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Today’s Pasts book review: A Million Little Pieces

In this rambling autobiography, Bhisham Sahni is at once engagingly self-deprecatory and evasive about giving out family secrets

Written by Harish Trivedi |
February 27, 2016 12:36:00 pm
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For a large part of his life, Bhisham Sahni (1915-2003) was deeply influenced and overly dominated by his elder brother Balraj Sahni, the film actor. As Bhisham recounts in this gently self-deprecating autobiography, when he published his second novel Kadiyan (Chains) in 1970 and a niece complained that some of the characters seemed to bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to certain members of the family, Balraj came thundering up from Bombay to Delhi and gave Bhisham such a dressing down that Bhisham began to cry. He was then 55 years old.

Balraj died prematurely at the age of 59 in 1973. Sahni published his vivid and scrupulously even-handed novel on Partition, Tamas, in 1974, and had wide fame and popularity thrust on him when Govind Nihalani made a powerful TV mini-serial based on it in 1988. Sahni wrote six other novels including his own favourite, Maiyadas ki Mari (The Mansion in English translation), a historical saga set in his native Punjab. He also wrote over a hundred short stories, about half a dozen of which are highly acclaimed in Hindi and, late in life, several purposive plays.

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Bhisham Sahni’s signature style consists of quickly bringing to life a wide range of meek and mild characters who are more sinned against than sinning, suffer stoically the little ironies of fate, and are treated by the author with deep humanism and compassion. We have an old mother who her ambitious son is socially embarrassed by, but who proves to be an unsuspected asset to his career; an innocent Chinese Buddhist pilgrim in India helplessly caught up in the patriotic swirl of the 1962 war; and a man whose new scooter is stolen but then restored to him by the police, except that for years afterwards, he must present himself in court in a case that drags on and on. Meanwhile, his scooter has stopped running and at the end of the story, the accused, driving by in a posh car (possibly stolen) to court, cheerfully offers this poor little man a lift.

Such quiescent low-key fiction hardly matches up with Sahni’s own political trajectory. He grew up in an Arya Samaj household (and that’s where the archaically Sanskritic tamas comes from, as in the Upanishadic prayer tamaso ma jyotirgamaya), and as a good nationalist, he went to jail during Gandhi’s Quit India movement in 1942. But when Balraj in Bombay became an activist of IPTA and a member of the Communist Party, Sahni too went and did just the same.

In due course, his revolutionary fervour took him to Moscow where he worked as a translator from Russian into Hindi from 1956 to 1963. Khrushchev had already come to power, Stalin was exposed and deposed from his divine pedestal, and Sahni watched the Soviet system, warts and all, at close range. But, as with numerous other radicals, mere facts could not dent his ideological convictions. Back in Delhi, he once threatened to throw a close friend and valued fellow writer, Nirmal Verma, out of his car in the middle of the road because Verma (himself a Communist who had similarly lived as a translator for some years in Czechoslovakia and witnessed the Prague Spring of 1968) had said something which apparently deviated from the party line.

This genially engaging but rambling autobiography suffers from a general absence of dates and details, and firmly censors out some scandalous episodes small (like the one involving Verma narrated above) or big, which may possibly sully the public image of either Bhisham or Balraj — but which can be found candidly narrated even in an ideologically adulatory book such as Bhishma Sahni (in Hindi; Vani Prakashan, 2016) by an old comrade, Shyam Kashyap. But then, unlike biographers, autobiographers are perhaps not obliged to tell the whole truth, unless they are Gandhi.

The translation contains numerous amusing errors of various kinds. Snehal Shingavi, who teaches English at the University of Texas at Austin, can produce resoundingly unidiomatic phrases: it was “pitch black” in Moscow, Bhisham grew “sad from the inside” and when Balraj died, “his absence could never be replaced.” At other places, Shingavi simply gets it wrong, as when he writes “my wrong” for my fault, “eagles” for kites (cheel), and “flat hat” for felt hat. Worse, he seems like an innocent abroad in the world of Hindi literature when, in his apparently wiki-researched footnotes, he misidentifies Ram Kumar the painter with Ram Kumar Verma, poet and playwright, and Bharat Bhushan Agrawal, poet, novelist and humorist, with Bharat Bhushan, the film actor of Baiju Bawra fame. The publishers don’t seem to know any better either.

Today’s Pasts
Author: Bhisham Sahni, translated by Snehal Shingavi
Publishers: Penguin Books
Pages: 434
Price: Rs 499


Harish Trivedi taught English at the University of Delhi

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