September 27, 2020
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Extracts: Inventing Boundaries

Objectifying Troubling Memories

An interview with Bhisham Sahni -- on partition, the Hindu-Muslim communal divide, Tamas and those turbulent days of the partition ...

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Objectifying Troubling Memories
Gopinath S.
Objectifying Troubling Memories
Inventing Boundaries: Gender Politics and the Partition of India

Edited By Mushirul Hasan
Oxford University Press Rs 595; 393 pages

Bhisham Sahni: While writing there are certain experiences which come out immediately, which strike you even though while you were living through those experiences they may not have struck you as very significant or very important. But somehow, later on, while you are writing they hit the eye -- they sort of come back to your mind. And you use them in your writing. But if while writing one puts down the pen and sits down and tries to recollect and tries to remember, many other details crop up. So you have to somehow dig them up with the help of memory. But while writing you don't do it. You are preoccupied with what you want to say and you are using your experiences, so, many things are left out: many things, which might have been significant though of a minor nature. But, because after writing the novel I do remember some things I used to recollect which had relevance, which had significance. Which later on I thought I might have used, but then ...

Alok Bhalla: Do you remember some of them now?

BS: (Laughs.) Yes, I would, if I were to sit down again ...

AB: One thing that struck me while I was reading Tames was that -- and we'll get back to Tamas later -- was that when writers like Intizar Husain or Qurratulain Hyder wrote novels about the partition they seem to begin with their childhood. Somehow they seem to look back to their past -- particularly the past which is concerned with their childhood -- nostalgically. And there are some things which they remember with such fondness, that it sometimes seems as if it is those things which have made them, given them their identities. Let me give you an example. When Intizar Husain writes, he writes about parrots, imli trees, etc. These are the kind of details that are repeated again and again. Or stories which he has heard from village elders -- both Muslims and Hindus. There was a sense of community. I was talking to Qurratulain Hyder the other day. The thing she remembered very distinctly about Lucknow and which really seemed to have defined Lucknow for her was 'malai was made out of dew'. But in Tamas that kind of nostalgia is absent. Tamas seems to begin at the point of crisis.

BS: Yes.

AB You were born in Rawalpindi. Do you remember your childhood days? What were the relationships between Hindus and Muslims like in Rawalpindi in those days?

BS: I'll tell you.... Although I was writing about the events that took place in 1947, here and there, I used certain background scenes which I had noticed during my childhood. For example, I was about ten or eleven years old when the first communal riot took place in Rawalpindi.

AB: That was in 1926. You mention it in Tamas.

BS: Yes. In 1926. And that was the time when I saw half the sky lit up with flames. The grain market had been set on fire. The flames rose high. I had never experienced that kind of thing earlier. We were standing on the roof of our house. I saw the fire. I was fascinated by it. Not that I was terribly frightened by it. (Laughs.) I had never seen such a glow. When I looked down -- below the horizon -- I saw the flames rising. I was also scared. But as far as the sky and the glow were concerned they were also very attractive. I made use of my memory of that fire. Because in 1947, when the riots broke out, the entire grain market was not set on fire to the same extent. It was a minor detail in the novel....

You are right. Qurratulain Hyder might have been writing about the Lucknow of her childhood days and perhaps contrasting life at that time with the communal tensions later. She might have had that purpose in mind. But I had no such purpose in mind.

I wrote the novel because when I went to Bhiwandi I suddenly remembered the Rawalpindi riots. I happened to see the. riots there. Some of the things I saw at Bhiwandi were so similar to what I had experienced at Rawalpindi, that I started writing. And then one thing suggested another ... I myself figure in my novel in scenes where I describe the activities of the Congress. I participated in prabhat pheries, etc.

AB: Did you actually participate in them?

BS: Yes. Yes. As a matter of fact when the first stone-throwing took place I was there ... I mention that in my novel ... You know the Congress' tameeri programme used to take us to certain localities to clean gutters. I used to go along with any comrades, the Congress people. We also used to visit predominantly Muslim areas. And we were very warmly welcomed there.

AB: I see ...

BS: Yes, very warmly welcomed.

AB: What year was it?

BS: Just on the eve of partition.

AB: And you were still welcomed?

