April 19, 2021
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That Familiar Sound Of Silence

I do not clearly recall when the Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Bhiwandi, a town near Mumbai. But I do remember that I began writing Tamas after those riots... The writer on his famous novel.

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That Familiar Sound Of Silence
Gopinath S.
That Familiar Sound Of Silence
Aaj Ke Ateet
By Bhisham Sahni
Rajkamal Prakashan Rs 250; 311 pp

I do not clearly recall when the Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Bhiwandi, a town near Mumbai. But I do remember that I began writing Tamas after those riots. Balrajji lived in Mumbai, and I often used to visit him. Once I reached his place a couple of days after a riot in Bhiwandi. Balrajji was leaving for Bhiwandi with some of his friends - Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, I.S. Johar and some others. There was space for one left in the car and I decided to accompany them.

As we entered Bhiwandi, I felt as if I had seen the scene in that town somewhere: silence all around, only one or two people on terraces and verandahs, empty streets, as if time had slowed down. As we entered the town, there were one or two tents of the police with policemen sitting outside, in uniform - but some with their caps off, some with loosened belts, as if resting the fatigue of the riot. Here and there, stray dogs meandered around. The pall of silence - people on balconies and terraces seemed like statues - pervaded a kind of desolation.

As we moved a little farther, there was a shantytown that seemed to have been attacked mercilessly by the ‘brave men’. Distraught people seemed to have run away in a hurry. Utensils were strewn around in houses. Outside a hut, a kettle still sat upon a chulha. Outside another hut was a parrot- cage with the parrot, dead, inside the cage. Clothes and rags lay strewn around here and there as if the fleeing people couldn't decide what to take and what to leave behind. And later, as if the pillagers too couldn't make up their minds as to what to pick out from the rags. Here too the dogs meandered around here and there,

Bhiwandi was a town of weavers with looms all around, many of them power-looms. The metal in the looms had melted as the houses were set on fire. Walking through these streets seemed as if we were roaming around the ruins of some ancient city.

But, crossing the streets, the sound of my feet, hearing my footsteps, I felt as if I had heard those sounds before. As if I had ‘heard’ the sounds of that ‘silence’ before. As if I had experienced that excruciating eeriness before. As if I had crossed those deserted streets before. When the houses have families living in them, there’s a laughter here, someone calling there, gurgles of a baby somewhere, a child running across the street, running into one house from another, a housewife on the doorway waiting for someone. An inhabited town is like a garden in bloom. Shadows of misfortune cast their gloom on a deserted town.

But I hadn’t just experienced this silence and desolation. I had also seen the vultures and kites perched on trees. I had also seen the flames of fires leaping across half the sky. I had also heard the sound of footsteps running through the streets and roads; the chilling, goose-flesh causing screams; the fanatic religious slogans that went up here and there; I had also heard loud wails.

Crossing the streets of Bhiwandi, I began to hear different kinds of sounds.

For about four hours we roamed around the deserted town, my companions met those living in refugee camps. My brother kept taking notes in his diary, Abbas Sahib tried to collect accounts of such instances that could provide examples of shared business, give and take - where the Hindus and Muslims ran shops together, where the Hindus and Muslims came together in the work of weaving.

We left as afternoon slipped into evening. Balraj decided that he would return to Bhiwandi after a day or two and spend a week or so there.

After staying in Mumbai for a few days, I came back to Delhi. Bhiwandi was left behind. Its deserted streets were fading away from recollection. The memories it stirred were back in the depths of my unconscious. The hustle-bustle of daily routine of Delhi was back and running.

Generally, I used to sit down to write in the evening. I don’t know why, but I like to write in the evening. But, that day, soon after breakfast, I went and sat down at the desk. Perhaps it was a holiday. But it wasn't as if there was any special request. Actually, I hadn’t sat down with the idea of writing something.

This actually happened suddenly. When I picked up my pen and put the paper in front, my thoughts wandered to the riots in Rawalpindi. The Congress office appeared before my eyes, my colleagues from the Congress, one after another, Yogi Ramnath, Bakhshiji, Balaji, Hakimji, Abdul Aziz, Meharchand Ahuja, Aziz, Jarnail ... Master Arjundas... their faces meandering before my eyes. I found myself drowning in the memories of those days.

