Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bhishma Sahni’s Tamas, reviewed by Diptakirti Chaudhuri

Reviewing books published under the ‘Penguin India Classic’ can be fraught with a lot of risks. Especially since the novel at hand has been published to tremendous reception three decades back, translated into English by the author himself to great success, filmed into a critically acclaimed television series by a renowned director and generally acknowledged as one of the seminal works on Partition.

What follows is not a ‘review’ of Bhishma Sahni’s Tamas but more of my observations after reading the classic for the first time.

Kites (and vultures) shall fly (over this town)… This recurring line from the book – Kites shall fly – was the alternative title of an earlier English translation of Tamas. Indeed, it is this deep sense of foreboding that permeates almost two-thirds of the book – where there is hardly any depiction of violence.

The ‘expectation’ of a Partition story is the recounting of the orgy of violence that is enacted by the two communities. Authors have often been rather graphic in this respect (probably to bring about a sense of revulsion among the readers). Saadat Hassan Manto’s short stories and Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan are two such examples that come to mind.

Tamas, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. For the majority of the story, there are only stray acts of inconsequential violence that make up the narrative. And to accentuate the impending acts of hatred, neighbours of different communities recount their several years of living in harmony. People who have spent their entire lives together remember most details as they succumb to baser instincts.

In this respect, Tamas resembles the Bengali classic Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) written by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee (author of Pather Panchali) and filmed by Satyajit Ray. That novel ends with the first death of the Great Bengal Famine (a horrific event, that left literally thousands people dead from starvation) and the narrative is built around the cast of characters in a small Bengal village living in the shadow of an imminent food crisis.

In some ways, Tamas is also the exact antithesis of Manto’s short stories. Most of those short stories never stretched beyond a page or two and had an act of swift – but imaginative (for the want of a better word) – violence at its center like a tableau. Tamas – on the other hand – builds tension through the unlikely route of a conversation between the British Deputy Commissioner and his wife, which tries to explain why the Government should not interfere in the ‘religious matters’ of the Indian people.

Another thing Tamas does exceptionally well is the decoding of the psychology of riots.
A riot is the outcome of an attempt by an ethnic group to ‘take revenge’. A large number of people who form a rioting mob are doing so for the first time and through a series of stray events, Sahni does a sketch of the rioters’ minds brilliantly.

One has to identify with distant deaths as one’s own.

Rumours of killings in far-off villages spread – with embellishments on each hearing – among the young and excitable. This creates a supposedly moral energy and that leads to a mission for vendetta.

One has to distance oneself from the victims to remove the emotion.

With the Partition riots happening in small towns of Northwestern India, this was particularly tricky because the people baying for each other’s blood knew each other too well for comfort.

In one particularly ironic incident, a Sikh couple seeks refuge in a Muslim household. The womenfolk – unsure of the reaction of the absent men – hide them in a barn, from where the Sikh couple sees the men return. They have returned from the riots, with the spoils. And the heavy trunk they have collected is actually from the Sikh couple’s home. When they are trying to break the lock, the Sikh gentleman reveals himself and offers the key. Suddenly, the tables are turned and the head of the refuge-providing household is shamed by his deed. Shamed enough to let the Sikh couple leave unharmed. Though not enough to return the trunk.

Tamas derives its reputation – like most classics – from the timelessness of its message.
Neighbours go at each other’s throats, because a ‘leader’ asks them to. Cultural similarities are ignored at their insistence. Political leaders take advantage of mob mentality, always for material gains. And government turns a blind eye.

Despite knowing fully well that a token gesture would put an end to the bloodletting, the British administration follows the book to let the populace sort out their religious differences and paves way for the impending transfer of power.

Six decades on, politicians and government have merged into one apocalyptic body and now wreak the same unspeakable havoc on the people, described so vividly in Tamas. We, the populace – unfortunately – have not learnt anything from history and continue to do the dirty work on ourselves.

As the British Deputy Commissioner says in a prophetic moment – “Most people have no knowledge of their history. They only live it.”

We are still suffering from the same curse.

Find out more about Tamas here.

1 comment:

  1. Tamas has become popular among the masses because of the telivised version of this great work. Works like Tamas and Pinjar continue to haunt us, reminding us of the human faces which lived amongst the monstrous hours of history..