BS: Yes. Yes. The riots had not yet broken out. But then ... while we were cleaning and sweeping, the persons who had welcomed us earlier came and told us to go away.

AB: That is described in the novel.

BS: Yes. Tension had begun to develop. People threw stones at us. We left the place. We had to choose certain lanes that were predominantly Hindu lanes so that we were not attacked (Laughs) ...

AB: But you had Muslim comrades with you. Did they walk with you through Hindu lanes?

BS: As a matter of fact, it was a Muslim who had invited us to clean up the lanes in the area. I don't know if he was a CID man working inside the Congress (Laughs). His name was Sher Khan. So ... part of the novel is autobiographical. But the centre of it is not about my own experiences. It is concerned with more general experiences.

AB: Yes. But what was your world prior to 1946-7 like? Prior even to1926? What I am really asking about is your childhood in Rawalpindi. Your father had his own business there. Did you ever feel before 1926 -- which was a turning-point, when the first major conflagration took place -- that people were beginning to define themselves as Hindus and Muslims? That there were tensions that existed between them and that these tensions were really irreconcilable?

BS: It's like this. We were living in a predominantly Muslim area. My father was a commission agent by profession, a businessman. Most of his clients were Muslim. He used to take orders from a French manufacturer of gold thread, lace, gotta and sari which he used to sell in Baluchistan, Kotla, Peshawar and to a certain extent in Kashmir and Kabul. That was the market. My father lived for twenty years in Peshawar and he had developed this agency there. When he moved to Rawalpindi his clients -- mostly Muslim Pathan merchants -- used to come and place orders with him. He used to be very cordial with them. But they never dined at our place.

AB: Was that common to most Hindu-Muslim relationships?

BS: Yes. If they did dine at our place -- or had tea or something -- my mother used to scrub the utensils with pieces of burning coal.

AB: That happened in my grandfather's house too.

BS: Further, my grandfather was an Arya Samaji. Very active, very staunch. Now, we had Muslim friends but they never came to our house. Only one friend of mine -- when I was studying in Intermediate -- he was so close to me that he used to come inside the house. But normally the Muslims did not come in. We had Muslim friends but we were also discouraged from playing with them.

AB: By your parents?

BS: Yes.

AB: What about the parents of your Muslim friends?

BS: I don't know. You see, we were middle-class people. Those boys were lower-middle-class children. Mostly children of tonga-drivers, etc. The locality was like that. But the children were playful and nice. Children don't discriminate. We were, however, discouraged from mixing with them. We were sent to an Arya Samaji school. And there was a certain bias against the Muslims.

AB: Were there any Muslim children in the school?

BS: Yes, there were, but only a sprinkling. An Arya Samaj school didn't normally admit them. But, there were a few and some of them were very bright boys. Still, although we were not very conscious of the differences between us, a certain amount of reservation, a certain distance was there ... was there, yes.

AB: You don't have memories like Intizar Husain does of a communally shared childhood. You don't remember that Hindu and Muslim children had or shared common myths and rituals. Such a sense of a shared life doesn't form a part of your childhood, does it?

BS: It does, but not in remote childhood. Later on, yes -- very closely, in fact -- Altaf Hussain, for instance, was a very dear friend of mine -- we used to go out almost every day. I played with him. I attended his marriage. I also had many close Muslim friends when I went to Lahore to study. I was fond of playing hockey. And the hockey teams consisted predominantly of Muslim players. We were very close to them. I lived in the hostel. And in the hostel everything was commonly shared.

AB: I still want you to tell me more about your life in Rawalpindi before you moved to Lahore. I don't know much about Rawalpindi. My parents used to talk about Rawalpindi and places like Lyallpur. My question is as follows: Would you, like Intizar Husain or Qurratulain Hyder or any number of other writers who have written about the partition, be able to locate your childhood in Rawalpindi as a place where there was a reasonably harmonious society; a society which could function; a society which, despite the reservations you have described, didn't seem to suggest that the tensions or distances between the Hindus and Muslims would ever become so antagonistic that they would at some time lead, not only to complete separatism, but also, to carnage. Do you think about your past in Rawalpindi nostalgically?

BS: Now that I look back, yes. Naturally. I do think that there was a kind of coexistence among the communities. My parents and the parents of my Muslim friends did see themselves as very distinct entities. The dos and don'ts inside homes were such that they made you conscious of the differences. But, as children, we were hardly concerned with these differences.

