The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 16, 2000

"A writer lives in the present but dreams
of future"

Bhisham Sahni: ‘Hindi literature is very close to reality’

THOUGH Bhisham Sahni’s more popular work is Tamas’, the author’s personal favourites Mayadass ki maarhi set during the Sikh rule in the 19th century Punjab (not a historical novel though) spanning a near millennium which has recently been translated in English by the writer himself is his most cherished work.

The writer who has given a new direction to Hindi literature who can delve into the deep recess of human psyche with exact precision wrote his first short story when he was in class ten. To date he has written seven novels innumerable short stories and several plays. In city beautiful, recuperating from personal grief — he lost his wife who wasn’t a mere life partner but a soulmate and his best critic — close encounter with him rids one of Tamas hangover. Antithesis to the blood curdling images he word paints in Tamas the author in person is incredibly soft spoken, genteel, modest (to a fault).

  Of course his observations are as compelling as his writing. In the autumn of his life he refuses to stoke the embers of controversy. So no pompous sweeping statements or acerbic comments spew forth. Why the author doesn’t even wax eloquent about his soon to be published novel Neelu, Neelima, Nilofer? A quintessential writer he allows only his pen to do the lashing.

Nonika Singh met him for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

Being a professor of English you chose to write in Hindi. Do you see any contradiction?

I think we Indians who live and breathe in an atmosphere of many languages are multilingual by nature. When I was young I learnt Hindi and Sanskrit at home. Urdu was the medium of instruction and English was a compulsory language. It is difficult to say in which language we talk to ourselves, nevertheless, I believe that a writer should write in a language he is least self-conscious about. I felt most comfortable in Hindi.

Going by the astronomical price tags affixed with writers writing in English were you ever tempted to write in English?

No, after a while one gets accustomed to one’s cultural and linguistic milieu. I must admit that in monetary terms a wide chasm exists between those writing in English and the ones connected with Hindi sahitya. Even otherwise they live in two different worlds.

What do you think of Indian writers writing in English?

I haven’t read enough to pass a judgement. Most of the writers writing in English have lived or are living abroad i.e. in an English-speaking ambience which I guess is a big plus. Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth amongst other do use the language very adroitly.

Are you happy with the present scenario in Hindi literature?

Hindi literature is very close to reality and mirrors the live wire issues be it concerning peasantry, middle class or urban sections of society. In a way they are more rooted and possess the benefit of treasure trove of idioms, proverbs, rich folk wisdom and traditions. For instance, the writing of Phanshivarnath Renu was liberally smattered with local dialect. Prem Chand used the idiom of peasantry. At the moment we have some very sensitive writers but the tragedy is that unlike writers in English literature or even regional languages these writers are not being projected by the media. The gnawing communication gap between the reader and the author is not being bridged resulting in a false impression that nothing worth reading is being penned. In the Hindi galaxy it is said that it takes at least 10 years for the work to be noticed leave alone appreciated.

Do you disagree with critics who feel that what is being published is either too banal or too highbrow?

There are one or two writers who are not easily understood. Personally I profess that writing must be able to communicate. But I am not against experimentation or innovation. I remember reading a Japanese story The Speaking Quilt in which the author has introduced a surreal element not to mar the harshness of truth but only to heighten it. Truth of life need not be portrayed with the help of realistic tools.

In your short story Diyvaswyapan you wrote that writers bring the readers close to reality but live in a world of dreams. True or not?

Most certainly. Imagination is the most powerful weapon in a writer’s arsenal. Each author dips his pen into the well of fantasy. Some writers can create out of sheer imagination. But as a rule something about life strikes you. In my novel Mayadass ki maarhi I recreate a village which I have never visited. Still the characters have an air of authenticity. If the writing is outright obtuse it will be rejected. But if imagination is tempered with realism to expose the naked truth it will outlive the barrier of time.

Do you follow a different set of parameters for writing novels, short stories and plays?

Smiles I try to. Not that I always succeed. Action is more predominant in a play. As a matter of factI took to play writing rather late in life, sometime in seventies. My first play Haanush, based on a Czech story of how a king orders the amputation of an artist who gifts the city a world class monument, however, was received rather well.

Partition occurs time and again in your works. Besides Tamas your story Aur Amritsar Aa Gaya too hovers around those harrowing times. Were you personally affected by the Radcliffe Line?

Not in the physical sense. But I was a mute spectator to the mayhem of those times. Moreover, I was working in a camp and assigned the job of reporting the events to a local newspaper. Thus I was privy to the plight of distraught refugees.

Do you believe activism and writing go together?

This depends and varies from person to person. I worked with PWA (Progressive Writers Association) in the capacity of general secretary for a long time. But the demands made on me both in ideological and organisational terms were not too heavy. Still I guess writers are not born to be leaders. That is why they take to writing.

Do you submit to the contention that success is debilitating in the sense that it takes you away from reality?

In India, a writer isn’t such a celebrity that he loses touch with what is happening around him.

As the younger brother of celebrated actor Balraj Sahni did you have to live under his shadow since he was a popular actor?

I began to idolise Balraj when I was very young for he was always bristling with new ideas and initiative. Plus he was very handsome, fair, healthy whereas I was a frail sickly child. He would often tease me with a refrain — you were picked up from a garbage can. Jokes apart, it was a relationship marked with intimacy, warmth and affection. I followed him for he had seen the world two years longer than me, not because he was famous.

Even you had a dalliance with world of histrionics. Did you enjoy your involvement with IPTA?

It was the most stimulating, throbbing experience of my life. IPTA was a product of turbulent times when patriotic fervour was at its pinnacle. Plus communal tension was brewing.It was a platform forged by like-minded individuals to cement the national fabric.

How are your leftist leanings placed in a world swept by winds of liberalisation and globalisation?

Leftist writers, or for that matter any genre of writers merely expose the contradictions within society. The values they espouse are equality and justice which are universal tenets and not dated concepts which will be rendered redundant by the collapse of Soviet Union. A writer lives in the present but dreams of the future and is spurred on by the realisation that only change can redress inequity.

Are you implying that a writer more than anyone else is conscious of the dynamism of his times?

Sure. A writer is not a relic bound to obscurantist mores. If I have to struggle against dark forces of society, I can’t seek inspiration from Manusmriti.

How do you look at future?

(Laughs) At my age there is no future. I can only quote — I have a brilliant future behind me.

Well no one dare dispute that.