Witnessing history, writing a new literary story (Book Review)

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Title: Today’s Pasts – A Memoir; Author: Bhisham Sahni (translated by Snehal Shingavi); Publisher: Penguin India; Pages: 451; Price: Rs.499

He is usually remembered as the author of a disturbing account of the Partition and the violent displacement it engendered, stirring up long-buried, unsettling memories for many north Indians when its cinematic adaption was telecast, or the younger brother of an accomplished Bollywood actor. But Bhisham Sahni was not only a gifted Indian writer but, in his own way, exemplified an idea of India at its most inclusive and tolerant – and empathetic.

Sahni (1915-2003) had a long, eventful life, spanning three decades in undivided Punjab in British India, over five decades in independent India, a long stint in a de-Stalinising Soviet Union, trips to several Asian and African countries and left a vivid record of all this in his posthumously-published memoirs “Aaj ke Ateet” (2004).

The chief characteristics of his life were its itinerant and often “contradictory” nature, well reflected in his autobiography (right from its title), which begins with a valuable view of patterns of life irredeemably lost – in pre-1947 western Punjab, especially in Rawalpindi (where his family members were neighbours to my mother’s family and frequent visitors) and a sweeping overview of free India’s cultural politics and debates.

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But in Hindi, the autobiography never had the impact and circulation it deserved, till an assistant professor of English in a Texas university took a hand in expanding its reach by translating it into English. But Snehal Shingavi confesses it was not easy – for though “one of the most important pieces of intellectual and cultural history we have of twentieth-century India, written by one of the most significant personalities of twentieth century Hindi theatre and fiction”, it was a most unlikely autobiography, and “contradictory” too.

As Shingavi notes in his introduction, which he felt “awkward” writing, the account “traces the experiences of not only Bhisham Sahni but of an entire generation that lived through the movement for India’s freedom, the horrors that came with the Partition of the subcontinent, the challenges faced by a newly independent nation, the growth and development of Indian film and stage, the literary milieus of Hindi literature, the cultural efforts of the Non-Aligned Movement, globally, and the headiness of the world brought on by the advent of modernity”.

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On the other hand, “it is a contradictory book, partly because it does double: firstly, as the autobiography of one of the most prolific figures of twentieth-century Hindi literature (Sahni wrote dozens of short stories, seven novels and several plays) and secondly, as a cultural history of immense historical transformation”, and thus having to both document some of the most important changes that India has undergone as well as narrating experiences of these changes.

The problem arises since the expectation that the author “would take the centrestage and be the hero of this story” is belied since Sahni is willing to “share the light with almost everyone else”.

Hence a veritable galaxy of personages can be found in these pages – especially his elder brother Balraj, Mahatma Gandhi at his most caring, Jawaharlal Nehru displaying both his celebrated anger and his aristocratic politeness, Rabindranath Tagore, Chetan Anand, P.C. Joshi, Prem Dhawan, Kaifi Azmi, Mohan Rakesh, Nirmal Verma, and Namvar Singh, but also sundry tonga drivers, students and teachers, shopkeepers (encountered when Sahni tried to carry on the family business), CID men, Arya Samajis, Congressmen, Muslim Leaguers and more.

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One omission is Munshi Premchand, whom he, as a callow youth, skipped meeting despite the entreaties of his brother-in-law – and always regretted!

Then there are Sahni’s activities in the Congress, as a teachers’ trade unionist, in the Indian People’s Theatre Association, the Progressive Writers Association, the Nayi Kahani movement, the Afro-Asiatic Writers Association, of acting in “Tamas” and some other films.

There are gaps too – of his jailing in “Quit India”, the controversy over “Tamas”, and the founding of SAHMAT – but on the whole, it is a most engrossing account, combining historical and cultural memoirs and literary criticism, and thus required reading for anyone interested in either subject.

Now, if someone would reprint his “Balraj, My Brother” and the elder Sahni’s autobiography!

(13.01.2016 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

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