BOOK REVIEW: TAMAS

AMAS’ by Bhisham Sahni [345 pages; Penguin Random House, India; 2016;
ISBN-978 0 143 44124 3]

By Yuvraj Trivedi 20 June 2020

“Kites shall hover, kites and vultures shall continue to hover for long like the receding tide of the sea, the tide of the riots had subsided, leaving behind all kinds of litter and junk and garbage.”

The above two quotes from the book summarise the before and after of the book. The writer sketches the darkness of partition through ‘Tamas’. It is not one story but multiple intertwined stories creating a sequence of events building the partition saga.

“Tamas” by Bhisham Sahni is a text dealing with India’s partition, yet it is not exactly about partition. ‘Tamas’ is an accurate, fearless, and gripping account of the divided and the uncertain times we Indians have gone through. He won the ‘Sahitya Academi’ for Tamas in 1975 and it was subsequently adapted into a National Award Winning film by Govind Nihalani. The novel is considered an outstanding contribution to Hindi Literature. It’s said ‘Tamas is a prophetic warning against the use of religion as a weapon to gain and perpetuate political power’ by Govind Nihalini.

The novel is based on Sahni’s first-hand experience, Tamas which means darkness and ignorance. The novel is translated not once but twice. The first translation was by Jai Ratan that was published in 1981 and second by Bhisham Sahni himself, who say serious problems with Ratan’s translation, and published in 2001. Ratan’s translation was marked by frequent omissions and inaccuracies. Sahni’s translation corrects these mistakes. Such rewrites have intrinsic value as literary work, especially for scholars hoping for more insight into the author’s attitude about the text. The Novel is considered one of the most powerful and passionate fictional account. It depicts the real victims of violence, which were helpless common people, irrespective of their religion.

 It gives a personalised view of the hair rising bloody legacy of partition. It estimated that at least half a million people were killed in riots and that at least ten million more were rendered homeless.

The frenzy of communal violence revealed itself in the most inhumane form. The British administration, political parties, and organisations like the RSS played their roles to evoke the religious and communal sentiments of the common mass. But only the poor people became the victims of the communal disharmony instigated by the leaders and the administration.

The novel starts with a scene where Nathu tries hard to kill a pig for which he gets five rupees. He is a poor man who deals with animal hides. He was told that the pig would be used for the surgical purpose, but later discovered that the same pig was thrown in front of a mosque to instigate violence in the Muslim community. The news of the dead pig spread like wildfire and within hours a cow is slaughtered and thrown in front of the temple in the same village. Such an incident puts a dense cloud over the whole district, making the environment chilling. He became upset and considered him the cause for the riots between Hindu and Muslim, which was claiming the lives of innocents on both sides.

Some leaders of the Muslim League also tried to materialize the religious sentiments of people and demanded a separate state for Muslims-‘Pakistan’. They blamed the Indian National Congress to be a Hindu party. In the midst of communal instability, people were becoming the victims of mob lynching. People were living under the shroud of timidity and fear. Many antisocial elements started taking undue advantages of the situation. Veil of darkness that spread over the village is enough a warning signal for the politicians and fundamentalists to hold meetings and form peace communities. But their attempts are soon turned futile as the situation blows out of proportion. Every villager becomes a crusader. And the riots start in full swing. What follows are some of the most heart wrenching true stories of estranged Sikh parents, alienated families, tales that lead to sorrow, despair almost intoxication fear and hatred.

People were battered to death, women’s and girls were being raped and shops and houses were looted. The British administration paid no attention to bring the adverse situation under control. Many houses were set ablaze in the grab of darkness. There was total anarchy everywhere, some good leaders tried their best to pacify the situation by persuading both the communities, but their effort was in vain.

The whole town was burning in the fire of hatred. The religious communities were preparing to avenge their loss. All ready to go for an armed assault against their religious adversaries. Common mass were the worst victims of the riots which were plotted by political leaders and hardcore extremist.

In the midst of the tragic event taking place every day people were trying to save their lives and property by fleeing to safer places, many were looted on the way by the buglers. The darkness of violence, hatred and dogmatism was prevailing everywhere. The religious establishments had become arsenals. The spark that was lit by throwing a dead pig in front of mosque had taken the form of a conflagration. Communal violence was at its peak and was claiming human lives in scores. The evil machine was on its move and nobody was able to stop it.