Yogiji is speaking, shaking his head, "Kites would circle this town! Kites would circle this town!" There is concern in his voice; there’s anguish. He kept repeating the same sentence later to the English deputy commissioner, "Sahib, the trouble can be stopped now, stop it now. Otherwise kites would circle this town." And the deputy commissioner kept taking down notes with his pencil on a paper lying on his table - was he taking notes, or just moving the pencil? He is shaking his head and saying, "I can not arrange for a military patrol in the city. The military doesn't follow my orders..." The flood of memories, and my ears fill with sounds of running feet. Some characters emerge. There is Jarnail, with a cane tucked under his armpit, marching Left-Right. " Gandhiji says, "Pakistan over my dead body!" Jarnail was emotional; he was eccentric; he marched Left-Right in his crumpled uniform and tattered chappals; but his heart was pure, fearless, committed to his country... "Gentlemen, when the Congress took an oath for complete freedom, I too took the oath. I too danced under the national flag with Jawahar Lal Nehru that day. Gentlemen, this is a mischief of the English". How these voices echoed in my ears and I was being continuously deluged with emotion.

It is true: a novel is not created by a writer's pen, or his brain, but by his heart moved by emotions. My pen took off. Now one scene emerged before my eyes, then another, there was not even a thought then in my mind to arrange them in any order. The trip to Thoha Khalsa appeared before my eyes. I am standing near the well where tens of Sikh women drowned themselves in attempt to save their modesty. The sardar standing next to me, insane with sorrow and grief, points towards the bloated bodies and says, "That is my wife, Veerji [elder brother]. Do you see her? She has a gold Gokhadu on her wrist. Please get that bangle off, Veerji. She is gone now, what use is it to her? I got it made for her, Veerji. That's mine..."

The bloated bodies have reached the top of the well. White powder - disinfectant - is being sprinkled on them. Covered with powder, the bodies, their limbs intertwined with each other, look not like dead-bodies anymore but marble statues, as if. A number of Sikhs stand near the well with their hands clasped. They are the kin of those women and children. Every now and then a Sikh breaks down into sobs, but then, to suppress his crying, trying to remain clam, bows his head and begins to mumble words from the Gurbani. But his eyes are not able to let go off the well. 'That woman, with the body of a child tangled in her legs, she is my wife, and that's my son Harnam, my son...". And he breaks down into sobs again.

While writing, as the work progresses it begins to assume an independent entity of its own. The narrative might be essentially taken from real life, it might be based on real incidents, but when the incident appears on the pages of the novel, its destiny is led by the demands of the novel.

Gradually, the characters picked up from real life become companions of the imaginary characters in the novel. Pig butcher Natthu is imaginary. Natthu and his wife both are imaginary. Thus the reality blends with imagination. That one character is imaginary and the other real does not make any difference. What is essential is that both have to be believable.

The same applies to incidents. The episode in the beginning of the novel, the incident involving killing of a pig is imaginary. The yardsticks for measuring the truthfulness of a novel are not dependent on whether a certain incident actually took place or not, but whether that incident becomes believable in the context of the overall reality of life.

Speaking in the context of the debate on the real and imaginary, it is not essential that an incident be sketched out in exact detail for literature to be alive and believable. Instead, I’d say that sometimes an exact sketch of reality is not as powerful as one portrayed with the help of imagination. The flight of imagination does not imply a made-up portrayal. How your characters react depends upon how the narrative develops, and how your imagination invents newer incidents. No doubt, the knowledge of reality would act as the base, but the reality inside would only be unveiled by imagination. Otherwise, you can keep on reading, collecting facts and figures - the more you base your work on facts, with the help of facts and figures, the weaker it would become.

Similarly, if a writer picks a historical person or period for his narrative: the less facts and figures he collects, the more are the chances of his work being powerful and believable. Up to a point the real facts and figures would be helpful, but beyond that they would become obstacles to the unfettered evolution of the work, to the extent that the facts and figures would so take over the writer's mind that his imagination would be blocked, it would be so tangled in the grip of facts and figures that it would cease to have any role in the unfettered evolution of the work.

Then the refugee camp was back before my eyes. I was given the job of collecting statistics there. Those who had fled and run away from villages now languished in the camp as refugees. It was here that the grey-haired Sikh, who had fled his village with his middle-aged wife, told me his story.

"Banto, if we are caught, then with this gun I would first kill you..."

I remembered the words he would repeat to his wife, wandering from one place to another. Later, when Govind Nihalani filmed it, I played the role of this Sikh.

