In translation: Bhisham Sahni’s truths


Only four episodes of Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas had been shown on Doordarshan when Ramesh Dalal petitioned the courts in the 1980s, asking them to stop the telecast. He felt that Tamas could disrupt public order, promote feelings of enmity and argued that “truth in its naked form may not always be desirable to be told or exhibited”.

But Sahni spent his life as a writer chasing the truth in its naked form, relentlessly honest in his memoir, Boyhood, about the family, neighbourhood politics, his terror of nocturnal emissions, the shadowy travails of their domestic servant Tulsi. He was well aware of the slipperiness of memory: Boyhood begins with fragmented images of the past flying around in his mind like so many scraps of paper.


He knew that an image from one time could merge with an event from another to create something true to both. He was in Rawalpindi in 1926 when the grain market was set on fire. He fused the memory of the flames leaping high – frightening but also fascinating – with a smaller fire that had been set in the markets of Bhiwandi during 1947.

Penguin India has brought out a set of four of Sahni’s classics in translation. The covers by Pia Hazarika are striking, bearing single images – an owl on the branch of a tree for Mansion, a boy with his nose pressed to the ground for Boyhood, a woman’s plait strung with joyous red ribbons for Basanti – in a vivid and tempting colour palette. stands apart, in a severe black on grey typographic design that signals the novel’s grim Partition background but not its textured richness.
has translated Basanti and Mansion, Anna Khanna is the translator of Boyhood, and Daisy Rockwell has translated Tamas, which is in hardback and is the only book to carry a translator’s note. This is disappointing; a translator reads with a particular and piercing attention, and this would have been a rare chance to have the perspectives of three translators on the same author’s work. (The publishing house confirmed that they had intended to carry introductions, but the pressure of deadlines and health complications prevented them from doing so.)

Mansion will be a pleasant surprise for Sahni’s fans who haven’t encountered this multi-chambered novel about the collapse of the Khalsa Raj in Punjab and the rise of the firangi company. The fortunes of the lord of the mansion, Diwan Dhanpat Rai, rise and fall too; perhaps, as one character says, you need an owl’s vision to handle the currents of history, to see ruins where palaces stand at present, to understand that power is temporary. Basanti is far more contemporary; Sahni follows the escapes, flirtations, loves and dramas of a girl who grows into womanhood through a city shaped, then as now, by the ongoing rumble of demolitions, evictions and the rebuilding of chawls.

But it is Tamas, in either Rockwell’s translation or the original Hindi, that remains an essential text for the times. “Sahni’s meticulous, detailed chronicle gives the lie to the notion of Partition violence as a spontaneous burst of maniacal behaviour; of people losing control of themselves; of a madness that takes hold of the populace. This riot is the result of careful planning and politiciking.”

She suggests that unlike Govind Nihalani’s television series, Tamas, the novel “offers us no such solace in neat endings, tidy narrative patterns… Reading about the life of a riot is chilling and uncomfortable”.

In the matter of Ramesh s/o Chotelal Dalal vs Union of India and Others, the learned judges ruled in favour of allowing Tamas to be telecast. They observed that illiterates are not devoid of common sense, or unable to grasp the calumny of the fundamentalists and extremists. “This is how they [the judges] have viewed it: those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

All these years later, Sahni’s hard-wrested knowledge that violence is learned behaviour, that riots are planned, manufactured events, should haunt and warn us of what lies ahead. The naked truth is often undesirable, but its lessons are inescapable.

(Published in the Business Standard, March 2016)


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