In one particularly ironic incident, a Sikh couple seeks refuge in a Muslim household. The womenfolk – unsure of the reaction of the absent men – hide them in a barn, from where the Sikh couple sees the men return. They have returned from the riots, with the spoils. And the heavy trunk they have collected is actually from the Sikh couple’s home. When they are trying to break the lock, the Sikh gentleman reveals himself and offers the key. Suddenly, the tables are turned and the head of the refuge-providing household is shamed by his deed. Shamed enough to let the Sikh couple leave unharmed. Though not enough to return the trunk.

The partition of the nation was inevitable and a new state was going to be formed. The cost of the riots was immense. It was taking the form of a ‘genocide’. To get rid of getting defile by the Muslim extremist who considered Hindus and Sikhs as ‘Kafirs’. Many Hindu and Sikh women committed suicide by plunging into wells. The women also took away the kids with them. Aftermath, relief camps were set up at many placed in Punjab where the injured were getting treated and the deceased were brought to be cremated. Refugees were given food and temporary shelters. The government also deployed officers to gather dates of loss of lives and property of the victims. In the refugee camp, Nathu’s wife discovered her husband’s dead body lying with other corpses.

As the riots subsided, peace marches were arranged by the leaders of various political parties who gathered together to appeal to the people for appeasement. The British Deputy Commissioner asked the leaders from all parties to help to bring peace and harmony in the society.

The leaders who once instigated the people of their communities to raise violence and go for arm conflicts were now asking people to restore peace and harmony.

In the novel Murad Ali, who asked ‘Nathu’ to kill the pig, now took great initiative to appeal for peace amongst the different religious communities. The leaders were once again together to show brotherhood. But, what about them whose houses were vandalized and ablazed. Nobody was there to compensate the mother who lost her son or whose daughter was raped and butchered to pieces. Even the most familiar and known ones had become brutal and barbaric. It was a man-made calamity, a ‘holocaust’. The Hindus and Sikhs were slaughtered to proportions beyond reckoning.

The big question was who and what created this atmosphere. These riots revealed that in this civilized world still we are so ignorant, so selfish, so racial that all our knowledge and education comes to a naught when we talk about religion. Even the dispute of Ram Mandir and Babri Masjid had kept the Hindus and the Muslims communities at the brink of conflict. Religions were founded by great souls and saints to make people follow the path of righteousness and to resolve what is good, but now the lives of the people are at stake in the name of religion. ‘Tamas’ is a lesson that ethnic violence can be brutal. People must understand that religion are set of principles and not doctrines to be spread with fire and fury. While talking about the divisiveness of communal politics Sahni writes through his character Richard “They fight against one another in the name of religion and they fight against us in the name of their country”. In present days, people all around the world are witnessing the monster of ‘Jihad’ of radical Islam and claiming thousands of lives of innocent people every year.

Structurally, it is a highly unusual work with no clear human protagonist. Readers who are not familiar with the novel will be confused as it slowly darns on them that the real protagonist of Tamas is not a person at all, but the riots itself. This riot is the result of careful planning. Not only does Tamas darkness fall due to concerted policy of Divide and Rule on the part of the British colonial administrators but politicians and religious leaders happily play their part in implementing the divisions.

When at last the riots die down two refugee camps are set up to handle the uprooted citizens of the frontier are reading about the life of riot is chilling and uncomfortable. As the violence subsides and the leaders of all major political groups in the city, board the peace bus. The bus is being driven by the very man who commissioned the killing of the pig in the opening scene and arranged for the carcass to be thrown in front of a mosque. One is transported completely in an era and feels like a character himself watching the events. Partition literature allows us to experience history first-hand. This man, Murad Ali, is a shadowy figure, a probable hirer for the urbane and soft-spoken British. District Magistrate, Richard. The novel is poignant and real. Full credit goes to the writer to justify the topic in best possible manner. As the British Deputy Commissioner says in a prophetic moment – “Most people have no knowledge of their history. They only live it.”

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