Bhisham Sahni (1915-2003) was a novelist renowned particularly for his Partition novel Tamas, which was also televised in India. He was born in Rawalpindi in 1915 into a prosperous Hindu family and travelled to Delhi by train just a couple of days before independence. The events he witnessed particularly in the West Punjabi village of Thoha Khalsa informed Tamas. I spoke to Mr Sahni at his home on East Patel Nagar, Delhi, on 9 September 1996. A transcript is posted below.
BHISHAM SAHNI: transcript
I was born in Rawalpindi on 8th August 1915. My childhood was spent there. Then I went to Lahore for my graduation, and I passed my M.A. in 1937 from Govt College, Lahore and came back to Rawalpindi and lived there until the partition of the country. [From ] a Hindu family.
During the 40s, late 40s I think, the slogan of Pakistan had begun to be raised very widely, and when the assembly elections took place in the Punjab where a Unionist party formed the government, then the slogan of Pakistan was very much in the air tension also had started mounting. I was working in the Congress, and I went to help one of the Congress candidates in the campaign – he was a Muslim standing for a labour seat. And the constituency happened to be a big one. And there I found that since he was a Muslim candidate put up by Congress, the Muslims were boycotting, were very critical. They would be considerate towards me, but they would be very harsh to the candidate because he happened to be a Muslim. So at that time, the Hindu-Muslim tension had already started developing. And there had been riots – in Caluctta, in Bombay – they were on the eve of the Partition, but of course earlier also there used to be riots.
In the month of March , the decision regarding the Partition had not yet taken place, but (3’00) tensions had increased very much, the atmosphere was charged with communal tensions. And Master Tara Singh had made certain statements which further inflamed – So in the month of March a riot broke out in Rawalpindi. The town itself was not so much affected as the countryside. A very, very large number of villages were affected. There was burning and looting – and then the exodus of Hindus and Sikhs from the rural areas to the town of Rawalpindi where a refugee camp had been set up. That was in March. Then it subsided, and I think it was after it had subsided that the declaration of the formation of Pakistan was made. Then a different sort of exodus started – people moving out of Rawalpindi going to Delhi and to other places.
There was a lot of tension inside the town, and burnings also, but not much killing – except in some of the outskirts of the town. In the countryside, there was a lot of killing and burning and looting – because after the riots I had a chance to go to the countryside. The health officer, who happened to be a neighbour of mine, had been asked by the deputy commissioner to go to a particular village called Thoa Khalsa where a large number of women had jumped into the well to put some disinfectant, because the bodies had bloated up, come to the surface. (5’30) And I went along with him, then I had a … to see the villages as we passed through the villages. Many villages had been burnt down and there was a lot of looting, exodus also.
It was a Sikh town – a place called Thoa Khalsa not far from Rawalpindi.. It was a very nice town built on the slope of a hill. At the bottom of the hill there was a stream, and across the stream there was an orchard. And the Sikhs who accompanied showed us not only the village – which at that time was deserted – but also the wells and bathing places that they had newly constructed for the townspeople and for their womenfolk. These I happened to see. And then the well where of course, the bloated bodies were there. It was a gruesome spectacle, because people would say – people at my side would say, that’s my wife, that’s my sister and so on. Little children entangled in their legs.
In every village, the population of Sikhs and Hindus was small. They were predominantly Muslim areas. And over the years a certain relationship of good neighbourliness had developed. But invariably it was marauders who had come from another village, from outside, who threatened the security of these Hindus and Sikhs. And so as far as possible, the local Muslims helped – very largely they were helpful, or they would ask them to leave immediately. In this particular case, marauders were threatening to come from outside and meanwhile some sort of negotiations had started between the Hindus and Sikhs on the one side and the Muslims on the other, but they had broken down. And so the marauders came, and women thought that they were not safe and they jumped into the well. Skirmishes took place of course, some fighting. Very often it was a misunderstanding. Some times a group of marauderss would be seen in the direction of the village, but in coming to the village they would go to another direction – and in one particular instance, I know that a group of Hindus and Sikhs hiding in the jungle, they saw in the distance that marauders were coming, they though that they were coming to attack them, they killed their own women and children, but then soon after they found that the marauders had gone into another direction. (10’00) When ‘Tamas’ was being shot in Bombay, on the sets I happened to be sitting, and one member of the cast told me this story.
