I have reached the last few pages of Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas.
The book is, as the synopsis on its last page says, “One of the most thought-provoking and powerful novels written about the Partition”.
I love this book. It brings out details so clearly that you can almost visualise the communal terror that grips the towns and villages.
The story starts off when a labourer is tricked into killing a pig and the pig’s carcass is thrown at the entrance of a mosque.
That was the trigger needed to spark off one of the worst communal riots that were seen during the time of the partition.
Hindus and Muslims, who earlier engaged with each other in trade and bonhomie, start hating each other to the extent of wanting to wipe out entire communities.
The story is based on a true incident that Bhisham Sahni was an eyewitness to.
The characters and events are described so intricately that you can almost feel the helplessness of the victims and can’t help but shed a tear for those who died; especially an old blind Muslim who is killed just because he was walking alongside and explaining the importance of fragrances to a young Hindu boy.
The Muslim League, the Congress party and the RSS are portrayed very well and each of these parties had their own issues that they wanted to be addressed before sitting down for negotiation.
The riots erupt, the Muslim League screams for an independent Pakistan where the Muslims would be safe.
It ridicules the Congress and calls it a party of the Hindus.
The Congress, even then, was a flag-bearer of secularism and refused to accept that it was a party of the Hindus.
The RSS continued to ridicule both the Congress and the Muslim League.
Out of all the parties, the one that stood out was the Communist Party which based its ideologies on those of Marx.
This was the only party that thought logically and sought the co-operation of all parties in curbing the riots.
They did a lot of work in the by lanes of the village to ensure that the riots do not spread and went around explaining to everyone that the British were behind all this and that we should not be fighting with each other.
I developed a new sense of respect for this party which I have been ridiculing ever since I understood (partially) contemporary India’s political stage.
Few snapshots from the book that stand out in my mind:
Dev Datt, a communist, explaining that we, the middle class, are the ones who will get most affected by the riots. The labourers are too busy earning their daily wages to bother about religion. The upper class is safe in their havens and are educated enough to know the aims of the British government.
Ranvir, a member of the Youth Wing of the RSS, killing a hen and by doing so, passing the test and getting initiated into the party of the “warriors” who then go about killing innocents.
The act of killing the hen instills so much of bravado and pride within Ranvir that he starts believing in “Killing is easy”.
Harnam Singh and his wife Banto, the only Sikh couple in the village, escape to the nearest town and seek refuge in a Muslim household.
The old Muslim lady opens the door and lets them in.
The Sikh couple are grateful.
When the Muslim lady offers them a cup of buttermilk, Banto hesitates and thinks to herself – “How can we drink from a cup of a Muslim?”
A thought like that occurs to her even though the old Muslim lady has given them shelter!
The Muslim lady guesses this and asks them if they have a utensil of their own.
At this, Harnam Singh and Banto both break into tears.
The conversations between Liza, the wife of the deputy commissioner and her husband Richard.
Liza asks Richard as to how he was able to know whether a person was a Hindu or a Muslim.
Richard explains to her the names of Hindus and Muslims and Liza fails miserably at identifying the religion of the servants in her British outhouse. This served to drive home the point that both Hindus and Muslims were same in all aspects except their religious beliefs.
The indifference of the British government – claiming that they did not want to interfere with the religious affairs of the citizens.
About Bhisham Sahni, he was the brother of Balraj Sahni – the cycle-rickshaw puller in Do Bheegha Zamin.
I doubt we will ever have an actor with the calibre of Balraj Sahni.
Bhisham Sahni had recently acted in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer. He was the old man in the bus who is singled out and killed by the fundamentalists.
Tamas was made into a TV film by Govind Nihalani. Its cast included Om Puri, Deepa Sahi, Saeed Jaffrey, Deena Pathak and Bhisham Sahni himself.
The book, in addition to the emotions that it powerfully conveys, gives one an insight into the power of religion, both negative and positive.