Tuesday, March 29, 2016

An unfathomable fury: on Bhisham Sahni's (and Govind Nihalani's) Tamas

[Did a version of this piece for Flipkart Stories]

In one of the quietest but most effective scenes in Govind Nihalani’s 1988 telefilm Tamas – adapted from Bhisham Sahni’s Partition novel about the breakdown of communal relations as a riot gathers force – a Muslim man named Shah Nawaz, having helped his Hindu friend Raghunath’s family leave their violence-ridden street, returns to the house to retrieve some jewellery for Raghunath’s wife. In the house is a slow-witted servant. Shah Nawaz speaks kindly to him, but then a view from a window – a corpse lying in a mosque’s courtyard nearby – stokes a fire within him; he lashes out and kicks the innocent servant as he is going down the stairs.

The scene is both startling and revealing of human complexities. Even after Shah Nawaz saw the dead body outside, the better part of him was considerate enough to ask the servant if he had everything he needed; it was only a few seconds later that the baser part took over. And his face remained unreadable, as if he had briefly become an automaton.

Having watched Tamas again a few weeks ago, and only then read Sahni’s novel – in the new English translation by Daisy Rockwell – I felt a tiny bit underwhelmed by the equivalent passage in the book. The scene in the movie has no expository dialogue or voiceover, the viewer is allowed to conjecture what could be going through Shah Nawaz’s mind. The book, though, elaborates: “All of a sudden he felt intensely furious. It was hard to say why: Maybe it was that glimpse of Milkhi’s pigtail […] or simply everything he’d seen and heard in the last three days – the poison of it all had been stewing inside him […] Shah Nawaz’s fury – which he himself was unable to fathom – grew and grew.”

Lest you think I am saying the film is “better”, one should note that Tamas was such a celebrated text that Nihalani may well have presumed prior knowledge in most of his viewers – and this in turn would have made it easier for him to depict episodes without underlining them. Besides, for every such scene, there are other instances of the film reaching for a neater dramatic arc than you will find in the deliberately loose, vignette-driven structure of Sahni’s novel. For instance, the film closes with the cries of a newborn baby heard over a shot of an old and bereft Sikh couple, an image of past and future in the same frame, a testament to hope in the midst of darkness; it reminded me a little of the allegorical final scene of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The low-caste tanner Nathu and his wife (played by Om Puri and Deepa Sahi) also have an extended role in the film, serving as a thread that runs through the narrative, whereas in the book Nathu – a key figure in the initial chapters – simply fades from sight.

One of the motifs of Sahni’s story – you’ll find it in that Shah Nawaz passage among others – is the malleable relationship between the personal and the political; how commonsense humanity can be lost, and occasionally regained, in high-stress situations involving big ideas like religion and caste, which people are taught to hold sacred. Tamas the book and Tamas the film both begin with a sweaty, macabre yet mildly funny scene – Nathu is trying hard to kill a large pig in a hut – that goes on to become the
tinderbox for earth-shaking events (unidentified mischief-mongers place the pig’s carcass outside a mosque, escalating hostilities between Muslims and Hindus). When Nathu, trying to motivate himself for the slaying, mutters “It’s either him or me”, it could be a foreshadowing of how people think in the heated emotion of a riot, when confronted with the Other who was once a friend or neighbour.

What follows is a series of episodes chronicling the anatomy of this riot, as Rockwell puts it in her Introduction. Characters flit in and out of view: Congress workers, a British administrator and his bemused wife who doesn’t know how to tell a Hindu and Muslim apart, a reedy 15-year-old named Ranvir who is being brainwashed and recruited to the cause of a fundamentalist group that teaches youngsters to hate, to be prepared to kill, and to be jingoistic about a glorious past. ("It was from Master Dev Vrat's mouth that he heard that everything had already been written in the Vedas, such as how to build an aircraft and how to construct a bomb. He also learnt about the potency of yogic power."

The structure reminded me of Irene Némirovsky’s remarkable WWII novel Suite Francaise, which moves restlessly from one group of people to another as they try to make sense of the events that are overtaking them. In Tamas too, the things that stay with you are the achingly human moments: the proud old Harnam Singh bowing his head in shame when he hears his wife pleading with someone to open a door and give them shelter; Nathu’s wife initially refusing to accept the tainted money he has got for killing the pig, but then giving in, and sweeping obsessively “as if she was trying to sweep a shadow from the room”. This elegiac story may be set in a very particular time, but it has resonances for our own age, when men may be slaughtered for the nature of the meat found in their kitchens, and communal strife and paranoia about identity can still cast a shadow over our better natures.

1 comment:

  1. I have been thinking about these questions too, of late, and literary attempts to capture life in such dystopian times although the fictional creation I have been repeatedly drawn to is 1984, a book I am now trying to read. My specific motivations are a bit different from yours: being in Canada, I am trying to make sense to the farce playing out in the States in the name of democracy as virtual demagogues with the ego and mindset of 5 year old schoolyard bullies are contesting for a chance to administer the States and the world. Can you imagine such people influencing international conflicts like Iraq, Syria, etc, and problems like the environment and human trafficking? I don't know what type of a fallible human is upto the task of addressing such challenges with finesse with an eye on greater good of the majority, instead of the greater, insatiable greed of a few. But it cannot be these men, surely! I cannot even imagine how we came to such a point, and I am not sure where we are headed, but I do shudder now to envision a time when the freedom (such as it is) that I enjoy to be a person of whims, interests and proclivities, might be forced to be nothing more than an embodiment of a political ideology of some demagogue with a fetish for someone like Gaddafi or Hitler. I imagine the Partition was one such time, as was WWI and WWII. But from what it looks like, at least you folks are further away from such a reality than us in North America. Who would have thought that possible? Nice read, btw!