[deaths in TK] I don’t know the exact number but vaguely I think it was around 40, 45. When we went to that town, it was deserted. Most of them had left the village and gone to the town, to Rawalpindi. But when we came to visit this town, some of the relatives of the women, and some of the residents, accompanied us – we came in a bus, and they were with us. That is how one of the fellows asked me to get the bracelet from a woman’s hand – pointing to one of the bodies and saying: “that is my wife, I got here this bracelet, please help me get this, it’s a gold bracelet and I’m penniless at this time and I need money”. He happened to have come with us.
After some time, after a very gruesome event has taken place, people begin to recover from the shock. Such things were happening all around. People who accompanied us, I remember, it looked very ironical to me – they were cracking jokes also. But when they got to the village and they saw the dead bodies, they burst out crying.
[the bracelet] We were standing by the weel. The women who had jumoed into the well, their bodies had come up, bloated. One of the Sikhs, young boy, standing by my side, said to me: “look at that dead body, that is my wife’s dead body, and you see the bracelet on her wrist, it is a gold bracelet, I got it for her, now I want it back. I want this bracelet to be given to me because I have no resources and I am knocking about on thw town. This is my property – I got it for her.” Since I was working in the Congress, he thought I could help (13’30) hi. I said it’s not possible, the bodies are bloated, nobody is going to help you take the bracelet off a dead body”. And he quarrelles with me, he shouted at me: “you must help me, it is after all with my money that I boughyt her this bracelet”. That was how it was.
HOW LONG AFTER THE KILLINGS WAS THIS?
About a fortnight – not longer.
DID HE GET THE BRACELET?
No, no. Not that I know.
A person at that time was living in a sort of dazed state of mind. There was a lot of uncertainty around us. What was the shape of things to come? Will there be a partition of the country? I had no intention of leaving my home town, even after the Partition had been declared, nor had my father. My father used to say the partition can place, but that does not mean that the population should leave – and he continued to say, though I thought he was a worldly-wise person, till the month of November. And I also left Rawalpindin on the eve of Partition, on the 13th of August. I came to Delhi to see the independence day celebrations, that was my primary desire. I did not think in terms of running away or migrating.I came here telling my father I would be back in a week’s time. But then when the train stooped at Aligarh, it was early morning, we learnt that the movement of trains had stopped and there were no more trains going to India – to Rawalpindi, I got anxious and worried, I sent a teleghram to my father, he did not receive that telegram, I did not know what to do. (16’35) on the streets of Delhi. My brother happened to be in Bombay, and eventually I went there. We had some anxious times – the family was divided. My mother, my wife, my little child, they were in Srinagar – my father was left in Rawalpindi – and there was exodus with people coming.
AND YOU REALLY DID GET THE LAST TRAIN –
Yes, it was the last train. That was how it was.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN BACK TO RAWALPINDI?
No, no. I had some friends there, Muslim friends, and I wanted to meet them – we were corresponding also. One of them was very dear to me – he died two years ago. He invited me on his son’s marriage. But the notice was very short, and I could not get a visa even if I tried. But some time after my daughter went to Pakistan. She went to Rawalpindi, my home town, and I asked her to meet my friend, and he was very happy to meet her. But when my daughter wanted to take his photograph, he did not allow her – he said: “I do not want your father to see me as an old man”.
WHEN YOU GOT TO RAWALPINDI STATION, I PRESUME YOU GOT THE TRAIN FROM RAWALPINDI?
WHAT WAS THE ATMOSPHERE LIKE?
There was no crowd at the railway station. There were many trains leaving. I left the Frontier Mail. And it was a fast moving train and therefore only those passengers would sit in that train who had to go to Lahore or straight to Delhi. The train started at Peshawar and went right up to Bombay.
I do not remember a big crowd at the railway station, but I remember this – on that big journey, on the way, wherever the train would stop, I would sometimes see a burning city in the distance and a deserted platform. (20’20) There were very few people around. I think the panic still was there, since there were many towns still burning and lots of refugees on their way, because any refugees walked, they didn’t get on to trains. Partly because they had luggage to bring. But I did not see long caravans of refugees except at one place. And since I had come earlier, by 13th August, the main rush came afterwards.
