A crucible of ideas
“I was a sickly child. I used to spend most of my time at home. My mother used to nurse me and she would tell me stories. In the house, sometimes, we used to recite verses, narrate stories or proverbs. These have stuck to my mind..., " the late writer Bhisham Sahni (8 August 1915 – 11 July 2003) remembered his childhood at his ripe age of 85. In a documentary film made on him by Sahitya Akademi, Sahni recollects his early childhood, his pranks, the games he played. He mentions that many of his characters emerged from these vivid childhood memories and moulded him as a writer. An optimist, he would often describe himself, writing boldly against the horrors of communal riots became part of his writings.
Padma Bhushan (1998) awardee Sahni is often hailed as the true inheritor of the legacy of Munshi Premchand. His wife, Sheilaji, "a very sensitive reader of Bhishamji's works" remembers him as a man of simplicity and someone who had no ego.
Born in Rawalpindi in undivided Punjab, Sahni made his hometown the core of his stories. The trauma of forced dislocation during Partition and the painful memories caused due to the communal riots reflects very vividly in his works. In one interview he remembered one such painful experience, seen with his naked eyes, at the age of eleven. One day in summer, while the family slept on the terrace, his father would force the children to sleep and stare at the skies and not look over. That night a communal riot had broken off and a nearby vegetable market was set fire. The dark sky, Sahni said, appeared as if it were painted red because of the huge fire. This sight was etched in Sahni's tender mind and also became the essence of most of his works. This is reflected in Tamas (Darkness) and ‘Amritsar Aa Gaya’ (We have reached Amritsar).
The Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novel 'Tamas' is based on the 1947 riots during the Partition of India, which he had witnessed at Rawalpindi. The novel portrays the horrors of communal politics, the violence and hatred; and the tragic aftermath – death, destruction, forced migration and the partition of a country. The novel has been translated to English, French, German, Japanese and many Indian languages including Tamil, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kashmiri, and Manipuri. In 1986, the Indian neo-realist filmmaker Govind Nihalani turned Tamas into a film. The film was also the high point of Sahni’s acting career as well; He played the role of an old Sikh man (Harnam Singh) who was on the run during riots with his wife (Banto).
Kalpana Sahni, daughter of Bhisham Sahni, a scholar and critic, remembers her father, as being not as a mute spectator of communal riots, but was able to express the terrifying tragedy of Partition with extraordinary compassion in his stories. He did not judge, Kalpana says, but instead, put a mirror in front of his characters, and reflected the behaviour of a character when he or she was in a situation. It was his reader who had to conclude. 'Pali,' 'Tamas' are notable examples, Kalpana says.
The most striking part of his writing was that Sahni's characters knew how to overcome their upheavals or dire situations and will not mourn over their past. In Tamas, most if not all, characters were inspired from real life, especially those whom Sahni had worked with except for the main character, Pig butcher Natthu who is the only fantasized character in the novel. Natthu and his wife both are imaginary. Thus the reality blends with imagination. Most of the scenes in Tamas were narrated from Sahni’s personal experiences. A scene where women jump into the well, Sahni was inspired by an event he had witnessed with his own naked eyes. At that time Sahni was working in the Indian National Congress at Rawalpindi. The trip to Thoha Khalsa appeared before his eyes. When the riots subsided in the villages, Sahni accompanied a health officer to a village to spray disinfectant in a well. Many Sikh women drowned themselves in the well in an attempt to save their modesty, some with their children. Here Sahni saw bloated dead bodies surfacing. Covered with disinfectant powder, the bodies, their limbs intertwined with each other. “They did not look like dead-bodies anymore but marble statues,” wrote Sahni in a column--which appeared in a Hindi magazine in 2003. He wrote further, “A Sardar man standing next to me pointed at the dead bodies and said: "That is my wife, Veerji [elder brother]. Do you see her? She has gold Gokhadu on her wrist. Please get that bangle off, Veerji. She is gone now, what use is it to her? I got it made for her, Veerji. That's mine...that child tangled in her leg is my son”. This left an indelible impression on a young Sahni's mind--an event that pained all his life.
