Born in 1955, Nirupama Dutt is an established presence in the field of Punjabi poetry and short fiction. A senior journalist with over twenty-eight years of experience, she works as Features Editor with The Tribune. She has published one volume of poems – Ik Nadi Sanwali Jahi (A Stream Somewhat Dark) – for which she was awarded the Delhi Punjabi Akademi Award in 2000. Her poetry has been translated into English, Hindi, Kannada, Bengali and Urdu and featured in various anthologies. In 2004, she co-edited with Ajeet Cour an anthology of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) poetry entitled Our Voices. A seasoned translator of poetry and fiction, she has translated and edited Stories of the Soil, an anthology of Punjabi short stories for Penguin India.
As a journalist, Dutt has established her credentials as a strong secularist, having taken stands against fundamentalism and communalism, on issues ranging from terrorism in Punjab, the November 1984 massacre of the Sikhs, the Babri Masjid demolition and the Gujarat carnage. She believes a similar spirit of courage and commitment permeates her creative writing as well, and views herself as heir to a tradition of fiercely independent female voices in Punjabi letters. “Successor of Manjit (Tiwana), daughter of Amrita (Pritam)” is how she describes herself in the interview that accompanies this edition.
She is aware of how such voices have always sought to be tamed and trivialised by a patriarchal literary status quo (“Men would only promote mediocre writing by women and these women would be part of their camp - and very often their bedmates!” she says wryly). What has empowered her, she believes, is her western liberal education, the support of her family, as well as the credibility she’s been able to establish for herself as a leading journalist.
Reading these poems it is easy to see why Dutt’s voice is considered a provocative one in a male dominated literary context. There is loss and yearning in these poems, but there is no comforting trope of timelessly suffering Indian womanhood. The poems acknowledge pain, but it is a pain born of the life of agency, not a passive and silent acceptance of an inimical world. And the grief is accompanied by a capacity for unbridled joy as well: “my laughter,” says the “wicked woman” in these poems, “is known/ for its abandon”.
The persona in the poems speaks with self-deprecation (not unmixed with tenderness) of a life of sexual choice, as she evokes an illicit love, her “two affairs and a half”, her lovers whose names are the only things that change when changing cities. There is also a wry awareness of a conservative world that is scandalized by such female liberties: “Such are the constraints of/ poetesses of Amrita Pritam’s age/ A cigarette is their only solace!” But the poet herself knows that these freedoms are neither cosmetic nor anchorless, but precious and hard-won. And in any case, the ultimate aim is to find sanctuary for all these teeming contradictions of experience in the harbour of language: “I turn myself into words”.
Dutt claims that critics have called her a poet of experience rather than the imagination. It is the old charge leveled against women artists who show any trace of political consciousness, whose work uncovers a truth so unsettling that it seems safer to accuse them of imaginative deficiency.
This, according to Dutt, is the enduring challenge: to write fearlessly, unafraid of belittlement or incomprehension, confident that if the writing emerges from integrity of experience, “the mainstream will come to you.”
Poetry Ik Nadi Sanwali Jahi (A Stream Somewhat Dark). Aadhar Prakashan, Panchkula, 1995. Our Voices: An Anthology of SAARC Poetry (ed. Ajeet Cour and Nirupama Dutt). Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature (India), New Delhi, 2004.
“The Girl from Gujranwala”: Nirupama Dutt profiles legendary Punjabi poet, Amrita Pritam
The Little Magazine
‘I will meet you yet again’: Translation of Amrita Pritam’s poem by Nirupama Dutt
Article on Nirupama Dutt on a night in a ladies’ waiting room at New Delhi railway station
News report on the launch of a book of short stories by Pakistani women writers, Half the Sky, edited by Nirupama Dutt
“Mind your language”: Interview with Nirupama Dutt by Lekshmy Rajeev