‘The Birth of a Poem’ is an existentialist Punjabi Indian short story penned by feminist poet, novelist, short story writer, and dramatist Amrita Pritam. Amrita Pritam was a famous twentieth-century post-Partition poet and writer, and she wrote her works in Punjabi and Hindi. She became well known in India for her poetry, especially after the Partition of India, and is famous for her prose, especially her novel ‘The Skeleton’ or ‘Pinjar’, where she brings up the topic of feminism and existentialism. In this short story titled ‘The Birth of a Poem’, the world-renowned woman of letters focuses on a myriad of themes that culminate in a character called Ravi writing the poetry he was meant to write despite sudden listlessness and existential crisis. Amrita Pritam brings out the reason for Ravi’s disillusionment with life and all its dross as the existentialist writings of the twentieth century, especially the writings and thoughts of the French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre was one of the leading writers and thinkers of existentialism and made it famous in the mid-twentieth century. Other themes highlighted in this short story are nihilism, lust, temptation, sensuality, forbidden pedophilia, sensual appetite, the darker side of individuality, the mind of the existential artist, and the observer of the cemetery: the vanities of the world. Amrita Pritam brings out the moral in this story that though most of the agnostic and atheists of the twentieth and twenty-first-century claim that life is more unreal and fuller of non-being, yet by our very humanity and darker side, we are made to realize that we indeed exist and therefore are human. And even after being ordered by the powers that be that life must not end in willful suicide, Amrita Pritam, through the words of her dark character poet Ravi states that at least the will of the person cannot bend to the orders of such tyrants and dictators, because the will is free and human.
Ravi is a poet by profession and one who is disillusioned with life. He feels that he has never despaired in life and therefore finds it meaningless. He wants to write a poem about the world’s misery but is unable to write a single meaningful word because of his existential crisis, his nihilism, his listlessness, and the fact that he feels that he has always had it easy during his stay on earth. He feels he would have loved to be counted among those like Sartre, who mentioned that he had to write words on paper every day as an apology for existing. However, Ravi instead is among those enjoying life and whose life, so it seems, was never too full of hardships. We notice this, primarily through the symbology of the stream of life that is understanding and never floods the banks of calm reason. We realize that he is taught a partial lesson in this manner by the passion and desire that arises like a venom-filled snake in the clear stream of his reason for his younger sister-in-law Mona. By being in the throes of the most sensual passion and lust, he feels more human and weaker than he has ever felt. He realizes that his desire for the fourteen or fifteen-year-old Mona is amoral and could cost him his relationship with his wife, his conscience, and his sanity. Notice how, immediately by this passion, so many human potencies are made apparent in the being of Ravi, a man like any other. Realizing his humanness made him able to pen his poem, after which he seeks the warm, comforting bed of his wife, which indicates the comfort zone of life. Note how there is an undeniable and outright attack on the personage of Ravi, painting him as a dark secret pedophile. He pretended to be unable to write a simple poem due to existentialism but is sure in his reasoning that he wanted the naked body of his teenage sister-in-law.
There are two parts to this short story titled ‘The Birth of a Poem’:
- The Existentialist Crisis
- The Onslaught of the Passions of Reality
These are the above two parts that trick the reader into surrendering our bias. We feel that since Ravi is an existentialist, he is above the sway of temptation. We realize the moment Mona’s hand rests as a paperweight on the sheet of paper that the true reason why poetry and art are mainly written is revealed, and that is because of human weakness and finiteness.
