Citizens' Issues
A Slice of Recent History
Memoirs of Bhisham Sahni, creator of Tamas, translated into English, at last
 
He may not be able to avoid being called Balraj Sahni’s younger brother, but Bhisham Sahni was a writer, playwright and actor of considerable repute. Best known for his novel Tamas, his memoirs, titled Today’s Pasts, has, at long last, been translated into English by Snehal Shingavi. Born in Rawalpindi, in 1915, Sahni witnessed at age 32, the searing division of India— the largest displacement of humanity in world history. Only the cinders of such poignant experience could have given birth to Tamas. In 1988, the tale was adapted into a televised mini-series and aired on Doordarshan. I was barely nine at that time, but its very mention evokes an eeriness that, even today, sends shudders down my spine. 
 
The memoir unfolds like a Dickensian story. It begins at Rawalpindi with friends and family where death touches Sahni’s life for the first time when he loses his sister. Without any tears or melodrama, he brings to fore a feeling of vacuum and loss. It is a young, arrogant lad we meet in the second chapter, doing his Master’s in English literature at the Government College in Lahore. There are lessons in this chapter that we all can learn from. Here’s an insight from the haughty 20-something: “When institutions become obsolete, they praise their own cultural values.”
 
Soon, we read about finding Ms Right, keeping a job, raising a family and his involvement with Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and communism. Meanwhile, Sahni earned a PhD from Punjab University. After Partition, he and his family settled in Delhi, where he was a lecturer at a Delhi University college and took to writing earnestly. His first collection of short-stories, Bhagya Rekha (Line of Fate), was published in 1953. In 1957, Sahni moved to Moscow. His long stint in Moscow, as a translator of Russian literary works into Hindi, gives us glimpses of life in the then Soviet Union.  
 
Sahni also had the distinction of becoming the editor of the literary magazine Nai Kahaniyan by which time he was already a published writer and novelist. He expresses his displeasure with labelling of works as ‘new story’, ‘sensitive story’, ‘non-story’ or ‘contemporary story’. Of his journal, and its selection of stories, he writes: “My journal would be an independent journal. Its only mission would be to publish the best stories. It was not going to be the mouthpiece of any literary trend.” 
 
To hear Sahni talk about his art is like listening to a maestro play his music. He emerges as a literary figure talking about styles, inspiration, his craft and his love. In his plain speak lies his sagacity. Here are some pearls of wisdom:
 
“It was true that a novel isn’t composed by a writer’s pen, or by his brain, but by the sensitivity of his heart.”
 
“No writer remains untouched by the pulse of his times, but the manner in which that pulse takes form in his work depends on his sensibility and his point of view. Style is a medium, not a goal.”
 
“… The reality of the novel does not depend on whether an event really happened, but rather on the fact that the action can seem real from the perspective of all reality in life.”
 
The simmering tension of the Partition is an undercurrent that runs across Sahni life. In Tamas, it found a voice and, so, to Tamas, he devotes an entire chapter. Albert Camus had once said that an author is not in one character; he may be in all his characters, simultaneously. Thus, Sahni informs us how much of fiction and fact his various characters in Tamas were. 
 
Tamas won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975 and was subsequently adapted into a National Award-winning film by Govind Nihalani. Sahni’s body of work encompasses novels, plays, short-stories and essays for which he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1998, and the Shalaka Samman, the Delhi government’s highest literary prize, in 1999.
 
Sahni passed away in 2003. His memoirs in Hindi, Aaj Ke Ateet, was posthumously published in 2004 and had to wait for over a decade to be translated by Snehal and published in English. Snehal is an assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin, where he specialises in teaching South Asian literature in English, Hindi and Urdu. He does justice to his subject. Most importantly, he convinces us to go to the nearest bookshop and buy Aaj Ke Ateet.

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