There was a story behind each face among the refugees. What they saw and experienced in those days, how could it not be remembered? At times the verandah of the Mission Hospital would appear before my eyes, filled with injured refugees and Trilok Singh, who had a bandage on his eyes, was saying:

"God won’t let me lie, Hamid didn't hit me. Some stranger, who had come from behind, hit me on the head with his sickle."

A novel based on such recollections does not have any fixed, predetermined narrative. Memories push the pen; self restraint and patience do not push the pen. The soul's turbulence pushes it. Attention is not diverted to the sequential development of the narrative. This historical background, being the primary subject, itself keeps on unlocking its own doors. The structure, the sequential development of the narrative and the behaviour of the characters...all this is mere talk. For now just put on paper the yearnings that arise in the mind, the episodes that appear before the eyes. If they are linked with that frightening episode, then they will certainly find their rightful association.

Maybe that is the reason the novels written under the weight of memories are weak from the point of view of structure. They may be filled with events, and may even have audible heartbeats of life, but the structure of the novel won’t be perfect from the point of view of things like sequential development of the narrative.

I hadn't ever met a character like Natthu, someone who skins animals. Nor had I ever seen a pig being killed. I did not have any knowledge of how a pig is killed. But prior to, and even after writing the pig episode, I kept trying to find out the correct method to kill a pig.

The Lisa-Richard episode was also based on imagination, though one of my British teachers had been obsessive about collecting statues of Gautam Buddha.

Murad Ali also was an imaginary character. Many of the characters in various episodes were conceived by imagination. The Pasho episode is completely imaginary.

The book was written. It got published. Before publication, Sheela read the manuscript. Krishna Sobtiji read it. When the proofs were being released, out of the blue Balrajji arrived in Delhi. He read it. They all encouraged me.

This was in 1974-75. After almost 10 years, it was filmed. I recollect some events connected with its shooting:

Govind Nihalani made the film with the same emotional pressure under which I had written the book. Before filming, he would ask such questions as would startle me: What was the structure of houses in your town, if we have to show a neighbourhood, what should it look like? (Later, at the 'Film City' outside Mumbai, a complete neighbourhood of such houses was built to act as the set with no expenses spared). A full scale Gurudwara was constructed inside the studio, even the murals on its walls were replicated. The completed Gurudwara was so impressive that instead of a set, people began to consider it a real Gurudwara. Anyone entering it would first take off his shoes. No one smoked inside, no one spoke loudly. The same happened during the selection of village homes.

But the incident I would like to talk about concerns a refugee scene in the film.

While the scene involving refugees was being shot, I saw Sheela (my wife) talking to an elderly lady who was working as an extra in the scene. I was surprised. Whenever any large gathering or procession has to be shown, the film folk hire extras who have no role in the film as individuals. They are mere part of the crowd, hired for very nominal costs.

Why is Sheela sitting with the woman, and what are they talking about? I noticed them a number of times, talking all through the scene.

Later when I asked Sheela, she got quite emotional and said:

"You people are trying to show a scene with the refugees, but she is a real refugee."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, they became homeless when Pakistan was made. She fled her village with her husband. After being shunned everywhere, they reached Mumbai. But their status is still of refugees. Her husband is bedridden, good for nothing. Whenever occasionally she is called as an extra, she earns some money. She was telling me, 'This is a refugee scene, and I am a real refugee in it.'"

In the life-story of some the chapter on refugees was not yet over.

Another, almost-piercing, yet happy, memory is related to this film.

The shooting was on at 'Film City'. It was very hot. I was in costume, which meant a long beard, a turban on my head, the works. There was some time before my scene, so Govindji has sent me to a cabin to rest.

I have always been fond of putting on a fake moustache and beard since childhood, but not the kind I had to put on for Tamas, in summer.

I was resting under the fan when someone knocked on the cabin door. I got up and opened the door, and found Smita Patil. I was startled. I thought that perhaps one of her films was also being shot there, and she, looking for make up, had knocked the wrong cabin door.

"No, I’ve come to meet you. Aren't you the writer of this film? Govind told me, and I came down to meet you."

She sat on the edge of the cot and said, "I really wanted to work in the film, I still do, but I can't help it." (Smita Patil was pregnant at the time)

She stayed for some time, talking about the film's story and its purpose, then she got up, "That's all I came to tell you. I wanted to meet you. I came to tell you about my wish to work and express my helplessness.."

And then she said namaste, got up, and left.

And unfortunately, after a few months, she was no more.

Translated from Hindi; Outlook Saptahik July 28, 2002

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