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Making of a good riot

The Tamas we know from Govind Nihalani’s TV series is rather different from the Tamas of Bhisham Sahni’s novel. The translator writes of these differences, what compelled Sahni to write the novel in the 1970s, and what the book can tell us of the anatomy of a riot

 Daisy Rockwell
Bhisham Sahni and Dina Pathak. Photo: Hindustan Times

Bhisham Sahni and Dina Pathak. Photo: Hindustan Times

When I set foot in Bhiwandi, I felt like I had seen this town somewhere before. Silence in every direction. The rare person on the rooftops, the empty streets, as if time had stopped. As soon as we entered town, we saw a few police outposts and the police sentries sitting outside them, in their uniforms. Some had taken off their uniform caps, some had unbuckled their belts, as if they were trying to rest after the riots. In places, we saw stray dogs. Silence in every direction—and the people standing in their balconies and on their rooftops looked like statues. There was a kind of emptiness everywhere.

—Bhisham Sahni, Today’s Pasts

As a young Congress worker in Rawalpindi, Bhisham Sahni witnessed first-hand the rioting in March of 1947 that preceded the Partition; but it was not until he visited the town of Bhiwandi, outside of Mumbai, in the aftermath of the 1970 riots there, that he was inspired to write Tamas, or ‘darkness’. His intimacy with the politics of that historical moment, and with individual stories and motivations, gave him special insight that informed this, his best-known work. Thanks to Govind Nihalani’s 1988 mini-series based on the novel, the work gained even greater popularity. After Premchand’s GodanTamas remains perhaps the best-known Hindi novel in English-reading India. And yet, Tamas is not the sort of novel you’d expect to gain widespread popularity. Structurally, it is a highly unusual work, with no clear human protagonist. Readers who are not familiar with the novel will be confused as it slowly dawns on them that the real protagonist of Tamas is not a person at all, but the riot itself. Indeed, Tamas describes the anatomy of a riot, and it is the story of that riot that we follow through its nascent stages, as it gathers steam, then explodes in full force until it at last ebbs away, extinguished by the same hands that began it.

Sahni’s meticulous, detailed chronicle gives the lie to the notion of Partition violence as a spontaneous burst of maniacal behaviour; of people losing control of themselves; of a madness that takes hold of the populace. This riot is the result of careful planning and politicking. Not only does Tamas’s darkness fall due to a concerted policy of Divide and Rule on the part of the British colonial administrators, but local politicians and religious leaders happily play their part in implementing the divisions and fomenting unrest. It is no surprise that Nihalani, despite his exacting recreation of the streets of pre-Partition Rawalpindi and an almost slavish devotion to portions of the original text, which are quoted verbatim in the film, decided that he needed to rewrite the story for the screenplay with a protagonist to follow throughout. In the novel, Nathu, the Chamar who slaughters the pig in the first scene, fades away in the second half of the book. At the very end, it is mentioned in passing that he is among those who have been killed in the violence. In the film, Nathu, played by Om Puri, makes it nearly to the end, and the final scene shows his pregnant wife giving birth in a refugee camp. The infant’s cries provide a coda for the violence that has produced two new nations.

Tamas the novel, however, offers us no such solace in neat endings, tidy narrative patterns, or ‘relatable’ characters. Reading about the life of a riot is chilling and uncomfortable. As the violence subsides, and the leaders of all major political groups in the city board the ‘peace bus’, we are left with a sour taste in our mouths: The bus is being driven by the very man who commissioned the killing of the pig in the opening scene, and arranged for the carcass to be thrown in front of a mosque, thus inciting the riot in the first place. This man, Murad Ali, is a shadowy figure, a probable fixer for the urbane and soft-spoken British District Magistrate, Richard. Though no link is ever explicitly made between the two in the novel, one has the distinct impression that Murad Ali is the nefarious, unseen hand of the imperial administrator, acting at his behest to stir up unrest in such a way that all parties will sigh with relief when curfew is imposed and the army is stationed throughout the city. The mere appearance of a British pilot soaring low over the rooftops of the violence-ravaged villages is seen as a hand of God; all fighters drop their weapons and return to their daily lives the moment they see the plane and the friendly white pilot waving from the cockpit. Imperial order is restored, but the cycle is bound to repeat.After all, Sahni wrote Tamas in the first place because he saw the cycle repeating in communal riots in independent India. The unseen hands may change, the locations may change, the match that lights the tinder may change, but the formula remains chillingly familiar. The notion of the ‘communal’ riot, one that pits Hindu against Muslim or majority communities against Dalits, Sikhs, Christians, or Ahmadis may be very specifically South Asian, but Sahni’s novel has much to teach the world about the fallacy of the notion that a riot is a spontaneous conflagration. Whether it is in Rawalpindi or Bhiwandi, whether in Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore, Maryland, a riot has deep roots and reflects decades of institutional violence—everything from city planning, to municipal administrative policy, to policing techniques. Most importantly, as the character Dev Dutt, the local communist party leader, asserts, riots are the outcome of a concerted effort on the part of the rich and the privileged to distract the poor from common cause and pit communities against each other through racism, casteism and religious bigotry. A good riot is frankly useful to this cause because it serves to sharpen differences.

Daisy Rockwell is an artist, writer and translator. She has recently also translated Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls.

Excerpted from the introduction of Daisy Rockwell’s new translation of Tamas by Bhisham Sahni (345 pages, Rs.399), with permission from Penguin Books.

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