AB: But were the people of your parents' generation antagonistic?

BS: Not antagonistic.... But, you see, the Arya Samaj was terribly anti-Muslim.

AB: That's right. Of course. It was one of their major planks.

BS: And my father used to very often recite verses which were anti-Muslim. For example, I'll tell you there's one that I still remember....It's a couplet:

Pehley ghor papiye aaye phir Musalman the

Now this kind of attitude was there. During the congregations or the annual functions of the Arya Samaj, lecturers often came from outside and there was a clear bias against the Muslims in their lectures. They were quite outspoken about it.

AB: You are talking about the period up to 1925?

BS: Yes. But I still believe this was a development during the first fifteen or twenty years of the twentieth century. I don't think that Indian society was a society of communal tensions earlier. Because the quality of relationships which Qurratulain Hyder or Intizar Husain mention was a reality. The kind of tensions we witnessed at Rawalpindi were very different from the earlier historical prejudices, whether among Muslim rulers or amongst Rajput rulers. Of course, there were spurts of violence... but there were also very powerful movements in the medieval times to influence our outlook and our relationships, particularly in areas like the Punjab. Tensions between communities were aberrations.

AB: Was the Arya Samaj, the new communal consciousness, also an aberration?

BS: Yes. It was not a permanent feature either of our social life or of our culture. That's what I think. You know in your essay on Manto, you have brought this out. You link the 1919 incidents with 1947, and say that Manto was so disillusioned that he thought blood thirstiness was in our blood. He was happy in Bombay and had very cordial relationships with the Hindus. If you read his stories, more than half his characters are Hindus. Then he went to live in a place where there were no Hindus. And what he had always regarded as an aberration, became a permanent aspect of our society after partition. That made him very unhappy. And then, perhaps, in a moment of dejection, he came to the conclusion that we are a bloodthirsty People. And that it was, therefore, logical that we should have killed each other.

AB: Yes. You are right. I don't disagree at all.

BS: That is how I read Manto. You see it depends upon the ruler. If Aurangzeb wanted to create tensions, he succeeded in creating them. Akbar wanted a more liberal kind of atmosphere to prevail. In feudal times, it had a lot to do with the ruler. In our times, the authorities, the British government, wanted to create tensions.

AB: Now that you have brought up the subject of the British....When I talked to Intizar Husain, he constructed history of a composite culture prior to the 1890s, just as you do. In fact, everybody would probably locate the beginning of communal tensions around the 1890s.We know that the first communal riots took place in that decade.

BS: Yes.

AB: Then there was a lull for a long time. Of course, there were tensions again, but there were also ways in which they were negotiated, till the major riots began around 1926.

BS: Quite right.

AB: And from then on things began to go quite out of hand.

BS: Quite right.

AB: If you look back ... or when Intizar Husain looks back -- he is also engaged in the reconstruction of the history of this culture -- he does not worry too much about the kings, but talks about kind of popular, subterranean, secret lives that people used to lead, of which the great examples would be Nizamuddin Aulia on the one hand and Kabir on the other. That is how he would construct his popular history of India before partition. How would you construct a history of communal relationships?

BS: In the same way!

AB: In the same way?

BS: Yes. I think that in the medieval times, there was a very powerful upsurge of liberal thought. In the fourteenth century particularly, we became a centre of learning and culture. The Sufis came from Persia. India became a powerful centre. It is very interesting that the Bhakti movement was also flourishing at more or less the same time. And there was a confluence of the two. There is no doubt that a new perspective was emerging. It was very conducive to harmonious life and fellow-feeling. This went on for two, three or four centuries and must have left its impact. So that at the level of small towns, people had learnt to live side by side, despite their different faiths. There was also the consciousness that most people who had become Muslims were really Hindus to begin with. In places like ..., the entire community of weavers got converted. But then if people belonging to one religion convert to another religion there is bound to be interaction, bound to be give and take. A kind of life ... social life begins to develop. This happened here also. Therefore, certain things were just taken for granted. Differences in faith were taken for granted. Customs, ways of life, eating habits and so on were taken for granted. And, helped in the process of accommodating one another. There was cordiality between people of different faiths. It was inevitable because the kind of laws that operated in villages were not discriminatory at the religious level even in the Muslim period. Therefore, there was no reason why people should not have learnt to live as good neighbours. So I think communal antagonism was a development that took place in the British period. The British were very convinced of the differences between the Hindu and the Muslim as their own numerical strength was small. They had come and they had established their empire through all sorts of means. Making use of people within a family and so on was a part of their game. And they succeeded. Afterwards they wanted to stabilize themselves and one of the methods they used was to support one community at one time and the other community at another time. They were not very interested in the culture of the country. So I believe they were responsible for the tensions that developed. The pity of it is that we have not learnt from our experience. We are still carrying on from where they left off ....


