Cruelty, his most famous work, Tamas, tells us, is not an extraordinary emotion. It comes naturally to us. That is why humanity needs to always be on its toes, on eternal alert.
Inaugurating the birth centenary celebrations of Bhisham Sahni recently, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma described the well-known Hindi writer as a great legend. Bhisham would have found it amusing and ironical to see an RSS man being forced into such a situation. After all, this was the organisation that had led a violent campaign against the telecast of Tamas, a serial based on his famous novel of the same name. So, does the minister and his party, which is the political arm of the RSS, really wish to follow his legacy?
Non-Hindi speaking people know Bhisham mostly as the writer of Tamas, a saga on the Partition. It was written 30 years after the great tragedy which befell the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of Pakistan and India, the two nation-states that emerged after the people of the sub-continent together fought a long, tortuous battle against British colonialism. After Jhoota Sach by Yash Pal, Tamas is the most authentic documentation of the catastrophe which struck like a natural fury but was entirely the making of humanity itself. Tamas does indict political forces like the RSS and the Muslim League but it also seeks to tell readers that humanity is not something which comes automatically to humans. Similarly, cruelty is not an extraordinary emotion. It comes naturally to us. Humanity must, therefore, be a conscious, unending educational project, which can get undone with the slightest complacency. Humanity needs to always be on its toes, on eternal alert.
Tamas made Bhisham a household name in India but he was much more than just the author of that novel. For readers of Hindi literature he is best remembered for short stories like ‘Wang Chu’, ‘Amritsar Aa Gaya Hai…’, ‘Patariyan’, ‘Chief ki Dawat’, ‘Jhoomar’, ‘Saag-Meat’, ‘O Haramjade’, ‘Pali’, etc. The story of Indian theatre would be incomplete without his plays, especially Hanoosh, Kabira Khada Bazar Mein and Madhvi. Tamas made him famous but in my view Mayya Das Ki Madi—a novel that tells the story of the decay and decline of feudal Punjab—is his best.
A time of hope, and bitterness
Among Bhisham Sahni’s contemporaries were master story tellers like Nirmal Verma , Mohan Rakesh, Krishna Sobti, Usha Priyamvada, Mannu Bhandari and Amar Kant. At the same time, new voices like Muktibodh, Shamsher Bahadur Singh, Kunwar Narain, Raghuvir Sahay, Kedar Nath Singh and Shrikant Verma were making waves in poetry. For Hindi literature this was an era of explosion of creativity. Old voices like Jainendra Kumar, Sumitranandan Pant, Surya Kant Tripathi Nirala and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar were still around. Agyeya was both an elder and a comrade for the new writers. The short story became the defining genre of the period in the hands of young writers like Bhisham Sahni and his contemporaries.
This was also a period of remaking for Delhi. Punjabi refugees, driven out of their homes from the newly created Pakistan, were making the national capital their own. Despite the hurt and bitterness at having been betrayed by their neighbours, they continued to nurture memories of Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi with fondness. There was anger and yet the air of a newly independent India reverberated with the call for kindness, reconciliation and understanding. Gandhi had made Delhi his home in those hateful days and was throwing a challenge to these wounded exiles: to forsake the temptation of seeking vengeance. It is not insignificant that even though he was shouted at and abused by those angry Sikhs and Hindus who had been forced out of their homes, Gandhi was not killed by their spontaneous and understandable outburst of anger. Instead he was done to death in cold blood by a group of Maharashtrian ideologues, who were educated in or influenced by the exclusive nationalism propagated by the Nazi-loving Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Veer Savarkar.
Bhisham Sahni recounts those days in Aaj ka Ateet, his autobiography. Writers and artists from small towns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh were flocking to Delhi. The political capital was also turning into the new cultural nerve centre of Hindi-speaking people. Old centres like Allahabad, Benaras and Patna still had life in them but it was becoming increasing clear that ‘newness’ was re-locating itself in Delhi.
Writers like Bhisham Sahni did not have Hindi as their first language and yet they made it their own. Their Punjabiyat infused candour, vigour , youthful irreverence and joyfulness into the otherwise sober and sophisticated Hindi—a language that had additionally burdened itself with the moral task of building a nationalist sensibility. A fellow Punjabi, Krishna Sobti shook the sensibilities of Hindi readers and gradually became their darling. It was impossible to conceive of a title like O Haramjade before the entry of these Punjabis into the Hindi literary world.
Bhisham Sahni was the younger brother of Balraj Sahni, the iconic actor. They were from Rawalpindi. Their father was a trader and wanted them to join his profession. Balraj revolted and left home. He went to Seva Gram, worked with Gandhi and then to Shanti Niketan to teach. Later, he moved to Mumbai. Balraj was also known as a writer. Bhisham Sahni was deeply involved with theatre. Gradually, two brothers chose their roles. Bhisham Sahni moved away from his active association with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and concentrated on writing. Balraj went to films and became one of the most admired and revered actors of Hindi cinema. Nasiruddin Shah counts him along with Moti Lal as his ideal. But the germ of acting remained dormant in Bhisham Sahni. His performance in Tamas and Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! is so convincing that it is impossible to believe you are not watching a professional actor.
Reflect, don’t rush
The life and people populating the fictional world of Bhisham are ordinary and simple. His stories observe clerks, housewives, working people, activists buried in their daily chores. There are hardly any extraordinary or dramatic situations and yet the drama of life unfolds in its full richness. He is known as a progressive writer, influenced by Marxism, and yet he does not seem to be too engrossed with political themes. He explores the human condition with kindness and understanding.
Bhisham Sahni had seen enough of cruelty to be angry. There is sadness in him but more than that there is consideration. He wants his readers to deliberate rather than rush into judgment. He is a true story teller in the sense that he wants his readers to enjoy his characters and their decisions.
Another unmistakable thing about him is his irrepressible sense of humour. In all his stories you can almost hear him chuckle, as if telling you that life is interestingly weird and it is not so easy to make sense of human beings and their decisions.
Through his fiction and plays, Bhisham Sahni nudges his readers towards reflection. He knows that only an education in reflection is a guarantee against violence. That is what he strived for. Given the political and social climate in the country today, it still seems too early to call his mission a success.