How a young poet-podcaster from Chandigarh is celebrating love, healing wounds and bridging gaps.
Amy is a French female name meaning ‘beloved’. Though I have known Amy since long, I felt a strong urge to write about this spunky ‘beloved’ after a longish telephonic conversation with her. I have always admired her never-say-die spirit, but I know that very few people are aware of her traumas and what she has been through – she has been through fire and water.
“I haven’t spoken about myself to anyone since 2018. I was never after recognition, but when it came my way, my words and actions were constantly scrutinized,” she tells me. “I was misunderstood and misquoted. A leading newspaper called me a selectivist because it didn’t bother to verify that my absence from an activism campaign was due to a surgery and not because I choose projects based on fame. That prompted to speak for myself on social media, which is my window to the world.”
It was a disarmingly candid outpouring that morning while the whistles from her cooker kept invading our musings.
Amy’s maternal grandfather was a die-hard fan of Vyjayanthimala, the famed Indian actress and danseuse. When he saw her in the 1966 period movie Amrapali, he was smitten for life. He went on to name his granddaughter Amrapali, though the name that made the world notice her is Amy Singh.
“Amrapali was raised in mango groves and I live for mangoes too,” says Amy, laughingly.
For me, Amy will always be the girl who hugs me warmly and tells me that we share a unique bond.
A well-known spoken word poet, creative writing facilitator, and storyteller, Amy is the founder of Daak: To Lahore with Love, a peace initiative of exchanging letters (mostly virtual) between India and Pakistan to encourage love and peace in times of divisiveness and disharmony.
The division of our country into two was a vivisection that was like a jagged oozing tear. When someone tries to turn a new leaf in the story of a great separation, searching for bridges instead of borders, they are already on the right path with the hope of peace and oneness. Her podcast, Agla Warqa – The Next Page – amply echoes that sentiment.
Amy wrote her first poem when she was around six years of age after she saw someone pluck a flower while she was out on a walk with her mother. She remembers how she worried about the plant because something had been snatched from it. The plant’s pain nagged her little heart and she asked her mother to write out the lines that she spoke. It was probably the first verse she ever created. Amy kept writing and reading them to her grandmother and mother who encouraged her free and open expression. For most of her life, she wrote poetry for herself and hardly shared it with the world. It was only in 2016 that she recited in front of an open mic and instantly felt connected to her listeners. Since then, she has been sharing her poems with the world.
With Daak: To Lahore with Love, Amy continues to win the hearts for her widely acclaimed and unusual literary initiative where she writes letters addressed to the General Post Office in Lahore. It was triggered by the sudden name change of a well-known eating joint in Chandigarh from Lahore Chowk to Lucknow Chowk in December 2016. This was when tensions between India and Pakistan was brewing. She was disturbed by these hostilities. People of her generation couldn’t really fathom the reason for the continued distrust.
Born to a doctor dad and a mom whom she lost when she was barely sixteen, this was the first of the lashes of destiny for this resilient woman. Cancer kept her mother in and out of the hospital and a tender-aged Amy had to juggle between school, looking out for two younger siblings and visiting her mother in the hospital. In Amritsar, at a nubile fourteen years of age, while tending to her mother, she would hear the “fearless, seditious radio waves “from Pakistan which could not be confined by borders. She was inspired by this experience when she wrote her first letter and addressed it to GPO Lahore.
I am extending my hand of friendship, will you hold it, Lahore? Lahore , will you come and dine with me? Yeh jo saari lakeerein hain unko mita lein – let’s erase the lines that divide us. In the hope of a day when this letter will no longer need an international postal stamp.
Chandigarh ton Lahore waali Amy.
The video became viral. Lots of people including school children joined the initiative. It was well received and reciprocated across the border too. Asad Alvi, Ghulfam Gauri and many other poets and writers wrote replies to her letters, which can be heard on her podcast. Someone from across the border sent her a message saying that previously they used to keep Amrita Pritam’s poem Ajj Akhaan Waris Shah Nu in their pockets and “now we keep your letter to Lahore in our phones.” This year was special for Amy: she was invited to read poems at the 7th Faiz Festival in Lahore.
