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Why Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas is relevant to Indians today


Padma Bhushan awardee Bhisham Sahni became famous for Tamas, his fictionalized account of communal politics based on true events he witnessed in 1947. The book won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975. In its latest English translation by Daisy Rockwell, it continues to hold meaning for Indian society 41 years later. Acclaimed writer, critic and cinephile Jai Arjun Singh reviews the translation only for Flipkart Stories

Why Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas is relevant to Indians today

In one of the quietest but most effective scenes in Govind Nihalani’s 1988 telefilm Tamas, adapted from Bhisham Sahni’s Partition novel about the breakdown of communal relations as a riot gathers force, a Muslim man named Shah Nawaz, having helped his Hindu friend Raghunath and his family leave their violence-ridden street, returns to the house to retrieve some jewellery for Raghunath’s wife. In the house is a slow-witted servant. Shah Nawaz speaks kindly to him, but then a view from a window—a corpse lying in a mosque’s courtyard nearby—stokes a fire inside him. He lashes out and kicks the innocent servant as he is going down the stairs.



This scene is both startling and revealing of human complexities. Even after Shah Nawaz saw the dead body outside, the better part of him was considerate enough to ask the servant if he had everything he needed; it was only a few seconds later that the baser part took over. And his face remained unreadable, as if he had briefly become an automaton.

Having watched Tamas again a few weeks ago, and only then read Sahni’s novel in the new English translation by Daisy Rockwell, I felt a tiny bit underwhelmed by the equivalent passage in the book. The scene in the movie has no expository dialogue or voice-over, the viewer is allowed to conjecture what could be going through Shah Nawaz’s mind. The book, though, elaborates: “All of a sudden he felt intensely furious. It was hard to say why: Maybe it was that glimpse of Milkhi’s pigtail […] or simply everything he’d seen and heard in the last three days – the poison of it all had been stewing inside him […] Shah Nawaz’s fury – which he himself was unable to fathom – grew and grew.”

Lest you think I am saying the film is “better”, one should note that Tamas was such a celebrated text that Nihalani may well have presumed prior knowledge in most of his viewers, and this in turn would have made it easier for him to depict episodes without underlining them. Besides, for every such scene, there are other instances of the film reaching for a neater dramatic arc than you will find in the deliberately loose, vignette-driven structure of Sahni’s novel.

For instance, the film closes with the cries of a newborn baby heard over a shot of an old and bereft Sikh couple, an image of past and future in the same frame, a testament to hope in the midst of darkness. It reminded me a little of the allegorical final scene of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The low-caste tanner Nathu and his wife (played by Om Puri and Deepa Sahi) also have an extended role in the film, serving as a thread that runs through the narrative, whereas in the book Nathu, a key figure in the initial chapters, simply fades from sight.

One of the motifs of Sahni’s story—you’ll find it in that Shah Nawaz passage among others—is the malleable relationship between the personal and the political: how common sense humanity can be lost, and occasionally regained, in high-stress situations involving big ideas like religion and caste, which people are taught to hold sacred. Tamas the book and Tamas the film both begin with a sweaty, macabre yet mildly funny scene: Nathu is trying hard to kill a large pig in a hut and this goes on to become the tinderbox for earth-shaking events (when unidentified mischief-mongers place the pig’s carcass outside a mosque, escalating hostilities between the two communities). When Nathu, trying to motivate himself for the slaying, mutters, “It’s either him or me,” it could be a microcosm for how people think in the heated emotion of a riot, when confronted with the ‘Other’ who was once a friend or neighbor.



What follows is a series of episodes chronicling the anatomy of this riot, as Rockwell puts it in her Introduction to her translation. Characters flit in and out of view: Congress workers, a British administrator and his bemused wife who doesn’t know how to tell a Hindu and Muslim apart, a reedy 15-year-old named Ranvir who is being brainwashed and recruited to the cause of a fundamentalist group that teaches youngsters to hate and to be prepared to kill.

The structure reminded me of Irene Némirovsky’s remarkable WWII novel Suite Francaise, which moves restlessly from one group of people to another as they try to make sense of the events that are overtaking them. In Tamas too, the things that stay with you are the achingly human moments: the proud old Harnam Singh bowing his head in shame when he hears his wife pleading with someone to open a door and give them shelter; Nathu’s wife initially refusing to accept the tainted money he has got for killing the pig, but then giving in, and sweeping obsessively “as if she was trying to sweep a shadow from the room”.

This elegiac story may be set in a very particular time, but it has resonances for our own age, when communal strife and the paranoia of identity can still cast a shadow over our better natures.

See Bhisham Sahni introduce the plot of Tamas in his own words

Learn more about Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell) and published by Penguin Books, available for INR 339 on Flipkart

Graphics: Sadhna Prasad 

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About the Author

Jai Arjun Singh

Jai Arjun Singh is a journalist, writer, cinephile and critic. He has written for a range of publications including Business Standard, The Hindu, Tehelka, Outlook Traveller, The Sunday Guardian, Yahoo! India and The Hindustan Times. His books on cinema include Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983, The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies do to Writers and The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Jai Arjun Singh writes a popular blog called Jabberwock.