A life of commitment: Bhisham Sahni (1915 - 2003)

Print edition : August 01, 2003


Sahni's was easily one of the most influential voices in contemporary Hindi fiction.

DESPITE all the debilities of his advancing age, Bhisham Sahni, the indefatigable "Bhishm Pitamah" of cultural life, as literary colleague Krishna Sobti called him, always had ample energy to devote to inspiring and actively participating in various kinds of people's activities and organisations. The extraordinary stream of creativity, which rose in the freedom movement and flowed through all of modern India's struggles, came to an end on July 11.

Sahni's was easily one of the most influential voices in contemporary Hindi fiction. He was also ranked among the most important Hindi playwrights. But these engagements, though astounding in themselves, did not quite exhaust his creative urges. He was content not merely with the creation of characters, but with their recreation on stage and even in celluloid. Those who have seen the recent Aparna Sen film Mr and Mrs Iyer, a poignant story of the courage and convictions of ordinary people trapped in a communal conflagration, will understand the sense of the director's tribute that she could think of no other person to play the gentle old victim of the riots. In their brief appearance and even briefer words, Sahni and Surekha Sikri, as an old Muslim couple travelling on a bus that is trapped in an orgy of violence, were able to communicate both the serenity of innocence and its utter vulnerability to the forces of destruction, in a manner that will remain etched in memory.

Even in advanced age and fragile health, Sahni could be seen voicing his concerns at conferences and seminars and also participating in demonstrations. He was a long-time general secretary of the Progressive Writers Association, and was the founder-chairman of SAHMAT, a platform for cultural intervention founded in memory of the slain theatre artist and activist Safdar Hashmi.

Born in August 1915 in Rawalpindi, Sahni joined the freedom movement at an early age. Sahni, who participated in the Quit India Movement of 1942 and served time in jail, went on to become a district secretary of the Congress. Like his elder brother, the legendary actor Balraj Sahni, Bhisham also studied in Lahore and after completing his Masters in English, started a life of commitment to teaching in Lahore city, then considered the bastion of social radicalism.

Partition changed all that. The Sahnis had to migrate to the new India from where even Lahore seemed a foreign land. The trauma that the forced dislocation left on this budding writer's mind is portrayed with extreme sensitivity and little recrimination in two of his most stirring pieces of fiction: Amritsar Aa Gaya (We have reached Amritsar) and Tamas (The Darkness). Amritsar is a short story and Tamas a full-fledged novel. Both effectively capture human tragedy of a gigantic proportion.

Amritsar is a brilliant portrayal of how people are totally dehumanised by mass frenzy to a level that they are reduced to either limp helplessness or unreasoning rage. It portrays how, with the crossing of man-made borders, human nature could itself mutate, with the victim becoming an aggressor and the aggressor a victim. Alongside Saadat Hassan Manto's Toba Tek Singh, Amritsar merits a place of honour in the literature of India's troubled Partition.

But the full story of Partition and its searing human impact had to wait for Sahni's celebrated novel Tamas. The mere fact that he lived with the story for over a quarter-century and brought it to fruition after much reflection, speaks of the deep emotional investment that Sahni brought to this novel. Recognition and acclaim for a masterpiece came almost instantly. For some strange, hitherto unfathomed reasons, the human tragedy of Partition had escaped the literature of the Hindi heartland. Unlike their Urdu, Punjabi and Bengali counterparts, writers in Hindi tended to be rather negligent about the wrenching tragedy of Partition. Before Tamas, the only honourable exception in the Hindi language was Yashpal's Jhutha Sach (A False Reality). A much more realistic and poignant portrayal, Tamas brought Sahni the Sahitya Akademi award for 1975.

In its second incarnation as a tele-serial by the noted film director and cinematographer Govind Nihalani, Tamas proved an even more potent force for dispelling the darkness of communal prejudice. Released in the late-1980s, the series struck an instant chord in the popular understanding, with the majoritarian communal campaign growing in intensity and public displays of sectarian religiosity gaining a fresh vogue. Tamas not only attacked the sectarian version of the tragedy of Partition, but also forcefully contested the growing communalisation of popular common sense, that too in public space.