It’s traumatic to watch a parent fade away, almost akin to drowning without a raft to cling to. Amy fought acute depression and abysmal lows for a long time. She was floundering and needy and only seventeen when she met this man who promised her love and care. The much older man persuaded her to tie the knot with him despite the stern disapproval of her family. Grief has a way of fogging the mind and in this haze, it’s hard to discern reality. The marriage was not an iota of what she had imagined. She was always on tiptoe in this relationship. He was suspicious, abusive and violent. Keeping an eye on who she talked to and who she was friendly with, grilling her with obnoxious innuendos and horrible accusations while also alienating her further from her family.
“For the longest time, I could not tell anyone what was going on. To be honest, I didn’t even know what was happening to me was abusive. I was confusing manipulation with love and control with care. Looking back I can see that I was just a child looking to fill the void of her mother’s love. After four years of struggle, I finally opened up to my family and walked out of that marriage.” says Amy.
She came home to her father who gave her safe space, time and care to help rebuild her shattered confidence. She dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder with symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, and heightened reactivity to stimuli. Situations that could bring back the trauma had to be avoided. Anxiety plagued her. How could we know that the charming visage which we see in her videos hides so much upheaval beneath the serene smile! Amy’s dad was a rock-solid pillar. He encouraged her to pick up everything she had let go of. But it was writing that helped her reconnect with herself. It took time, but a new sense of self-worth emerged from the remnants of those terrifying years. “Healing for me wasn’t about just getting out of a difficult phase of life. It was about building the strength of my character, never seeking outside what lies within, to restore my heart to the point of such softness that it could no longer break,” recalls Amy.
Poetry is an act of love for Amy. It is her sacred thread of connection to the world around her. Her words come alive when she speaks them, emoting and expressing them in an open setting and bringing poetry out of libraries and books.
Amy has named her street poetry initiative as Cross Connection Poetry. She tells me with much feeling in her voice that she is fearless when she is reciting on street corners, intersections or gardens.
“No matter what happens, nothing bothers me for too long, not even criticism. I see something is trying to teach me and I move on,” says a self-assured Amy.
Amy has a humane, helpful side to her which was evident when she raised money for her 21 year old friend Anam Narula who was undergoing cancer treatment a few years ago. She said somewhere: “I had not been working for more than two months and had no savings with which I could help him financially. But then I thought what if I wrote poems on request and charged people for those, the money could be used for Anam’s treatment. And poetry was something I knew I was good at and that motivated me to at least try it.”
At an on-the-spot poem writing event at Panjab University, she was able to raise almost Rs. 90,000.
“Despite our efforts we could not save Anam. Not all power is at our command. Some forces greater than us exist and when they appear before us, we are humbled,” says Amy, wistfully. Losing Anam when his cancer came back triggered past trauma for her. Amy had lost her mother to the same disease at a tender age and, by the time she turned twenty two, she had lost all her maternal family to one tragedy or the other. In one of her poems, she writes:
Death has been to my house frequently
I recognise its scent so much so
I can now smell it from miles apart
I t leaves my house emptier
And my heart heavier, always
As an activist, Amy organised protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which discriminates against the minorities – Muslims in particular.
Amy epitomizes love. She uses poetry and activism courageously, whether it is for women empowerment or to draw attention to the problematic lyrics in Punjabi music. She tries to live, write and exist from a place of love.
A sari lover, Amy’s favourite fabric is cotton. Theatre gladdens her heart and she has a song for every situation. She loves sunflowers.
Amy tells me she is in a loving relationship right now. I couldn’t resist asking her lame-sounding questions like: “Are you happy? Is he a nice man?”
“He is Imroz to my Amrita,” says Amy smilingly. That was all I wanted to hear. As Amrita Pritam would have said, aj kitab -e- ishq da koi agla warqa khol -let’s read a new page from the book of love.
Lily Swarn is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning poet and author.