WHAT WAS THE MOOD AMONG THOSE TRAVELLING? WAS IT A MIXED GROUP ON THE TRAIN, YOUR FELLOW PASSENGERS/
It’s a very strange phenomena. In the short story that I wrote, there were Pathanms sitting on the upper birth. They came from Peshawar. And from their green clothes I could understand that they were close to the Muslim League. But among us there was that babu with whom there was a dialogue, lively dialogue, it was quite friendly, there was no tension. But whenever anything would happen – say an explosion outside, or firing outside, then the tension inside would increase, and people would feel apprehensive about one another, that the Pathan sitting may do something, may attack. As I wrote ion the story also, when the train arrived at Amritsar, the Pathans got scared. Waerlier the Hindus were scared. But otherwise there was a certain – there was no animosity the passengers, no antagonism among the passengers. They knew that they had to undertake a journey together, and even otherwise I think, my feeling is that it is only when passiona re inflamed by external things that people get into a frenzy. Otherwise people live at a particular level interacting and rather peacefully. It is only when there is some provocation, instigation, that people lose thie heads and antagonisms become sharp. (24’00)
IN THAT SHORT STORY, YOU RECOUNT HOW A PATHAN MAN KICKED A HINDU WOMAN –
That happened. It was at Lala Musa if I remember correctly, a junction. And a thickset man entered the compartment not from the main door but from the side door, from the railway line side. Came in, opened the door, and shouted to his family people standing below to come up, and started lugging in luggage. His wife was there and she had started helping him with all sorts of boxes and later on with pots, pots which had been detached and tied up, and when the wife came up and a young daughter came up, and they kept standing on one side near the latrine. The Pathan lost his temper when he saw that pots had been brought in – that made him angry, then he started shouting asking them to get down, and then it was that he hit out, kicked, and I think it was either the wife or the daughter, one of the two got hurt here and she fell down and the luggage was thrown out. The train had started moving, half the luggage was left behind, then the man got nervous and he pushed out, threw out the luggage inside, the train was moving not very fast at that time.
THEY WERE A HINDU FAMILY?
DO YOU THINK THEY SURVIVED?
You can never tell. You can never tell. But they were at the railway station – I don’t think there was much killing at railway stations. They might have survived. But of course going back to their town was for them out of the question. It was a disturbing kind of occurrence.
DID YOU GET TO THE INDEPENDENCE DAY CELEBRATIONS - ?
Yes, yes, I was here. I was in Delhi. And it was a strange kind of atmosphere in Delhi also – in certain parts of Delhi rioting had taken place, Daryganj and other places. What happened been very disturbing for me was the sight at Lahore before I came to Delhi. The train had stopped there for four hours and Lahore was a town where I had studied – and Lahore was burning, certain parts of it. That was a very disturbing sight for me.
In Delhi well, the preparations were afoot. And I very much wanted to go to the Red Fort where the national flag was to be furled by the Prime Minister. I went there. Then I also went to the Parliament House, did a lot of trudging in those days, where Lord Mountbatten bade farewell, and Nehru stood on the balcony – they waved, a very symbolical farewell. That I saw. It was very interesting. (29’00). People carried paper flags all over the town. There was a sense of jubilation, but at the same time there was this communal trouble.
Although freedom had come, a sense of disillusionment – not as sharp as perhaps Faiz’s – had started creeping in. Because things were not settling down. Of course it was a bit too early to judge the performance of the new government, but a sense of disappointment was there. Homeless people in millions were there, although I must say that the government of India did not do a bad job settling down the refugees. It took a long time, but eventually – particularly people who had come from the north-west, I can’t say the same about the Bangladesh refugees, there refugee camps continued for a long time. But here the refugee camps were dismantled very soon. People were helped in settling down.
DID YOU SEE REFUGEE CAMPS FOR THE INCOMERS?
Yes. I saw one in Rawalpindi soon after the riots. I worked there also for a few days. But I came to a place called Ambala, and near Ambala, about five miles from Ambala, thre was a refugee camp, and I had a very strange experience – I wanted to go and see it, I got on to a cycle, I was cycling down when I saw a large number of people with pitchers and buckets in their hands coming from the direction of the refugee camp. They were in search of water. Ambala was very aried, the water supply was very limited. And they were in search of a well from which they could get water. I got down from the camp and I asked them and I started walking along with some of them, and I found that the dialect in which they spoke was my dialect – and it was touching to hear your own dialect. But I did not visit the camp inside. (33’45)
CAN YOU TELL ME HOW YOU CAME TO WRITE ‘TAMAS’?