AB: Let's assume that what you are saying is right. That the British were responsible for the communal division of the country. Yet that doesn't explain entirely the rise ... even in your own family ... of the Arya Samaj prejudice against the Muslims. How would you explain the rise of Muslim consciousness? We know historically that the Muslim League was formed first and the Hindu Mahasabha a little later. Contrary to what we now sometimes feel. That is the case. But what are the economic reasons for the rise of the Muslim consciousness?

BS: I have had the occasion to read the fiction written in the closing years of the last century. When people like Bankimchandra were writing a new kind of awareness, a new kind of consciousness had developed. There was a trend of glorifying the past in our writing. Glamorizing our past and our culture.

AB: But only selectively.

BS: Yes. Side by side they began to say that India was great in the past, but began to decline when she came into contact with an inferior culture. However, a new awareness began to develop at the beginning of the twentieth century. Along with the glorification of the Hindu past, of Aryavarta and so on, there was also a reformist trend amongst the Hindus. Later, under the influence of the British a broader consciousness also developed .... it is a complex thing ... the influence of the British was very much appreciated. Their institutions, their progress, even their love of justice, and so on. Many, many things. The British had an impact. Anyway, while the Muslims were blamed by some of our writers for the degradation or the disintegration of our culture, there were other writers who wrote, in the same period, about the degradation of Hindu institutions. They were, for example, critical of what was happening in holy places of pilgrimage.

AB: Was there a similar change in the consciousness of the Muslims during the same period? Didn't the Muslims try to define themselves as distinct from the Hindus? Didn't they also reconstruct their history?

BS: Yes, quite right. But their relationship with the Hindus was different from the relationship of the British with the people they governed. The British kept themselves aloof from Indian social life. There was, however, a close interaction between the Hindus and the Muslims.

AB: Perhaps we could now move on to your days in Lahore. You joined Government College, Lahore, in 1936. As a student there, did you ever feel that there was a sense of separation between Muslim and Hindu students?

BS: So far as the student community was concerned, there was no consciousness of discrimination between the Hindus and the Muslims. My teachers were Hindu and Muslim; my classmates were Hindu and Muslim. On the playing-fields we were always together. Further, the college had certain norms of behaviour which were always observed. Even if there was any discrimination by the authorities, they never made it apparent.

The college authorities did not permit the Congress party to promote its agitational programme in the college. I remember that when I was in the sixth year of college, a boy in the first year, who came to college wearing a Gandhi cap, was expelled within an hour. The principal of the college was an Englishman. The same could not be said of DAV College, which was a stone's throw away from the Government College. Remember that Bhagat Singh was at DAV College. It was his base. Anyway, the atmosphere within Government College was apolitical. Who were the students who went to Government College? They were the sons of Muslim zamindars. The sons of Hindu bureaucrats. And the sons of the middle classes who had done well in their studies. Most of them were generally not interested in politics. If there was a sense of separation between them, it was a result of external events. Something like a Communal Award had just been passed. That affected the Hindu students, especially those who were planning to sit for the civil service examinations. The general impression was that whereas a Muslim boy could walk into any office and get a job, a Hindu boy could not.

AB: Was there a lot of opposition in the student community to the Communal Award?

BS: Resentment, yes. Particularly amongst the Hindus. Otherwise, there was no discrimination.

AB: Was there resentment at the popular level against the Communal Award?

