Italo Calvino once said that a classic is a book that never finished what it wanted to say. In other words, with every age, with every reader, a classic says something new and relevant. Bhisham Sahni’s works arguably fall into this category.
Although rooted in their time and space, they bring us into eras rarely explored in literature. His works reach out to us readers and talk about issues timeless and relevant.
Penguin Modern Classics has recently released new translations of 4 of Sahni’s books. The most famous of these, Tamas, is well-known already, and the Govind Nihalani TV series based on it is still fresh in viewers’ minds after over 2 decades. But the other 3 books — Mansion, Basanti, and Boyhood, are no less in their freshness and their proficiency. We will talk of these books today.
Mansion, the English title of Mayyadas ki Madhi, is a chronicle of a house — a mansion, in fact, and its role in the Punjabi town around it. The mansion was built when the land was ruled by the Khalsa empire, and we see its story as the British come and take over the country. We also see the story of Mayyadas, once the unwanted, illegitimate son of the mansion’s master, and how he winds up being the owner. But this is more than the story of one person and one house. The story goes now into flashback, now forward, now through the eyes of Mayyadas’s daughter-in-law, now through a village social leader.
These are merely lenses through which Sahni shows us a society in upheaval. Every once in a while, Sahni will stop and tell us about the administrative changes that the British brought into their territory. What was the impact of the Railways on the town? What happened when the British changed the accounting procedure at the bulk market? How did they redistribute the land to their own benefit? One of the themes of the novel is how every action of the British in India was meant for their own benefit, never mind that the traditional systems maintained prosperity of all. But relegating this book to a single theme would be doing it a disservice.
If Mansion is sprawling and untidy, Basanti and Boyhood are small and intimate stories, focusing on a single person and a nuclear family, respectively. This does not make them less ambitious in what they achieve.
Basanti is the story of a young girl who’s uprooted from her home in a slum in Delhi, and her subsequent adventures. She seems born with all the disadvantages that life can possibly hand out — an avaricious father, extreme poverty, all the problems of a women in a male-dominated society. One after the other, things keep going wrong for her. But she doesn’t quite bounce back from her problems as much as refuse to acknowledge them. A commentary on society’s treatment of the urban poor, as much as a character study, Basanti remains with you for a long time. It is somewhat frightening how relevant it is, even decades after it was written.
Boyhood (called Jharokhe in Hindi), chronicles the formative years of a young man in a nuclear family in small-town Punjab, from maybe 5-6 years old to early adulthood. Sahni here takes a subjective world view, focusing solely through the eyes of this young man on everything around him: his businessman-agent father, his traditional mother, his elder brother, 2 sisters, and Tulsi the servant boy. All of the nation’s problems are here, represented synecdochically in the narrator’s story: communal violence, eve-teasing, the caste system, the generation gap. Sahni has too light a touch for these issues to bog down the story, though. You’re left wondering whether this is Sahni’s own childhood (there are several parallels), the characterisation is so real. True to form, he refuses to end the book on a clear conclusion.
It is possible to find counterparts to each of these books in world literature: One Hundred Years of Solitude for Mansion, Mulkraj Anand’s work for Basanti, possibly Proust for Boyhood. Textbook examples of literature techniques are to be found here: alienation, multiple narratives, unreliable narrators. It is clear that Sahni was working not in a vacuum, but in a worldwide arena, influenced by works from everywhere. Even so, his works show a rootedness in India, and particularly in Punjab, that takes it to another level. This is not the stereotypical Punjab of makke ki roti and bhangra and Yashraj movies. It’s an ancient land that still remembers its old kings and the Sikh gurus, and laments all that it has lost over the centuries to the British and other invaders. These books are a kind of time capsule for the modern reader, to take him back there.
Sahni does even more than invoking that time and place: he makes it engrossing and interesting for the lay reader. Someone who has no interest in literary techniques or Hindi literature could read these books and still enjoy them as much. The plots move along smoothly, the characters are beautifully etched. Their dialogues stay in your mind. The little asides where Sahni talks of broader issues are just the right length.
A word about the translation: overall, these are impressive translations, and you can almost believe the books were originally in English. I have one minor quibble, though. Penguin has elected to not use Hindi/Punjabi words for the most part in the narration. The only place they appear is in dialogue. This has the subtle effect of sounding like a non-Hindi narrator telling a story of Hindi-speaking people. So, for example, in the narration: “A few pairs of footwear lay on top of it,” but then through the eyes of a character, “Whose joote are these?” Once again, Sahni’s storytelling is so powerful that it irons out these minor things, but it shows you how many such choices need to be made when editing any good translation project.
Bhisham Sahni; Penguin
2016, Rs 264, pp 352
Bhisham Sahni; Penguin
2016, Rs 198, pp 232
Bhisham Sahni; Penguin
2016, Rs 198, pp 240