The trauma of Partition and the forced dislocation left a deep scar on this budding writer's mind. Sahni has portrayed this with extreme sensitivity and with little reproach in most of his writings. His magnum opus Tamas and his short-story ‘Amritsar Aa Gaya’(We have reached Amritsar) are a reflection. Bhisham was also influenced by the writings of Pandit Sudarshan (Badrinath Sharma), a short story writer who later became a scriptwriter during the early dawn of the Indian Cinema. He also joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), an organization with which his elder brother, Balraj Sahni, a well-known stage actor was associated with. Sahni remembers Balraj as a man with an “innovative mind.” Balraj was best known for his role in Dharti Ke Lal (1946), Do Bigha Zameen (1953), Chhoti Bahen (1959), Kabuliwala (1961) and Garam Hawa (1973) films. Under his brother’s tutelage, Sahni worked both as an actor and a director, but was very cautious not to imitate his brother’s style of acting but developed his own. At a later stage, he directed a drama ‘Bhoot Gari’. This was adapted for the stage by film director, screenwriter, novelist, and a journalist Khwaja Ahmed Abbas. As a actor he appeared in several films, including Saeed Mirza's Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984), Tamas (1986), Kumar Shahani's Kasba (1991), Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha (1993) and Aparna Sen's Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002). Bhisham Sahni wrote his autobiography ‘Aaj Ke Ateet’ (The Pasts of the Present, 2016) and the biography of his brother Balraj Sahni, ‘Balraj My Brother’ (English). In ‘Aaj Ke Ateet’ he untangles the knots of his life with candid humour and honesty with his self-effacing creativity.
Although Sahni had been writing stories for a long time, he received recognition as a story writer only after his story ‘Chief Ki Daawat’(The Chief’s Party) was published in the Kahani magazine in 1956. He earned a master's degree in English Literature from Government College in Lahore, and a PhD from Punjab University, Chandigarh in 1958. Later he began to teach and left Bombay for Punjab, where he worked briefly as a lecturer. He first joined a college at Ambala and then Khalsa College in Amritsar. At this time he was involved in organizing the Punjab College Teachers’ Union and also continued with IPTA work.
The Congress office at Rawalpindi was dear to him. He would often remember his colleagues Yogi Ramnath, Bakhshiji, Balaji, Hakimji, Abdul Aziz, Meharchand Ahuja, Aziz, Jarnail , Master Arjundas and afew others. But after a long association with IPTA, Sahni left the Congress and joined the Communist Party.
In 1952 he moved to Delhi and was appointed Lecturer in English at Delhi College (now Zakir Husain College), University of Delhi. He briefly migrated to the former USSR, for seven years, and worked there as a Hindi translator. This sprawling reservoir of experience collected amidst the hustle-bustle of occupations, ultimately filtered into his stories and novels, without which, as we realise today, the world of Hindi prose. The 'simplicity' of his work comes from hard layers of experience, which distinguish and separate it from other works of 'simplified realism. ... "
While speaking of imagination Sahni said he was aware of the power of imagination. Based on his well-accomplished experiences, Sahni says, it is not essential in literature that an incident be sketched in exact detail to make it alive and believable. In a column which appeared in a Hindi magazine, Sahni wrote, “Speaking in the context of the debate on the real and imaginary, it is not essential that an incident be sketched out in exact detail for literature to be alive and believable. Instead, I’d say that sometimes an exact sketch of reality is not as powerful as one portrayed with the help of imagination.” He continued, “...The flight of imagination does not imply a made-up portrayal. How your characters react depends upon how the narrative develops, and how your imagination invents newer incidents. No doubt, the knowledge of reality would act as the base, but the reality inside would only be unveiled by imagination. Otherwise, you can keep on reading, collecting facts and figures - the more you base your work on facts, with the help of facts and figures, the weaker it would become.” In the same breath he took the context of historical personalities, and wrote, “...Similarly, if a writer picks a historical person or period for his narrative: the less facts and figures he collects, the more are the chances of his work being powerful and believable. Up to a point the real facts and figures would be helpful, but beyond that they would become obstacles to the unfettered evolution of the work, to the extent that the facts and figures would so take over the writer's mind that his imagination would be blocked, it would be so tangled in the grip of facts and figures that it would cease to have any role in the unfettered evolution of the work.”
In a conversation with Dr Sukrita Paul Kumar - poet, critic, and academician - Sahni cites a letter written by the Viceroy in which he had stated that “the day Hindus and Muslims come together, the day of our departure from the shores of India will arrive. It is a clear indication that the Empire flourished so long as the Hindus and the Muslims slaying at one another’s throat. So the leaders of the movement, Gandhi included all along put forth this view that a policy of Divide and Rule was being formulated by the British and it was a consciously evolved policy. It evolves not just the political aspect but also the cultural aspect of life.”
M K Raina, actor and theatre personality, who had staged four of the six plays written by Bhisham Sahni including Hanush, Kabira Khada Bazaar mein, Madhavi and Muavze, is greatly fascinated by Sahni's capability to reflect the politics and events of that time (partition) with utter humanism. Raina remembers how Sahni gave absolute freedom to directors to deal with his writings and hence there exists a difference in his writing and those adapted for film or television. His works were not just limited to the partition, but each character reflected a portion of the society and Sahni dealt with his characters with great humaneness, Raina says.