BS: Inside the college there was no politics. Students were not supposed to discuss politics. That was the established norm. Students were there to study, to take part in debates, go to the playing-fields, etc. Let me narrate an event. I took part in a debating competition. I did not know much about politics then. The principal of the college was H.L.O. Garret, a historian. The subject to be debated was 'Dictatorship versus Democracy'. I spoke against dictatorship. I didn't know much about the subject. A friend of mine who was in the sixth year wrote my speech. I crammed it and delivered it. My friend had equated Hitler with Stalin The principal liked the speech immensely (laughs). At a theoretical level, one could discuss politics at college. But students were not allowed to participate in political life.

AB: This was also the period when the influence of the Muslim League was on the rise. What were your responses to it?

BS: It is difficult to say. I had met a man who had done a lot of killing.

AB: You had?

BS: Oh yes.

AB: From what class was he?

BS: He was the son of a carpenter.

AB: In Tamas, Murad All is certainty not a poor man. And I can't imagine Nathu as a character capable of killing a man. He can kill a pig as part of his profession. But not a man.

BS: Quite right.

AB: During the partition then, violence was not confined to a class.

BS: Not at all.

AB: If violence was neither class-inspired nor the product of any particular religion, then what was responsible for it? I can understand your statement that violence could have been the result of personal pathologies. Thus, in Tamas, Shah Nawaz may at a certain moment of rage and disgust kill a deformed servant. And a boy like Ranbir may kill because he sees aggression as a proof of his manhood. He also may kill because, inspired by religious fanaticism, he may want to establish a place for himself within a violent sect. What puzzles me, however, is that in a highly civilized society -- from what you describe and others have described -- that up to 1947 no one could have imagined that such a holocaust could have occurred. Of course, there could always have been violence in some small areas of society, as is always possible in almost any society. Yet, in India 1947 represents a civilizational break. In 1947, every assumption we had about ourselves as a people and a culture -- about the restraints and the mutualities which governed our daily behaviour -- suddenly collapsed. Why did that happen? Incidentally, the same thing happened over the same period of time in a highly civilized society like Germany. What is puzzling about Germany, as it is about India, is that the collapse into barbarism takes place during a time when the intellectual discourse is about how to make a rational society even less vulnerable to violent collapse. (Consider that a book like The Philosophy of Enlightenment by Ernst Cassierer is published in 1940.) Yet there is an undercurrent of barbarism in Germany of a kind that human societies had never experienced before. How do you explain this kind of barbarism?

BS: I think barbarism is not a permanent feature of human conduct. It depends on a combination of circumstances which somehow incite man's baser instincts. Under certain circumstances men lose all sense of decency and proportion and indulge in butchery. After some time, the barbaric impulses slowly subside and give way to reason. Men begin to repent their actions. It is often said that the oriental people are excitable and bloodthirsty. Yet, Hitler's Europe undermines that assertion. I have seen the places where he had built gas chambers for the killing of civilians. How does one account for that? How did Hitler convince his followers that the Jews were the enemy and had to be exterminated? Yet, the German people are highly civilized. I, therefore, don't think that barbarism is a permanent feature of human behaviour. Human beings are incited to act like beasts. There are a number of circumstances which provoke people to kill. After all, as you know, marauders came from Central Asia to India and butchered lakhs of people in three days. That killing must also have been motivated. I am sure, however, that men are not naturally bestial.

AB: But conditions of war are different from what happened during the partition. In Tamas, for instance, there is a brilliant scene in which you describe how one of Ranbir's followers kills a man. The boy walks down a street beside an old Muslim who deals in perfumes. Their conversation is nerve-racking. The street is empty because of the fear of a riot. The conversation is a fine example of what one understands civilized behaviour to be all about. The Muslim peddler tells the boy that he should go home because the times are bad and that his parents would be worried -- indeed all the things that make for human societies and relationships. Yet, the boy himself seems to be living in a world of murderous fantasies. The boy's action is clearly pathological. He is not fighting a war.

BS: Yes, you are right. The boy, however, is excited. He doesn't know what he is doing and why he is doing it. He thinks he is performing a deed which is heroic and patriotic. He is, however, very confused.

AB: Would you say that in l947 the rhetoric of non-violence had lost its power?

