Chilling, Depressing, Riveting.
(Liza)‘Will they fight one another? In London you used to tell me that they were fighting against you’
(Richard) ’They are fighting both against us and against one another’
‘You are again joking, Richard. Aren’t you?’
‘In the name of religion they fight one another; in the name of freedom they fight against us.’
‘Don’t try to be too clever, Richard. I also know a thing or two. In the name of freedom they fight against you, but in the name of religion you make them fight one another. Isn’t that right?’
A few days ago I and my friend were having a discussion about our independence struggle. Actually the talk began with Nathuram Godse and his book ‘Why I killed Gandhi’ – one reason that Godse gives is that though our freedom struggle was very peaceful, the riots during partition killed millions of both Hindus and Muslims; and that if so many were to die, one could have killed British instead. We digressed on the thread of partition riots and how they have been explained in novels. It was then that my friend suggested me to read ‘Tamas’ (I had seen the televised series when I was young, but didn’t remember it much) if I wanted to know how horrifying partition riots was. In a week I had the book and finished it in 2 days – yes, I had to agree with my friend. Tamas is a novel which shakes you, depresses you, and literally makes you see the horror of the riots of partition. I was left completely numb after the experience.
Tamas (Tamas = Darkness) is a novel written by Bhisham Sahni recounting true events of riots of partition in 1947. All the events in the book have occurred during 1947 riots in Pakistan, to which the author was himself the witness. Sahni uses a fictional thread to develop a story so that he could relive the riots. Tamas begins with a Muslim hotshot giving Nathu (principal character) to kill a pig under the pretext of giving it to a researcher. Nathu, a poor man, accepts it and kills it. Under the morning dawn, someone takes the pig as instructed from Nathu. A little while later the pig carcass is found on a mosque’s steps. The town which is already in tension erupts at once. Enraged Muslims retaliate by killing a cow. All hell breaks loose and scores of Hindus and Sikhs are massacred by Muslims. Hindus and Sikhs in turn massacre scores of Muslims. Tamas relives the four days of violence through the eyes of different characters in the book and the horrifying experiences of people.
Tamas tells the story of several families and characters. Bhisham Sahni didn’t even change the real names of many characters in the book to maintain the realism. Tamas tells the story of a good Hindu, a good Muslim, a good Sikh, a bad Sikh, a bad Muslim, a bad Hindu and worse than all British. There are some incredibly chilling sequences in the book and to imagine them happening in reality simply sent a chill down my spine. The part where a young kid kills an old man is as chilling as the sequence where many Sikh women throw themselves into a well to save themselves from Rioters. The sequences after the riots are equally chilling where many characters relate their stories to the relief camp managers. The well where the women threw themselves still remains in Pakistan.
Tamas also explores the horrible politics of those times. At one end there was a freedom struggle, yet at another was the ongoing process to get tickets to elections, get money, and literally think about killing others for the sake of advantage. Tamas harshly reminds that politicians are the first step towards insanity of human kind. Be it a Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, every politician is a bastard, and without telling it, Bhisham Sahni proves it. The events after the riots show how British achieved their divide and rule policy successfully. More than 100 villages drowned in riots for the British to feel contented. The events after that simply belie humanism – The attempts made by bunch of well doers and idiots to behave as if nothing ever happened stunned me. The attitude of people who couldn’t care less for the killings is beautifully put across.
On the downside of this marvelous book is that since this a true account of the incidents, most of the books lacks cohesion. The incidents follow one after another thereby making the novel almost an episode by episode drama. Somewhere down the line, fictional fragment too takes a back seat only to return in the end. But that doesn’t take away any intensity of the book. The events slowly build up and Bhisham Sahni uses his language well to convey the setting of the events. Rarely have I read books where I have been transported completely into an era and feel like a character himself watching the events – all kudos to Sahni for managing to do that. The book moves to a chilling final chapters, after which I was left numb. Simply put.
If there is one book one should read on the events of riots of India-Pakistan partition, then it has to be this.
Richard shrugged his shoulders. He then lighted his pipe and, stretching his legs under the table said, ‘Wherefrom should I begin?’
‘Begin what, Richard?’ said Liza raising her eyebrows.
‘You wanted to know about the developments that had taken place here, didn’t you?’
This time it was Liza who shrugged shoulders, as though to say -‘You may or may not, Richard. It makes little difference.’