloquent and heart rending expression in his poems, none more stark than in `Tassavurrat ki parchaiyan ubharti hain..’
Sahir’s love for anyone was bound to go unrequited. His was a voice that defied all convention, a voice to which, to conform would be to stifle. Note his take on the so called `monument to love’, the Taj Mahal.
Whereas Shakeel Badayuni toes the more conventional line `Ek shahenshah ne banwa ke haseen Taj Mahal/Sari duniya ko mohabat ki nishaani di hai’, Sahir castigates Shah Jehan by proclaiming `Ek shahenshah ne daulat ka sahara lekar/Hum gareebon ki mohabat ka udaya hai mazakh!’
This man was so deeply in love with his own misery, how could he commit to a normal relationship?
The story of Sahir and Amrita’s unrequited love has been woven into a play `Ek Mulaqat’, with Shekhar Suman and Deepti Naval essaying the lead roles. I managed to catch their performance last week, and was flooded with memories of our adoration of Sahir’s poetry in college. Those were days when to be miserable was to be hep, when one could (and did) quote paens of his verse, the more lachrymal the better..
Whereas Shekhar Suman did an admirable job of reciting Sahir’s poetry, he suffered from the disadvantage that he bore no physical resemblance to the poet. Deepti Naval, on the other hand, was a splitting image of Amrita, and also sang her mellifluous `Ode to Waris Shah’ (Aj akhaan Waris Shah nu) beautifully!
An aside here. Without sounding self trumpeting, let me re-plug my translation of this seminal poem by Amrita Pritam, at
It wasn’t a relationship with a happy ending being, as it was, unconventional on so many levels. It hovered in taboo territory, and yet remained strangely chaste, conducted as it was through silences and letters. Yet, for all its poignant lack of fulfillment, this was a love affair that touched so many lives.
In her autobiography `Raseedi Ticket’, (Khushwant Singh once joked that her life story was so inconsequential it could be written on the back of a revenue stamp, hence the title) Amrita Pritam recalls an incident when she rubbed Vicks ointment on Sahir’s bare chest when he was unwell. Recalling the sensual intimacy of that incident, she sighed, “I wish I could live in that moment forever!”
Amrita Pritam may not have had her eternity with Sahir Ludhianvi, but decades later, despite dimming memories curling the edges of their history, their love story has somehow endured.