BS: I did not try to analyse the causes of partition in Tamas. I was only interested in describing the incidents I had seen and heard about. I was also trying to record what people thought and felt at that time. If you, however, want to know my own opinions about what happened and why, I still may not be able to tell you. All I can say is that as a humanist and a writer I cherish certain values and modes of behaviour. I deplore the killing that took place. It was shameful that a large population should have indulged in so much violence.

AB: You had earlier said that people often repent their actions. You have probably seen the recent reports about some German leaders who have gone to Israel and made statements of regret. Why is that Indian and Pakistani leaders haven't made similar apologies for what happened in 1947? Why have we as a people not asked each other for forgiveness for our past actions? Don't you think that such an act would help us find our way out of the present politics of anger and revenge?

BS: People in power have a vested interest in holding on to that power. But ordinary citizens of India and Pakistan have spoken up.

AB Why has a similar kind of thing not happened at the political level?

BS: It will, if there is sufficient pressure from below. Only then will the politicians begin to think. Already there is some talk of forming a confederation between India and Pakistan. There is a demand to stop the kind of confrontational politics we have been indulging in. Thirty years ago no one would have spoken about such a confederation. Now people are willing to ask for it. There are, of course, fewer such voices in Pakistan. But they are present. In Pakistan these voices, for a variety of internal reasons, are muted.

AB: Why did you write Tarnas so many years after partition?

BS: It was not a calculated decision. It never is. Many years later when I saw the Bombay riots, I was reminded of my days in Pakistan. That compelled me to think about my old experiences. I also felt that the conditions which had caused the riots in 1947 were still present. The partition of the country should have put an end to the riots, but it hadn't. I started writing. When I began I had no well-thought-out objective in mind. Perhaps I merely wanted to recollect my past.

AB: What I had in mind is something else. When I read accounts of similar experiences, what I am struck by is the fact that these are recalled in order to exorcise them. Writers try to overcome their troubling memories by objectifying them and giving them a shape.

BS: That is true at a personal level, perhaps. But I had no mental conflict or discord. I had lived in the midst of Muslims. Maybe if I had lived in a place where I was isolated from them, I would have developed some hostility towards them. But I had lived with them both in India and Pakistan. Indeed, I had the opportunity of working with some very remarkable Muslim friends in the Progressive Writers' Movement. Sajjid Zaheer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, for example. Moreover, the Urdu writers were in the vanguard of the Progressive movement. I had a great regard for them. They were very impressive people. Faiz Ahmad Faiz in particular. Both as a man and as a writer. I was not influenced by communal propaganda.

AB: Did you know that Faiz was one of the few people in Pakistan who flew into Delhi to attend Gandhi's funeral? That speaks for a very different kind of sensibility from what caused the partition.

BS: Yes. Faiz once told me that during one of his visits to Delhi, he had received a message from Nehru at 1 a.m. requesting him to visit him. When he met Nehru, who was a great admirer of his work, Faiz told Nehru that he was a leader who had the authority to bring about change.

Among the intellectuals there are very few Muslims or Hindus who are bigoted. This has to do both with our tradition and our education. We do have a liberal outlook. This is certainly so in our personal behaviour and attitudes. I am convinced that India is a multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-racial society. It is important to maintain its liberal character. If that is upset we are in for trouble. This is true of the intellectuals also. Of course, there are some on both sides who are fanatics.

AB: Is this true at the non-intellectual level also?

BS: Yes. In our cultural life we do rub shoulders with people from all religions and different states. There is no communal attitude, for instance, in our films or plays. Ayodhya was an aberration. After all people did protest against it and reject it.

AB: That's a good point to make. In your novel the only character who speaks unambiguously in favour of a united people is the General. He is a lunatic. Did you know such a person in Rawalpindi?

BS: Yes. I knew the man. I loved him. Although he was regarded as a nitwit, he was a very dear person. As a matter of fact when Tamas was made into a film I received a letter from Patna informing me that the man was alive. The letter was resentful, because in the film it was shown that he had been killed. The man had lived through the riots and had finally settled down in Ambala.

AB: The figure of the lunatic is a person of real goodness not only in your novel but also in Manto's 'Toba Tek Singh' and in Krishna Baldev Vaid's novel Guzara Hua Zamana. But let me end the interview by asserting that lunacy is not our only hope. (Laughter.) Thanks.

Interview conducted on 18 June 1996

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