On Pinjar by Amrita Pritam


This year, I resolved to read at least 1 book/story/article or poem in Hindi or Punjabi. I started with Pinjar.

Pinjar is Punjabi for a skeleton. This book, set in the years leading to the partition of India and the partition itself, revolves around a Hindu girl Puro from a village in Gujarat. At different points in Puro’s story, as she deals with her plight and as her life progresses on, the author brings us face to face, with the condition of women. Not just during the terrible turmoil our country went through at the time of partition, but also in general – like decades-old family feuds, just the fact that women are women – just skeletons (pinjar) with no rights, no dignity, nothing. How these pinjars, these beings have been treated for centuries. Owned by husbands, disowned by family and society if they take one step off of the straight line of tradition (maryada), having to feel okay at making sacrifices for the only brother in a set of say 6 siblings. Ragdolls with no feelings. Just pieces of flesh hung on to some bones. No dignity. No rights. No vajood. Pinjar(s).

The story begins when Rasheed, a Muslim boy, is made to kidnap Puro as an act of revenge for some wrongdoing committed decades ago by Puro’s ancestors against Rasheed’s ancestors. While rioting or while pillaging a village, just as the material possessions are looted and houses plundered, the same way the women of the opposite religion are also carried off and pillaged. (This has not really stopped with the partition of India – but then that again is another article). All the anger, the frustration at some perceived injustice is taken-out first on these pinjar(s), the skeletons.

And if there is no strife, no fight, no reason to seek revenge, but there is a skeleton available, she will still be used and abused. It doesn’t matter if this pinjar is lost to the world if she doesn’t even understand what is happening to her as she runs around barely clothed on the village streets, even as she runs around carrying another pinjar in herself oblivious to what has been done to her.

The book is not biased towards any religion or side. And the suffering of both sides has been poignantly shown. Even the character Rasheed, the man who has been forced by his family members to kidnap Puro, has a very human side. His heart is not in this feud, this revenge, this harming a girl for no fault of hers except that she belonged to a particular family. His personal anguish at having done something so wrong that his soul refuses to forgive him has been beautifully portrayed. Along with his real love for Puro.

Puro goes through a long journey in her young age. Of having been turned away from her own home, by her parents, as they did not have the courage to face the society’s sniggers about a defiled daughter to help in getting her sister-in-law Lajo safely back to her family and making sure that her brother (whom she had never seen before) would promise to never disrespect Lajo.  Puro’s acceptance of her own fate and life with Rasheed and Rasheed’s continuous amends even after so many years of that one terrible action is expressed in a simple yet very moving manner.

Books on India’s partition will never be the kind one can read without feeling agony and despair. This book, despite some words that I could only understand contextually, left me with a big lump in my throat. Puro’s determination that Lajo should not suffer the same fate of other pinjars like her. Rasheed’s selflessly quiet and continuous attempts to remedy the damage done by him and Puro’s own acquiescence to her fate.

P.S. – For anyone who cannot read Punjabi, there is Khuswant Singh’s English translation available for this book. Which, if you are interested, you can buy here. I would also recommend the movie by the same name which came out in the early 2000s. It is beautiful, harrowing, sure to make you cry. There are some changes from the book but it remains a very good movie.

This topic never gets easier. And to think that this book was written by a feminist, by a breaker of chains and boundaries, back in the times when women were barely recognised as a force. Amrita Pritam, who has been awarded some of the most prestigious awards of the country – like Sahitya Akademi Award, Padma Shri, Bhartiya Jnanpith and Padma Vibhushan, a progressive writer, a writer who did not hesitate in presenting the truth as is – stripped of any masks or make-up. Who lived her life with the same spirit in which she wrote her books and poems. We are fortunate to have had such women, forces of nature, to have done what they did, so that we have someone really inspiring and strong to look up to.



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