Bhisham Sahni is a distinguished Hindi fiction writer, playwright, translator, teacher and polyglot. His works reflect his unflinching commitment to India's pluralist ethos and secular foundations. Sahni was a writer of wide range and variety. He has written more than a hundred short stories, compiled in several volumes, most notably Bhagya rekha (1953), Pahla patha (1956), Bhatakti rakha (1966), and Nischar (1983). His short stories reveal a fine sense of craft. Those considered among the masterpieces of Hindi literature include Chief ki davat and Amritsar a gaya hai. He has written stories for children that are collected in the volume Gulal ka khel. Sahni has also written three plays Hanusa (1977), Kabira khara bazar mein (1981), and Madhuri (1982). Bhisham Sahni wrote in English the biography of Balraj Sahni, his elder brother and well-known writer-actor under the title Balraj my brother (1981). Bhisham Sahni has received a number of awards, such as the Shiromani Writers Award,1979, the Sahitya Akademi Award for Tamas, 1975 and the Uttar Pradesh Government Award for Tamas, 1975; Madhya Pradesh Kala Sahitya Parishad Award, for his play Hanusa, 1975 the Lotus Award from the Afro-Asian Writers' Association, 1981 and the Soviet Land Nehru Award, 1983. 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. Bhisham Sahniís story "We Have Arrived in Amritsar" is set in a moving train whose passengers learn of the riots during their journey. The environment inside becomes tense but is under control. A feeble Hindu, however, is enraged enough to kill a Muslim trying to get on the train. The transformation of this character is a comment on how the madness of the times made murderers out of ordinary men. This is also reflected in the character of Ranvir in Sahniís novel Tamas, who, having once killed a hen, can kill any human being without remorse. Tamas (Darkness), his magnum opus, translated into English in 1988, gained worldwide acclaim for its sensitive and anguished portrayal of the communal riots and carnage that accompanied India's partition. Tamas is considered one of the most powerful and passionate fictional accounts of the human tragedy that marked the period. He uses literature to expose the divide and rule policy of the British and the rank opportunism of the upper classes of both the Hindu and Muslim communities. Sahani made the point that the real victims of all sectarian violence are the hapless common folk, irrespective of religious or denominational differences. All his works are characterized by a sense of compassion, values of universal humanism and lucid narrative.
Tamas is interestingly a poignant novel about the terrible events that took place during the partition of India. It is based on actual events, and authentically follows the tragedies that unfold in the town after a pig, considered unclean by the Muslims, is ground slaughtered on the steps of the local mosque. Sahni participated in the freedom struggle, joining the Indian National Congress during the Quit India Movement. When communal riots broke out in Rawalpindi in March 1947, he worked with the Relief Committee. Later he joined the Indian People's Theatre Association in Bombay and worked as a performing artist under the guidance of Balraj Sahni, his elder brother. He directed the famous drama Bhoot Gari adapted for the stage by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas. In 1950, he joined Delhi College as a lecturer in English. He lived in Moscow from 1957 to 1963 and worked as a translator from Russian to Hindi with the Foreign Language Publishing House, Moscow. In addition to Hindi, Sahni is also proficient in English, Urdu, Sanskrit, Russian, and Punjabi. He has translated twenty-five books from Russian into Hindi, including Tolstoy's Resurrection.
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. The theme 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). Bhishamji’s novel on partition, “Tamas” (The Darkness) was to become the most powerful and celebrated portrayal of the horrible tragedy of Partition. He was given the Sahitya Academy award for “Tamas” in 1976 and later on went to become “Mahatter Sadasya” (Fellow) of the Academy. He was also honoured by Soviet Land Nehru Award, the Lotus Award of the Afro-Asian Writers Conference and Padma Bhushan. Bhishamji was the general secretary of the Progressive Writers’ Association for a long period. 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 communalization of popular common sense, that too in public space. Tamas (serially televised) deals with the traumatic times of India's partition. The narrative basically revolves round the gruesome communal violence that took place in the Punjab. Low caste Nathu is given money by some one to kill a pig The next day it leads to a widespread communal riots. Scared, Nathu runs away to another city with his pregnant wife. But he is not safe anywhere, because the whole country is engulfed in the bloody events.
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 himself says about Tamas that there was no attempt in Tamas to weave a story around a character or a main incident or a series of incidents. The novel is episodic and it is these episodes that bring about the spectrum. There are characters whose future has been taken into account and most characters have actually been put not in a narrative context but in the context of their being members of a class, group, community and society. He has shown how it affected the people as individuals, as members of a caste and a society. The whole novel is based on facts, but the first chapter is the work of his imagination. He has never seen a pig being killed. He has never been to a piggery. Though he admits that before he wrote the novel, he had a great desire to see a pig being killed, but the desire died out after he created the scene of the opening chapter.
Sahani wrote Tamas 30 years after the Partition, with an approach that was very reflective and non-judgemental. His style was extremely simple. The entire event was recorded as a tragic event in human history. The Partition affected whoever went through it, but the important thing is that Bhishamji described it so beautifully. It was obvious that the book was written by someone extremely compassionate. The core theme of Tamas was we have extremist elements in every community, who try to create problems. They do so only to achieve political goals. It was the best novel ever written on those times.
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. 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 universalize 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. Bhisham Sahni was and will continue to be seen as the doyen of Hindi literature, whose stories will continue to hold meaning and value for the generations to come and will continue to weave their magic upon new readers. One of the last of his kind, he remains the legend that he was.
1.Bhisham Sahni: Tamasa .Penguine Books, 2001, New York
2.Bhisham Sahni Lalit Mohan Joshi :Tuesday September 9, 2003The Guardian
3.Volume 20 - Issue 15, July 19 - August 01, 2003 India's National Magazine FRONTLINE publishers of THE HINDU
4.Saturday, July 19, 2003 TRIBUNE
Dr. KANUPRIYA IS A SENIOR LECTURER IN THE DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH AT L .S .COLLEGE , MUZAFFARPUR UNDER B R A BIHAR UNIVERSITY.SHE HAS CONTRIBUTED HER RESEARCH ARTICLES IN DIFFERENT JOURNALS AND BOOKS. AT PRESENT SHE IS DOING HER POST-DOCTORAL WORK ON INDIAN CINEMATOGRAPHY AND LITERATURE.