Elements of the religious Right - the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) - organised demonstrations, which testified to the efficacy of the message of Tamas. Perhaps Sahni derived a special satisfaction from the virulence of the campaign against Tamas, for despite his gentle public persona his convictions were rock-like in their firmness. It was for precisely this reason that SAHMAT's anti-communal campaign was particularly close to his heart.

Sahni was neither a one-issue personality nor a single-theme writer. He belonged to a generation of Hindi writers that was moulded in the struggle against imperialism and continued the fight for a dream of social, political and economic equality in independent India. His abhorrence of communalism derived from an intimate knowledge of how it turns humanity against itself. It is this sensitivity that led him to see a haves versus have-nots divide lurking behind the periodic eruptions of communal madness. In one of the episodes in Tamas, a rich trader enlists the help of an affluent acquaintance from the other community to secure his own personal safety. He then rushes to protect his wealth and assets from harm, putting in harm's way the innocent life of a co-religionist, who happens to be his servant. His acquaintance, in turn, after ensuring that those of similar wealth in the other community are out of danger, gives vent to an urge for revenge, attacking a totally unsuspecting and innocent servant.

Sahni was a writer of wide range and variety. His corpus includes five novels apart from Tamas. Of these Mayyadas ki Mandhi (The House of Mayyadas), though deprived to some extent of the critical attention it deserves, could easily be rated among the most significant of modern Hindi novels. His other novels greatly enrich our understanding of the complexities of human nature and relationships. His last novel, Neelu, Nilima, Neelofer, was published in 2000. His short stories, published in nine collections and numbering over a hundred, present an even wider range and variety.

Introduced to drama through the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), Sahni was a constant presence on stage. He also wrote six significant Hindi plays, including Muaavje, Hanoosh and Kabira Khada Baazar Main. His stories for children include Gulel ka Khel. Balraj My Brother is an acclaimed biography he wrote in English.

Sahni also was responsible for several authoritative translations into Hindi from Russian and other languages. As Nirmal Verma, a Jnanpith awardee and a significant writer of Hindi fiction, has said, even in such a mass of writing, Sahni was continuously growing in a creative sense, without ever repeating himself.

Along with Amarkant and few others, Sahni belonged to that stream of contemporary Hindi fiction writers who remained grounded in Premchand's literary tradition of realism, developing it and refining it to deal with realities much more complex than those faced by the Grand Master. Unlike some of his contemporaries and more so the next generation of fiction writers, whose modern sensibility tended to universalise the middle class, the stream that Sahni represented, though not ignoring this segment, insisted that it put its sensibilities in a larger social context. This made their modernity more socially meaningful and deep-rooted, though less fashionable for a while.

Firm on his ideals and concerns, Sahni was so amenable in his social conduct as to be recognised as an Ajaatshatru - one whose enemy is yet unborn - by all who encountered him. He was selfless to the extent of being self-effacing. With his deep sincerity to a wide range of commitments, he was seen as an abiding source of inspiration and confidence, an almost saintly presence. As his nephew Parikshit Sahni - Balraj's son - has written, Bhishamji tended to be underrated by others because with his own self-effacing character he tended to underrate himself. Honours were never sought, but they came his way. After the Sahitya Akademi award, he went on to become a "Mahatter Sadasya" of the body. He was also honoured with the Soviet Land Nehru Award, the Lotus Award of the Afro-Asian Writers' Conference and innumerable other awards, including the Padma Shri. He remained a modest and affectionate teacher all his life, a gentleman and a communist, like his mythological namesake, never to tire or retire. His autobiography Aaj ke Ateet (Pasts of the Present) was published a few months before his death. It will remain a valuable testament to a lifetime of creativity and commitment.

Rajendra Sharma is a Hindi writer and journalist based in Delhi.

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