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Power to Douse Communal Fires (Bhisham Sahni: 1915-2003)

On 8th August 2015 the country celebrated centenary celebration of Bhisham Sahni, the ‘Bhishm Pitamah’ of Hindi literature, the epithet very aptly put by Krishna Sobti, the ‘granddame’ of Hindi literature. ‘A great writer but a great human being’, calls Gurdial Singh, the Jnanpith Award winning Punjabi writer, Sahni was his own man, who drew from various sources but never allowed them to dominate or colour his mind. He belonged to who identified themselves with their soil. The dust and heat of day to day life with its emotion and passions, gain and loss, all were part of his works. His passion for the cause of the common people tuned him to Marxism. What Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov, Russian revolutionary and a Marxist theoretician, and critic, believed that the purpose of literature is to help and share the joy and sorrows, not only with the characters but also with other human beings in life, was the belief of Sahni: “life offers not only complexities, but solutions too. Literature captures man’s hopes and dreams, and his capacity for problem solving”.

Sahni read Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gorki, Camus including A Hundred Years of Solitudes, a 1967 novel by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but no influence are apparent in his writing. He was the rarest of rare who wrote with restrained compassion about people and their circumstances. Neither dwelt on tragedies too much, nor celebrated the victories of his characters, Sahni was a compassionate chronicler of people and events. No one focuses on real issues and problems, inextricably linked with and related to our milieu and moorings like him.  One among the few genuinely secular writers in Hindi, Sahni was committed to India’s composite culture in the true sense of the term. He never wavered from his ideals, but at the same time never became their aggressive champion. Sahni never see him as a visionary or an oracle, he was a man with a yielding temperament.

Widely acclaimed as a novelist, short story writer and playwright, he was equally impressive as a social activist. He consolidated the great tradition of the Hindi novel, a legacy of Premchand enriched by Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’, Yashpal, Upendranath ‘Ashq’, Agyeya, Nagarjuna, Krishna Sobti, Mohan Rakesh, Rahi Masoom Raza and many others.  He was with celebrated authors, playwrights and artists of his time such as K A Abas, Yash Pal, Krishan Chander, Dharamveer Bharati, Kamaleswar, the glamorous names in the literary firmament, Sahni never resented any of them. He stood out as a grand old man of letters. The stream that Sahni represented insisted put its sensibilities in a larger social context, more socially meaningful and deep rooted. His realism was akin to Premchand, but with a sense of detail that is enormous. “After Premchand’s death in 1936, Sahni’s concerns were similar to him but shared his vision of a socialist, secular India as opposed to the one dominated by a capitalist worldview and trader’s mentality. Consistently this integrated vision found expression in Sahni’s work”, says Namwar Singh, renowned critic.

Sahni, along with two other eminent writers, Nilamani Phookan and Kaifi Azmi was honoured with the ‘Mahatter Sadasya’, the Fellow of Sahitya Akademi, in February 2002 for his ‘eminence as a Hindi fiction writer’. He won the Akademi Award in 1975 for Tamas (Darkness, 1974), published by Rajkamal Prakashan, perhaps the most powerful novel ever written on the subject.  The socio-political upheaval in the days preceding the partition is the theme of this novel. It depicts the communal riots in the early part of 1947 in Rawalpindi (NWFP), where he was born and brought up, in a powerfully evocative style. It also exposes the British policy of divide and rule and the opportunism of the big bourgeoisie among the communities of the province. Tamas is considered an outstanding contribution to Hindi literature for its artistic control, a firm grasp of reality, excellence of characterization, and humanity and authenticity of experience.

The progressive, secular and nationalist perspective of Sahni is reflected in all his works in general, but it finds its best expression in Tamas.  Sahni was an eyewitness to the riots.  He said, “I wrote about it 25 years later, and what promoted me to write was a riot in Bhiwandi near Mumbai.  I was in Mumbai then, and my brother (Balraj Sahni) took me along to visit the riot-hit place.  What I saw their reminded me of the ’47 riots”. He gave a sentimental and dramatic response to the events of intense turmoil, the communal violence. An anatomy of that tragic period, it depicts how communal violence was generated by fundamentalists and extremists in both communities, and how innocent people were dupes into serving die ulterior purpose of those communalists. As a novel, its more than a work of literature, it’s a grim reminder of the immense tragedy, which results whenever the religious sentiments of communities are manipulated to achieve political objectives.

Running its 18th edition, Tamas has been translated into all major Indian languages as well as into German, Japanese, Korean, and French. Govind Nihalani, the noted film director and cinematographer, who serialized the novel for television in late ‘80s, and later made it into a landmark film, says, “I spotted Tamas at a book shop in Delhi while working as the second unit director for Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’. After reading I felt compelled to turn into a film. The novel demonstrates beyond any shadow of doubt the plight of the common people who were the worst affected in the disturbances. It is a prophetic warning against the use of religion as a weapon to gain and perpetuate power”. When the series was shown on television from 9 January 1988, it struck an instant chord in the popular understanding. The moving partition, still considered a ‘classic’, evoked an unprecented response all over the country, both emotional and political. As cinema, retaining the same name, directed by Saeed Akhtar Mirza, stars with Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, as well Sahni, Tamas has been hailed variously as a milestone, a major achievement of an extremely relevant historical document.