At the beginning of the short story, we meet Ravi returning home to his Dak Bungalow, indicating that he was a well-to-do man. He returns to his wife and sister-in-law for a drink of hot coffee and rest. However, Ravi decides to write a poem inspired by the verdure or lush green vegetation of the region he traveled. However, because of not finding passion, the spark of life, and the despair he longed for in his poem, he laments like an indifferent observer of the world going past him, as if the world were a graveyard of dreams or a cemetery. He mentions the name of Sartre many times and the words of Sartre, indicating how influenced he was by the advocate of existentialism. He notes that he was not writing his poetry or doing his art:
- To win fame
- To win the love of a woman
- To win back lost love
- To mourn over lost love
- To submit to a competition like a cock fight
Instead, he mourns and states that he did not think he would write the poem he wanted to because of the existential crisis he was in. Notice how a trivial matter is dramatically expounded by Amrita Pritam to form an existential-nihilistic fiction piece. Note that Ravi the poet could not have necessarily been pessimistic about existentialism but could have seen his human will and control over it as the best way to create a better world for himself and others, as mentioned indirectly in the words of Sartre himself:
When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die. Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance. Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.Jean-Paul Sartre
Ravi, the poet, unable to emote, uses analogies to explain how a poem is and should emerge from the recesses of the mind and consciousness. The following are the ways he expounds the same in the text:
- He alludes to or compares a poem to an ugly-looking earthworm that emerges and is born from the hot soil. In the same way, a poem is born from a heated imagination full of vigor and passion.
- He then says that every poem is the child of silence. He means that the poet has to be silent under duress because the only thing he can do to give his thoughts a shape is by creating a poem.
- He then adds a Biblical allusion to the piece by indicating the Adam’s temptation in the Garden of Eden. Notice in this part of the text how he hints that just like Adam was tempted in the garden, so would he soon be tempted by the serpent that was his penis. Also, note that the serpent and not Adam tempted Eve. By indicating that he was taking responsibility for his actions and not blaming the entire lustful desire on Mona or ‘Eve’, Ravi was being a responsible man!
- He then calls his two minds aggressive, where both have two different ideas about the poem to be written and therefore would create unrest in his mind.
- Lastly, he calls the poet, the artist or man in general, a victim of madness. Such madness is due to existence itself, and such an insane victim is in the straight-jackets of circumstance and the environment that puts hurdles in the way of true emotive art. It stifles the creative imagination where otherwise, there are no limits. A poet can pass through the portals of birth and death and beyond through his art.
Through the personage of the child or teenage Mona, we notice a girl representing freshness, feistiness, and youth. She has grown into a beautiful and well-endowed teenager and now could become the unknowing victim of her brother-in-law’s sexual fantasies and desires. She is objectified by Ravi when he thinks of her hand as a paperweight and her shoulder as a coat hanger. The fact of this objectification mentioned by Amrita Pritam before the temptation part of this story indicates that like most patriarchal-minded men Ravi and even existentialists would see the young lady not as an individual but as a body to be used and abused with their violent and baser penetrating thoughts. The clear stream of his reason is then invaded by sexual and erotic symbols of manhood like the penis and the semen or the snake and the venom. The sexual brazenness of Ravi is shocking when one realizes that this was the same man who, a moment ago, felt devoid of any emotion and vitality. Now he feels his erection growing and the semen in his erection making him hot and pounding his very being. However, this pounding he describes as rigor mortis, which is stiffening of the joints and muscles of a body a few hours after death. He compares his erection for Mona as rigor mortis to indicate that this lust would lead to his doom and would be a fatal blow to his comfort zone and security. He manages to escape raping his sister-in-law because of the poem he decides to write. He pours out or ejaculates all his pent-up desire and emissions into the poem via his pen. Thus, he comes to realize the other meaning of art: to hide the darker side of humanity within its myriad and varied art forms. He is no longer under the illusion that he is a non-being but is aware that he has become not only for himself but also for the reader, a dark personality with mysteries and desires that need investigation. He is now no longer a mere observer in the cemetery of the world. The story ends with Ravi returning to the nest of his doting wife.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this Punjabi short story by Amrita Pritam titled ‘The Birth of a Poem’. A Braille version of the analysis is available here. I hope to read and review more short stories by Indian writers soon. If you are interested in reading my analysis of ‘Quilt’, an erotic short story by Indian writer Ismat Chughtai, you can check it out here. If you are interested in reading two award-winning Indian feminist fiction books having two slum-dwelling young girls as the main protagonists, you can check out my novellas Amina: The Silent One and Nirmala: The Mud Blossom. I hope to read and review more fiction and non-fiction by Indian writers in the coming days.
If you are interested in more book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out the products page of my blog. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
©2022 Fiza Pathan