History Fiction Interface in Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas
P G Dept. of English
T M Bhagalpur University, Bhagalpur
History Fiction Interface in Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas
Bhisham Sahni was a prolific writer of Hindi literature. His immense popularity was not a result of any pandering to vulgar tastes but a reward for his literary merits – his sharp wit, his gentle irony, his all pervasive humor, his penetrating insight into character, his mastery as raconteur and his profound grasp of yearnings of the human heart. At the time of partition he was an active member of the Indian National Congress and organized relief work for the refugees when riots broke out.
The British India was divided in 1947 but the majority of the people like Bhisham Sahni, never felt convinced of the desirability of the partition of the country. They felt that even if the regime changed populations should not leave and form a forced diaspora or a pathetic refugee. But that didn’t happen. People left their homes because they were scarred. They fled, they sought refuge in refugee camps. There were barbaric attacks on both the communities. People lost all senses of decency and proportion and indulged in violence and butchery. After sometime, the violence subsided as tempers cooled down. But this realization came too late only after the riots had taken a huge toll of human life. Among the intellectuals there were few Muslims and Hindus who were fanatics. This is because they adhered to a rich tradition and culture. They had a liberal outlook. They were humanists and had no bias towards a particular religion. Bhisham Sahni comes from this stock of intellectuals who had witnessed the perverted perception of ‘Freedom and Partition’ and subsequently he was able to communicate it after almost 25 years of its actual occurrence. The novel he wrote in 1973 originally in Hindi and later himself translated into English that proved to be a great work of fiction for porting much more than the violence unleashed in the aftermath of partition. It reflected and cliqued the entire politics of hatred, the hypocrisy of all the political parties at the helm of affairs and also the callousness of the British administration. Tamas is not only about partition – violence but also about the social, political, cultural and above all intellectual consciousness of the people of the Indian Subcontinent.
Bhisham Sahni, who published his great partition novel Tamas in 1973, goes down the memory lane and recreates the tumultuous Partition time in Rawalpindi. He talks about his home and family. He lived in a predominantly Muslim area; his father was a businessman. In fact, his father had lived for more than twenty years in Peshawar, close to Kabul and had moved to Rawalpindi only in later years. He says that though Hindus mingled with Muslims at large, but there was some kind of an enigmatic division.
At academic and intellectual level, Hindus felt that they had superior culture and India began to decline when it came in contact with an inferior culture however it is a fact that Muslims are the second greatest religious group around the world with their own resilient culture, ideology and Polity.
Muslims, states Sahni, were blamed by some of our writers for the degradation of Indian culture and also the degradation of Hindu institutions. As far as the student community was concerned, in Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore, there was no consciousness of discrimination between the Hindus and the Muslims.
Tamas by Bhisham Sahni is an epic novel written in the backdrop of the partition of India. In 1947 convening the grotesque atmosphere prevailing at that time when the innocent men were slaughtered like chickens and the women were raped like a hobby. Tamas is one such novel based on how the riots were instigated between the Hindus and the Muslims. It harshly reminds that pernicious and vile politics is the first step towards insanity of the human kind. The events after riots show how the British executed their divide and rule policy successfully. More than hundred villages perished in riots for the British felt contained. The events after that simply belie humanism. Historical events leading to the crumbling of harmony and amity brings certain questions eluding the historians. The attitude of people who couldn’t care less for the killings is beautifully put across.
On the downsides of this marvelous book is that since this is the true account of the incident, most of the books cohesion. The incidents follow one after another thereby making the novel almost an episode by episode drama. Somewhere down the line fictional fragment too takes a back seat only to return in the end. But that doesn’t take away any intensity of the book. The events slowly buildup and Bhisham Sahni uses his language well to convey the setting of the events.
Tamas perhaps the most powerful novel written on the partition, looks at the chaos preceding the splitting of the subcontinent in a small town in the North and West Frontier province. The novel, which is based on actual events, follows the tragedies that unfold in the town after a pig, considered unclean by the Muslims, is found is found slaughtered on the steps of the local mosque. The kind of the violence, the killing, rape and arson that followed by unprecedented. The enriched Muslims massacre scores of the town’s Hindus and Sikhs who intern kill every Muslim they can find, the area’s British administrators call out the army to prevent further violence. The killings stops but nothing can ever erase the memories from the minds of the survivors, nor well the various communities ever trust one another again. “They are collecting arms because they are afraid of us and we are collecting arms because we are afraid of them. One can never trust a Musalman … and they said one can never trust a Sikh”
Tamas deals exclusively with the riots of 1947. A close study of Tamas reveals that it was a period marked by intense turmoil and unprecedented communal violence provoked by the callous manipulation of religious sentiments of different communities by elements who chose to use religion as a weapon to achieve political objectives. We find the minds of Hindus and Muslims being haunted by similar doubts and lack of trust for each other in Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan:
“Rumours of atrocities committed by Sikhs on Muslims in Patiala, Ambala and Kapurthala, which they had heard and dismissed came back to their minds … quite suddenly every Sikh in Mano Majra became a stranger with an evil intent. His long beard and hair appeared barbarous, his kirpan menacingly anti-muslim. For the first time, the name Pakistan came to mean something to them – a haven of refuge, where there were no Sikhs”(120-121)
The fact that people those days were not only mad with religious frenzy but were also afraid of the then prevailing communal tension has been very factuality presented by Bhisham Sahni. He have given us a realistic account of the religious sentiments of the people during partition.