The trauma of dislocation again he portrayed with extreme sensitivity and little recrimination on his most stirring story Amritsar Aa Gaya (We Have Reached Amritsar), brilliantly depicts how people are totally dehumanized by mass frenzy to a level that they are reduced to either limp helplessness or unreasoning rage. Merits a place of honour in the literature of troubled partition of India, Amritsar… portrays the crossing of man-made borders, human nature could itself mutate, with the victim becoming an aggressor and aggressor a victim. Sahni awarded the Premchand Award of Hindi Sansthan, Lucknow for Basanti (1979), a novel of education and initiation. Krishna Sobti spoke approvingly of Sahni’s value-based political and intellectual commitment. It has been translated into English, Malayalam and Kannada and has also been serialized on television.

His epic novel, Mayyadas Ki Marhi (The House of Mayyadas), another major classic, Sahni’s own favourite, which reminds Tolstoy’s War and Peace, was drawn from historical sources, in which there were victors and the vanquished, the oppressors and the oppressed. A moving picture of a village bearing the atrocities of feudal lords and social injustice, which won him the “Best Fiction Award” from Hindi Academy, Delhi in 1988, is the story of the transition from the Khalsa Raj to the entrenchment of the British Raj as experienced by the people in a small town in Punjab.  An attractive and eminently readable English translation of the novel titled The Mansion was published by Harper Collins in 1998.  Besides, he wrote three outstanding novels: Jharokha (1967), Kadiyan (1971), Kunto (1993) and Nilu Neelima Nilophar (2000).

Though Sahni was a great novelist, he was ‘perhaps’ greater as a short story writer who started writing short stories at the age of sixteen. Neeli Ankhen (Blue Eyes), his first story, was published in Hansa, edited then by Amrit Rai, son of Premchand.  Over three decades, he wrote close to three hundred of short stories which have been compiled in several volumes:  Bhagya Rekha (1953), Pahla Paath (1956), Bhatakti Raakh (1965), Patarian (1973), Vangchu (1978), Shobhayatra (1981), Nishachar (1983), Palli (1989), Dayaan (1996).  Naya Makaan, Chief Ki Daavat and Amritsar Aa Gaya Hai. In his own words, he admired the works of Tolstoy, Hugo, Romain Rolland and Tagore for his short stories. With him the Hindi short stories ‘moved out of the narrow sphere of personal relations and entered the larger sphere of social life, of social problems and of the density of the people as a whole. Besides, his stories for children, published in a collection titled Gulal Ka Khel (1980).

Some of his best stories, translated by Gillian Wright, published by Penguin India in 1990 in a volume titled Middle India: Selected Short Stories, are very representative of his eclectic choice of subjects: from the sexually vulnerable world of domestic worker to a pensioner’s struggle to get justice.  Some of his stories are reckoned among the best pieces of Hindi literature. Palli, the partition tale, is a long story about a child who lost to his Hindu parents during partition, is adopted by a Muslim family. It could be compared with Sadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai’s stories. Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak, paying the centenary tribute to Sahni, narrated some of his short stories at NCPA, on 8th August, organized by Kopal Theatre, Bombay. The programme focused on his short stories from his collections of more than hundred stories, to aware the audience about his wide range of writings. Other notable actors who also narrated were witnessed by Yashpal Sharma, Manoj Pahwa and Heeba Shah, among others.

Sahni also earned well-deserved acclaim for his plays.  His first full-length play Hanush in 1977, based on a Czech story of how a king orders the amputation of a craftsman who gifts the city world’s first mechanical clock, got the first place in the Moscow Theatre Festival.  Kabira Khada Bazar Mein, Muaveza, Madhavi, and Alamgir were his other notable plays. Muaveza, which means compensation given to the relatives of the riot victims, depicts a man accosts a rickshaw-puller who has a festering wound on his feet.  He tells him that since he cannot support his old parents any more, he should get himself killed in a riot so they could get a hefty amount as compensation. Madhavi, based on the episodes from Mahabharata, raises for the first time the women’s’ question and a voice of resistance and protest in a significant manner.  Alamgir, based on the life and times of Aurangzeb, is the culmination of a two-year effort while he was a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. Sahni was fascinated by Aurangzeb’s character and the fact that he was a bundle of contradictions.  On one hand, Aurangzeb was a pious and devoutly religious man and on the other, he harboured boundless ambition and was a bigot without mercy.

Many of his plays have been translated into English and other Indian languages and also produced by the National School of Drama. Hundred of shows have been staged in Delhi, Mumbai and other major cities. Sahni was awarded the Sangeet Natak Award in 2001 for playwriting. In six decades of his literary career, Sahni wrote nine collections of short stories, seven novels, six full-length plays, a book of essays, a storybook for children and a small book on Jallianwala Bagh, and a biography of his elder actor brother Balraj Sahni, titled Balraj My Brother, a very objective book, and an autobiography Aaj Ke Ateet (Today’s Past), published just a few months before his death, which will remain forever as a valuable testament to a lifetime of creativity and commitment.

