No stereotypes, no ‘lady of the house’: What Imroz and Amrita taught me about feminism and journalism

Born Inderjeet Singh, the poet and sketch artist died at the age of 97 last week.

WrittenBy:Madhavan Narayanan
An old picture of the couple.

I learnt a day late about the passing away of poet and sketch artist Imroz, better known as the famous companion and muse of celebrated Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam. It was when Imroz, born Inderjeet Singh, was being furiously discussed on social media by lovers of romance and poetry, after his death at the ripe age of 97.

A post in particular that caught my attention said Imroz used to serve tea regularly to the poet at an appointed hour and leave quietly – just one way to illustrate the award-winning feminist writer’s phrase, “Ishq mei Imroz ho jaana”; to become Imroz in love, a symbol of utter devotion. Amrita Pritam’s live-in partner for 40 years had transcended from a personal noun to a verb.

And the memories came flooding, of the day Imroz had served me a cup of tea in fine crockery on an afternoon in South Delhi’s leafy Hauz Khas. A meek recalling, unlike my poetry-fan-and-Amrita-crazy friend, who used to drive around the celebrated couple’s home just to feel the air of the place.

I still know nearly nothing of the couple’s artistic contributions, whose love letters to each other are now the stuff of legend. Though that one unpleasant, unproductive afternoon somehow changed whatever I knew about journalism and feminism.

It was a couple of years after 1981. Amrita Pritam had won the Jnanpith – India’s most sought after literary honour. I was a struggling young journalist eager to add a byline to my measly collection and far from poetically inclined at that age. There was no Wikipedia or the Internet, and one just read a piece or two and showed up to shoot a few questions based on basic knowledge in the expectation of turning that into an interview-based feature. 

Amrita Pritam agreed and I showed up. But what followed was not happy for a reporter who has since done many quickie pieces and met deadlines on little known topics. 

With my closeted middle-class upbringing, I was used to being served tea at homes by demure long-haired women in sarees or identifiable domestic workers. Pritam wore her hair short, sported dark glasses, smoked cigarettes and spoke with a rough-edged voice. I did not know how poets earned their bread; I still really don’t. And her replies to me were also far from poetic. 

The writer had penned an autobiography called Raseedi Tikat, or The Revenue Stamp, of which I had heard. The title came from journalist and writer Khushwant Singh, who had once mocked her that her life story was so small that it could be written on the back of a revenue stamp. What I did not bargain for was a stonewalling session of which I recall little beyond Pritam replying tersely or brusquely that she had addressed all my questions in Raseedi Tikat, and that I should read it.

I did not get much copy, as we say in journalism. The story never happened. 

It was an early failure, from which I learned that doing some extra homework, meeting tough deadlines with not much time for homework, and dealing with unyielding subjects were part of the occupational hazards of journalism. You can’t be diving deep into somebody’s life for a 600-word story amid a variety of subjects to write on with tough deadlines – specialisation comes subsequently but homework and tact remain vital. 

However, the high point of my interview, in hindsight, was my being served tea by Imroz. Except that I did not know then that he was Imroz or that he was Pritam’s partner, or that he was a poet and artist in his own right. 

In that India, and still in most parts, accomplished men did not serve tea to random guests or visitors.  I could not with my expectation of stereotypes figure out who he was until much later when I read about his role in her life.

He served me with a big smile, looking me squarely in the eye. He wore a fine sky-blue safari suit but was barefoot. His hair seemed wavy and curly. He did not seem like a “manservant”. But he appeared nowhere near the “man of the house” stereotype either. Nor did he seem like an English-style butler, the only immaculately dressed male of the species who I recall serving tea in stately homes. Basically he looked quite far from the Jeeves type I could relate to.

But in hindsight, that for me was an introduction to a worldview in which women could look and talk like important men while men could serve tea to visitors. Imroz turned out to be a feminist sort of response to the “lady of the house” type we were taught to expect. That was in the early 1980s, and the couple was far ahead of the times.

Both feminism and journalism have some mixed blessings for men. Breaking one stereotype may help a man be a poet and not worry about having to become a well-paid breadwinner on a boring day job, perhaps.

As for journalism, decades after a failed meeting, you can dump your notes and turn memories into a story with a byline. Without much homework.

The writer is a senior journalist who has worked for Reuters, Hindustan Times, Business Standard and The Economic Times. He tweets as @madversity.

Also see
article imageNL Interview: Gulzar on how poetry is a mirror to society, and the book ‘A Poem a Day’


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