Bhisham Sahni Was the Most Non Violent Man I’ve Known: Om Puri
Bhisham Sahni (8 August 1915 – 11 July 2003)
Bhisham Sahni (8 August 1915 – 11 July 2003)

Bhisham Sahni Was the Most Non Violent Man I’ve Known: Om Puri

Life goes on and on.
Its ends never meet.
Neither in the mundane world of realities, nor in fiction.
We drag on drearily in the hope that someday these ends may meet.
And sometimes we have the illusion that the ends have really joined.

The opening lines from Bhisham Sahni’s novel Pali still haunt us. No one has been able to express India’s greatest tragedy, the partition, with the kind of compassion that his literary genius effortlessly did. As we pay tribute to the eminent writer, playwright and actor on his 100th birth anniversary, we look back at his sensitive and realistic writings, that have given us as a nation, an opportunity to reflect back on our horrific past, and more importantly, to learn from it.

Bhisham Sahni, the legendary actor and writer (Photo: Twitter/<a href="https://twitter.com/BawaHS/status/614321244754866176">@BawaHS</a>)
Bhisham Sahni, the legendary actor and writer (Photo: Twitter/@BawaHS)

A young Sahni, had travelled all the way to Delhi from Rawalpindi, just to see Pandit Nehru unfurl the national flag in Independent India, with his own eyes. With great joy and with the intent to stay just for a few days, he set out. Sahni could never imagine that once he reached Delhi, he would never be able to return home. All roads to Pakistan either met dead ends or death itself.

Sahni’s greatest and most popular creation Tamas (published in 1974) was born from his personal experiences of the partition, having been involved with the relief work for refugees of the riots, that broke out in Rawalpindi in March 1947.

Govind Nihalani’s television series Tamas (1986), based on Sahni’s epic novel, dramatised the senseless communal politics of violence and hatred that the writer had witnessed in Rawalpindi, and its tragic aftermath.

Actor Om Puri played Nihalani’s protagonist Nathu, and knew the legendary writer closely.

Om Puri and Deepa Mehta in Govind Nihalani’s TV film <i>Tamas</i>
Om Puri and Deepa Mehta in Govind Nihalani’s TV film Tamas

We all know that Sahni saab was an eminent writer who was always sensitive, real and non controversial. Some of the incidents described in his novel (Tamas) were such horrific stories of the partition that they couldn’t be included in the televised version, they could have made things volatile. It was hard to imagine how he must’ve lived, experienced these events.
– Om Puri, Actor

They met only a few times during the filming of Tamas, in which Sahni also played the character of a good Sikh man Karmo, who helps Nathu’s family from the danger lurking around. But Om Puri recalls Sahni’s gentle ways and evolved thinking.

He was the most soft spoken, most non violent man I’ve ever known. There were two things he never did- raise his voice and make small talk. He was secular in his beliefs and he played out his characters with great conviction, so very brilliantly! Some of my favourite scenes in Tamas, are the ones with him.
– Om Puri, Actor

Iftekhar, Bhisham Sahni and Dina Pathak in a scene from <i>Tamas</i>
Iftekhar, Bhisham Sahni and Dina Pathak in a scene from Tamas

In an introduction to Tamas, Sahni clarified that the purpose of his writings and Nihalani’s film was not to scrape old wounds. Neither was it meant to unnecessarily revive the baggage of the partition. The sole purpose of telling the painful story was to remind us that even decades after winning independence, divisive forces continue to nibble away at our secular and united fabric. His intention as a writer and a patriot was to depict how these forces continue to break us internally. He thought it was important for us all to understand their violent strategies, in order to save our society from another partition. Watch this inspiring video here.

Sahni’s novel won the 1975 Sahitya Akademi Award for literature. Two of his masterpiece stories, Pali and Amritsar Aa Gaya Hai, are also based on the partition. Even today, more than 60 years after the violent divide, Sahni’s films and novels are as relatable as ever.

Bhisham Sahni’s high-spirits and compassion for the life of the common man, took him through the villages and towns of Punjab with the IPTA theatre group in the 1950s. His brother and noted actor Balraj Sahni was already an active member of the theatre group back then. Later he took to teaching Literature at Amritsar’s Khalsa College in order to earn a living. Sahni also lived in the USSR for seven years till 1963 as a Hindi translator.

This reservoir of experience that he collected ultimately filtered down into his literary narrative, without which, the world of Hindi prose would have been immensely deprived.

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