His creative passion was like a rumbling volcano topped by the icy lake of his personality. Whatever he wrote, wrote with his trademark with restraint and maturity. He did not created any great heroes in his plays, short stories and novels, simply they were one like us, not have over-reaching viewpoints. His works are free from polemics and sloganeering, and are concerns for the poor and underprivileged. As an activist in the Progressive Writers Movement, he just wished to see an egalitarian society.

Apart from his own creative writings, he was responsible for several translations from Russian into Hindi.  The Government of India selected him in 1957 as translator in the Foreign Language Publishing House of Moscow. During his stay till 1963 he translated short stories, novels and plays of Yash Pal, Amarkant, Kamleshwar and Nirmal Verma, and some Punjabi works by Nav Tej Singh, Gurdial Singh from Hindi into English. Nirmal Verma, a contemporary Hindi fictionist and Jnanpith winner, had said, “Even in such a mass of writing, Sahni was continuously growing in a creative sense, without ever repeating himself”. Besides, he edited a literary journal Nai Kahaniyan, published by Rajkam Prakashan, from 1965-67. Sahni was also interested in the performing arts and acted both on stage and films including Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho directed by Sayeed Mirza and the television production of Tamas, Bernardo Bertolucci’s film Little Buddha, Aparna Sen’s film Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, and Rajdhani, etc. Sahni also wrote a screen play for Kumar Sahni’s film Kasba. A 30 minutes documentary, directed by Nandan Khudyadi, alumnus of FTII and filmmaker, on his life and works has also been produced by Sahitya Akademi.

Sahni was associated with the Congress when Gandhiji launched the Quit India Movement in 1942.  After partition, he became a leftist – to a good extent due to his brother’s influence.  Later, he was drawn to IPTA, and became a member of the Progressive Writers’ Association and later its General Secretary in 1976, when revived under the new name of National Federation of Progressive Writers. He served Sahitya Akademi as a member of its Executive Board (1993-97) and was actively associated with the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association as its Acting General Secretary. Honours were never sought, but they came automatically his way. Sahni, besides Akademi’s Award and Fellow, received the Shiromani Lekhak Award of the Punjab Government in 1976; Lotus Award of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association in 1980; Soviet Land Nehru Award in 1983, Padma Vibhushan in 1998, and innumerable other award. The Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad conferred an Honorary Doctorate on him in 1998.  Between 1993 and 1994 he was the Writer-in-Residence of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), Shimla.

Though born on 11th July as he has mentioned in his autobiography, officially entered in the school record by his father Harbanslal Sahni, a devout Arya Samajist, was 8 August 1915 in Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan). The vivid image of his birthplace haunted Sahni, not only as nostalgia, but a deep sense of loss and anguish of loosing homeland, as after partition in ’47 his family opted to settle this side of newly created border. Completing schooling at Gurukul Pothahar and DAV School, Rawalpindi, he moved to Lahore for higher studies and graduated from the Government College there.  He did his M.A. in English from the same college in 1937 and joined his father’s import business, but finding the job too taxing, decided to teach at the DAV Intermediate College, Rawalpindi. At an early age he had joined the Freedom Movement and was participated in Quite India Movement of ’42 and served in jail. As an active member of Indian National Congress he organized relief work for refugees when riots broke out in Rawalpindi in ’47.

Completing his education he started a life of commitment to teaching. During his Ambala and later at Khalsa College, Amritsar as lecturer, Sahni was very active in organization of the college and university teacher’s union, which led to his dismissal from the college. Later the union elected him as the general Secretary of All Punjab College and University Teacher’s Union and finally reappointed with a salary of Rs 182/- per month. He moved to Delhi on his appointment of lecturer at Zakir Hussain College till his selection as translator in Moscow. After returned from Moscow in 1963, he rejoined the Zakir Hussain College and retired as a professor of English.

He lived with the emotion of compassion, rather than ideology of socialism. In his last days he was working on his memoirs as well, translating some of his earlier works. Barely three days after the death of Subhas Mukhopadhyaya, people’s poet of Bengal, the world of literature lost him on 11 July 2003. His death has lost a voice that spoke of the pain of uprooting of millions, of loneliness, of boredom and so on. The 3days birth centenary celebration, organized by the Department of Culture in association with Sahitya Akademi, along with a photo and book exhibition, as well release of a monograph on him, was intended to promote Sahni’s work and legacy worldwide. Indian Habitat Center celebrated the centenary of Sahni through a programme ‘Life-Word-Image: A Hundred Years of Bhisham Sahni’ that proved “written words have the power to transform the society” which is evident by his life and works. His oeuvre has still the power to douse communal fires. As a first-rate gentleman and remarkable writer rather than an ideologue and an activist, he was an almost saintly presence, and would be remembered for ever to a wide range of his commitment.



        Dr. Ashok K. Choudhury, a litcrit & postdoctoral, is with Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.

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