‘I Say unto Waris Shah’ (1949) by Amrita Pritam (1919–2005) is the translated version of her Punjabi poem, ‘AjjAkhan Waris Shah Nun’. It is a literary specimen that belongs to the partition literature. The poem reminds us of the plight of people at the time of partition. Amrita Pritam evokes the spirit of Waris Shah (1722–1798), a well-known Punjabi poet, famous for his love tragedy ‘Heer Ranjha’, to help mankind at that critical moment. She wanted to spread the word of love like Waris Shah did with the love story of Heer and Ranjha.
Explore I Say unto Waris Shah
Summary of I Say unto Waris Shah
The poetess is in a state of extreme sadness. She implores Waris Shah, her muse, to see what is happening in her beloved birthplace. Corpses are lying in the fields. Everything she sees has turned into red. The land of Heer–Ranjha is playing holi with human blood. The partition of India is the root cause of all those evils. Humanity is at stake. The message of love and purity of compassion is lost from Punjab. The poetess hopes that the people of Punjab will listen to her lamentation and stop this nonsensical bloodshed.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of I Say unto Waris Shah
‘I Say unto Waris Shah’ contains five stanzas. The fifth stanza is the longest one. There are 57 lines in the poem. The translated version doesn’t have any specific rhyme scheme or metrical composition. It is in free verse. A dirge-like rhythm flows through the lines of the poem. The number of words in each line varies and the verse has a lyrical flow throughout the end. The short lines are in iambic and trochaic meter alternatively. Some long lines contain anapaestic meter as well.
Literary Devices in I Say unto Waris Shah
In this poem, literary devices play a major role. It makes Amrita Pritam’s words more convincing and picturesque. In the third line of the first stanza, readers come across the metaphor of “Book of Love”. It refers to the famous work of Waris Shah, named “Heer Ranjha”. In “he gave tongue to her silent grief” the poetess uses metonymy. Here “tongue” means giving voice to someone’s feelings.
Readers come across a hyperbole in this line, “Today a million daughters weep”. The poetess is actually emphasizing the pain of Punjabi daughters here. “Arise, O friend of the distressed!”, is the use of an apostrophe. Here the poetess calls the spirit of Waris Shah. “Punjab” is a metonym for the people of Punjab. The variety is “container for the thing contained”
Pritam personifies river Chenab and portrays it as her grieving companion. “Chenab has turned crimson”, here the word “crimson” is the use of metonymy. The poetess refers to the cause by using its effect which changes the river’s color into red. The poetess personifies “curse” in the line, “sky high has flown the curse.”
In this poem, “Breath of love” is a metaphor that refers to the sweet songs of love. Amrita Pritam hints the bloodbath in “Blood rained on the earth”. “princesses of the valley” are the daughters of Punjab who are now resting in the grave.
At the parting section of ‘I Say unto Waris Shah’, the poetess asks a rhetorical question to the readers. It is a popular figure of speech used in such emotional poems.
Analysis of I Say unto Waris Shah
Today I implore Waris Shah
now irrigating the land with poison.
Amrita Pritam is witnessing the bloodbath happening all around her motherland. The condition of Punjab is hurting her deeply. At this critical moment, she resorts to the poet of love and compassion, Waris Shah. He is no more. The people of Punjab have forgotten his words of pure love. They are now fighting and killing their own countrymen ruthlessly. She wants to spread the message of Heer and Ranjha at this chaotic moment.
The poetess needs the assistance of Waris Shah badly. She is requesting him to appear again as the moment needs him the most. The people of Punjab have killed enough people that it turned the water of Chenab crimson red. The act of partition has impregnated evil spirit into the hearts of people. Now the green pastures of Punjab have turned into a graveyard. Corpses are lying here and there. Such was the condition of Punjab at the time of partition.
Amrita Pritam thinks that some satanic force is responsible for all this hurly-burly. It has contaminated the tributaries of the river Indus with poison. The water is now irrigating the land with poison. It is the poison of “Divide and Rule Policy” which is irrigating the spirit of an Indian. This poison like the diabolic policy is the root cause of what is happening around the poetess.
In this fertile land have sprouted
along with the wedding-beds.
The fertile land of Punjab is now giving birth to poisonous saplings. Amrita Pritam compares the saplings to hatred of men metaphorically. The hallucination of “otherness” is ultimately a threat to the integrity and unity of India.
The poison of revenge has intoxicated the commoners. The beautiful natural landscape of Punjab is now turned into a field of mass-slaughter. That’s why Amrita Pritam writes, “Scarlet-red has turned the horizon/ and sky high has flown the curse./ The poisonous wind,/ that passes through/ every forest,/ has changed the/ bamboo-shoots into cobras.”
This metaphorical cobra is biting the people of Punjab and inserting its venom into their bodies. The poetess is pointing here to the selfish political leaders who are trying to destroy love, compassion, and brotherhood from people’s hearts by spreading its venom. Amidst all of this, the daughters of Punjab are the most affected. They have stopped singing. The “spinning wheel”, metaphor of “rural economy”, has stopped its functioning. Girls are running to save their lives. They can’t attend the trinjan to sing together, to share their sorrows, and to help each other in this critical situation. Even the couples who have married recently to live a happy life, are fleeting to save their lives.
The swing has snapped
and turn over a page of the Book of Love.
Partition of India snatched everything away from the innocent people of Punjab. It snapped the invisible thread of love existing among people.
The men of Punjab aren’t in the mood of blowing the flute. They are indulged in fighting and killing each other. Blood is spread everywhere. According to the poetess, even the dead will start weeping after seeing this horrid picture of Punjab.
In utter anguish, the poetess says that the men of Punjab have turned into villains. They have become the “thieves of love and beauty” for the poet. After seeing all this the writer can’t hold her tears. She desperately needs the help of Waris Shah whose words, she thinks, can stop this turbulence. The refrain used at the end of the poem, emphasizes her sincere prayer to the dead poet.