I had come to visit Bhivendi with my brother and some other cinema people – my brother was in the films. Since I had been working with the Congress at the time the riots broke out, I recalled those days, my own experiences, some of the scene in that book are taken from, you might sya, my diary – I did not keep any diary, but in a manner of saying. One character in that book, the Sikh wo we called ? Darnal, was killed. In reality he was not killed – but in my novel he was killed. He was taken from life – kind of a nitwit, but terribly dedicated and truthful. So many of the characters were taken from life. Many of the incidents described also were from my own experiences or the experiences of some of my friends. So largely it is of course fictitious, for example the killing of the pig and putting outside the mosque – this is fiction. Things like that used to happen in those days, even in my home town it had happened – but not on that occasion, earlier some time.
The amount of destruction done in that town [Bhivendi - ? in 1970s] was terrible. It was a weavers town. They had their looms. I saw those looms burnt up. Electric looms also. Then people had fled, they were oput in some schoos. Then their hosues burnt. What I had seen in Rawalpindi, I was seeing it again in Bivdeni. That was a disturbing thing. I largely attribute iot to that visit, because soon after I sat down to write this book.
WHEN DID YOU VISIT BHIVENDI? WHEN WERE THE RIOTS THERE.
Early 70s if I am not mistaken. In Maharashtra, not far from Bombay. There had been riots twice or thrice in that place.
The book was published in 1974. In 1975 I got the Sahitya academy award for it. That much notice was taken. Although Hindi is an important language, it is a regional language also. (38’00) And books do not get the same publicity which books in English do. It was when the television film got made that it got the attention, then it was translated also. The controversy centred round my approach to this question,. The Hindu organisations thought that I was blaming the Hindus, that they were responsible for starting the riots there, because the first killing, the first murder that takes place, is at the hands of a Hindu boy of an old man, Muslim old man. This was nonsense, because in the first place, after the third episode the controversy had begun to subside because people understood that my intention was not to throw blame on one community or the other. I just wanted to present the predicament, the situation. I was not a votary of communalism, I did not believe in communalism, I just wanted to show the human side – there was no question of taking sides.
What is depressing is that the problem continues. It has not been solved. And it has become even more complex. And I believe communal parties have gained in strength – made use of this communal divide and gained more popularity. It has become complex because the relations with Pakistan are not normal, the Kashmir question is still there, and the terrorists have been receiving direct assistance. That is the negative side. But I believe that our people, by and large, they have wanted to live in peace, and they have been living in peace. Of course political interests sometime exploit religious difference, and there is sometimes incitement and trouble. But generally a certain adjustment is always there. People living in small towns are not flying eat each others throats all the time. And now I have come to believe that by and large our people do not want the communal question to become prominent. (47’15)
DO YOU THINK PARTITION WAS A MISTAKE?
I think so. It was a big mistake, big mistake because it has not solved anything. Even people in Pakistan are not very happy. I believe if the Partition had not taken place, things would have been better on the whole. Some kind of working relationship would have developed. Of course even if the communal problem had continued in some form, maybe it would not have taken that form that it did with Partition. (49’20)
During the riots there were a few communists, a pocket of communists, one of them happened to be my friend also. I saw what they were doing in those days. I was working in the Congress, the Congress office was very close to the Communist party office, so I had occasion to see. The few persons that there were, hardly five or six people, they tried very had to prevent a flare up as much as they could. They were instrumental in getting the Hindu leaders and the Muslim leaders together so that some understanding could be – They sent their men to hot spots where tension was very high to see that there was no trouble. One of them went to the villages also. So they played a laudable role. Otherwise they were not effective – they did not play any decisive role – but their intentions were good.
[re Communst depiction in ‘Train to Pakistan’]
I have not read ‘Train to Pakistan’ – I am not in a position to comment on it. [nor read ‘Ice Candy Man’, tho had reead ‘Joot Sach’] I have written in all six or seven short stories [about Partition] I wonder if you have read ‘Pali’ [about a child left behind at Partition]. I have tried to satirise the religious dogmatism.
IN CREATIVE TERMS, WOULD YOU SAY THAT PARTITION HAS BEEN THE DEFINIGN ASPECT OF YOUR PROFESSIONAL LIFE/?
No, I can’t say. I had a certain obsession for some time, but that is not all that I have written about. I have only written one novel and a few short stories about Partition – otherwise I have written six novels, and a large number of plays also, and short stories. So that has not been my chief pre-occupation, but of course it disturbs me still.
We look upon it was a mistake, but my children do not look at it as right or wrong. They take it for granted – as an established fact.
My education took place through the medium of Urdu. It is a very fine lnagauge. I wish Urdu had been one of our important languages. It has been sidelined.