Below is the translation of an essay by Indian writer Amrita Pritam on her exchanges with the great Vietnamese revolutionary Hồ Chí Minh. This is but one example of our rich history of shared struggle and search for truth and freedom.
This translation was done by the DUA collective as a part of our study of revolutionary South Asian literature and culture. The original is in a collection of Amrita Pritam’s writings called “Kacca Angana” published in 1998.
It was March 1st, 1961 when I received a wire from President of Vietnam, Hồ Chí Minh—“I send you my friendliest admiration and kindest greetings.”
In the wire, there was an unsaid understanding that, “I have read your poem.” In 1957, I had written a poem:
Who is this king—who is this saint?
The one who has removed the thorn from Life’s side?
From the land of Vietnam, today a wind has come to ask
Who dried the tears from the eyes of my History?
There was but a bit of night left, when something of a dream came to the land
In the fields of the sky, someone sowed the sun
On the stems of autumn, today the flowers have taken their rose steps
What words are these, that humanity’s Love has written?
On May 25th, 1958 the translation of this poem appeared in the “Nhân-Dân” newspaper. Writing this poem, I wished that the man whose face I had in my mind’s eye would somehow happen upon it. At the same time, I realized that a country’s president hardly reads every page of every newspaper. But then, three years later, I serendipitously received this telegram, which was testament to the fact that he had indeed read it.
Hồ Chí Minh was a politician as well as a poet. Well before reading his poems and jail diary, I had the chance to see his inner artist when we met in Delhi.
I had attended a ceremonial dinner arranged in his honor, during which someone introduced me to him as a poet. After hearing this, Hồ Chí Minh came forward and gave me a kiss on the forehead. He then said: “We are both soldiers. We fight against the false values of the world. I fight with the sword and you with the pen.”
I was overwhelmed by his words. I felt that I was looking at the first soldier in the world who was compelled to pick up the sword by a vision of life as poetry.
I saw a brilliance in Hồ Chí Minh’s face and it was for this reason that I called him both a king and a saint in my poem. He seemed to me like a flower which was in full bloom even in the autumn of political decay.
Later on, I realized that his saintly form was not only the truth of my poem, but also the truth of Vietnam’s history. I found out that, even though he was the president of a country, in his lodge he only kept a typewriter and two sets of clothes, one to wear and one to wash. He said that until everyone in his country could have more than this, he would—like the people—have only two sets of clothing himself.
The essence of my meeting with Hồ Chí Minh was first translated into my poem, and, then, in the coming years became the heart of my every thought.
What was that “wrong,” that “falsehood,” against which he had taken up the sword, and I the pen?
I can see that mentality in my society which has, calling its powerless classes untouchables, pushed them off to distant slums, and calling its the powerful classes gods, shut them away in temples. In this way, it has protected every one of its wrongs; indeed, both sides have been shunned from society. Society has placed the words “honored” and “dishonored” at either side and, in between them, secured the space to act on its every whim and fancy.
I can also see that this “wrong,” which lies between these two sides, is controlled on the one hand by society, and, on the other, by the politician. Here lies the incredible conspiracy of that wrong: from arranged marriage to arranged riots, it is all-pervading.
In this helpless world, my every thought is tortured—at times, some letters flow from these thoughts like drops of my own blood, and in that meeting with Hồ Chí Minh, for a moment, they trembled like my very soul.