For historians, sociologists and students of human affairs in general, Tamas is highly relevant piece of writing as it refocus the attention of the public on the grim consequences of communal politics and the significance of secularism to preserve our democratic system and national unity. Tamas reveal an indictment of politicians among Hindus and Muslims who inflame hatred among a simple people to serve their own ends, and give us a glimpse of the compassion and understanding that suffering generates. In this novel partition has surprisingly left behind on the one hand an extraordinary love-hate relationship. Deep resentment and animosity, and the most militant of nationalisms - Pakistani against Indian and Indian against Pakistani and on the other, a considerable sense of nostalgia, frequently articulated in the view that this was a partition of siblings that should never have occurred.
Tamas takes us into the politics of partition in a very unique and oblique manner. Like a humane historian Bhisham Sahni digs at the history of British policy of divide and rule which has become a cliché among professional historians of Indian subcontinent. Here as a creative artist Bhisham Sahni ironically looks at the mindset of British collector. The lively conversation between the collector, Richard and his wife Liza throws ample light on the attitude of the British administration at large:
… What sort of trouble, Richard? Will there be a war again?
‘No A riot may break out in the city. Tension is mounting between the Hindus and the Muslims?
‘Will they fight one another? In London you used to tell me that they were fighting against you’
‘They are fighting both against us and against one another’.
‘You are again joking, Richard, Aren’t you?’
‘In the name of religion they fight one another in the name of freedom they fight against us’
Don’t try to be too clever, Richard I also know a thing or two. In the name of freedom they fight one another. Isn’t that right?
‘It is not we who make them fight. They fight of their own accord.’
‘You can stop them from fighting, Richard. After all they are from the same racial stock. Didn’t you say so?’
Richard was charmed by his wife’s simplicity.
He sent down and kissed her on the cheek.
‘Darling, rulers have their eyes only on differences that divide their subjects not on what unites them.’
Bhisham Sahni has chosen the town of Rawalpindi and villages around it as microcosm of the Indian subcontinent. In the town, on one pretext or another, the local leaders exploit the situation in their favour. The story begins with the tragic situation in the life of a sweeper named Nathu who is bribed and deceived by a local Muslim politician to kill a pig, ostensibly for a veterinarian. The following morning the carcass is discovered on the steps of a mosque, and the town and adjoining villages, already tension ridden, erupts in violence. As is the nature of such violence, caused by distrust, fear and rumour, it continued and spreads a gloom in and around the city of Rawalpindi. Local leaders, instead of containing it add fuel to fire. Hypocrisy and distrust play their part to great extent. Local leaders belonging to all parties like Congress, Muslim League, Gurudwara Prabandhak or Hindu Mahasabha are hypocrites and are unaware of the consequences of the growing communal frenzy.
Although the novel takes up one town and the adjoining villages as nucleus of the communal frenzy, his aim probably seems to delve deep into the nature of the violence and also the nature, character and behavioral patterns of the stakeholders – be it Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus. It is shown that the antagonism between the communities is not natural or elemental rather there is a murky politics which plays a sinister and clandestine role at all levels and that is the real villain of the peace. On the eve of partition of India the local leaders were active and the common men and women were vulnerable; they could be easily befooled for any promise. The atmosphere of fear, suspicion, distrust, intrigue, conspiracy etc. became very common at all levels. Whereas the British administration was cold and indifferent towards such developments, the local leaders exploited the situations in their favour without any hesitation or wavering even at the cost of human life and property.
Thus, Tamas is a partition novel not only in appearance and structure but also in the depiction of neurosis which had plunged a cross section of human populace in the states where communities had lost mutual trust and amity. Whereas, the common men like Nathu and Harnam Singh are distressed and suffer mental agony, the local leaders are hardly sad about the whole thing. They are rather surcharged to exploit the situation in their favour. Towards the end of the novel mainly in chapter 21, it can be seen that the people attending the meeting of peace committee hardly regret what happened rather partake of the pleasure that such a gathering evokes. People are fragmented and divided on petty issues based on their caste, creed and party affiliations. And finally the “bus of peace” episode ironically portrays the mockery of the Indian people towards such peace missions. Air resounding with slogans ‘Long Live Hindu Muslim Unity!....’ Peace, Committee Zindabad!’ ‘Hindus are one! (350) Sardonically betrays the futility of such missions.
Sahni, Bhism : Tamas, New Delhi : Penguin Books India, 2001