Hindi unfortunately is not a patch on Urdu. Munshi Premchand, whose early education was in a madrasah, knew it. He wrote his first novel in Urdu. But he was in a dilemma: the lie of the linguistic land was such that were he to aim at a broader reach for his social commentary, a cross-over to Hindi was called for. Premchand took the plunge: Hindiís gain was Urduís loss.
The dilemma has not been resolved through the decades of the 20th century. Both the grandeur and the languor of Urdu continue to be alien to Hindi. Perhaps, given a sufficiently long interregnum, this gap in quality between the two languages will be bridged. That is in the lap of the future though. Meanwhile, we can only express our private laments. It was not Bhisham Sahniís fault that the sweep of his creations falls somewhat short of Sadat Hasan Mantoís. It is entirely possible that by the time we arrive toward the middle of the present century, Manto would be recognized as the great writer he was. Bhisham Sahni will not be that fortunate, because of the happenstance of his choosing Hindi as his medium. Both were keen to explore the lower depths of human existence: Manto chose the particular; Sahni opted for the general. This should have won Bhisham Sahni more laurels than he did. Hindi held him back.
In Lahore in the late Thirties and the Forties, the bright generations emerging out of the Government College were as felicitous in Urdu as in Hindi, and probably in English too. Something else made them much more than a loose flock; they had their band of camaraderie in social commitment. The purity of the dream the tidings of the Russian Revolution helped to weave together was still uncontaminated.
Few of the obituaries on Bhisham Sahni have bothered to mention that he was the sibling of Balraj Sahni. The brothers were, right from their callow youth, fiercely determined to change the face of society. They shared their enthusiasm with near-contemporaries like Mazhar Ali Khan, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the left-over Bukharis, Inder and Satish Gujral, Romesh Thapar and Romesh Chandra ó and the two charmers, Raj Malhotra (later Thapar) and Litto Rai (later Ghosh), who broke countless hearts. Lahore was in ferment in those years.
The Government College crowd would occasionally drop in at Sharada Ukilís studio, take seriously to dramatics, and, what do you know, since Madhu Bose, shooting a film with Khyber Pass as the locale, had chosen Lahore as his base camp, Sadhana Bose bewitched the Government College boys and girls, cinematography was very much in the air. And the sprawling college lawns produced not only a cricketer of the calibre of Abdal Hafiz Kardar, but also those two elegant ace-servers, Sohanlal and S.L.R. Sawhney.
Through time, ideology gets diluted, or at least it goes through mutations. What however guided the fate of the young Lahore luminaries more grievously was the Partition. It split the country, split the magisterial province of Punjab and left in its train gory deaths and indescribable savagery. It was impossible for the seekers after social revolution as they envisaged it to get over the trauma of the Partition for the rest of their lives. Each was affected in his or her individual way. For some, the felt hurt was much more intense than in the case of some others. Manto, who did not belong to the sophisticated Government College fraternity, could never get over it. He wrote, spasmodically, on the immense human tragedy the Partition was, shuffled for a number of years between Lahore and Bombay, finally drank himself to death.
Bhisham Sahni was more practical. He could analyse the Partition as the parting kick administered by imperialism. The fight against imperialism was never removed from his agenda, nor the urge to usher in social and economic equality. Initially trying his hand at playwriting, he soon migrated to short stories and novels. The elder brother, Balraj, shared the same convictions: he however migrated to a different medium, films. The brothers had a common focal point. They hated cant and, while they made money, they did not feel the least inhibited to make fun of the moneyed lot.
In due course, Bhisham acquired amongst Hindi writers the same stature as, for instance, Nirmal Verma attained subsequently, even though the latter perhaps has had a greater share of state honours. That did not bother Bhisham Sahni. For his generosity was of a breathtaking character.
Legacy always matters. For Manto, the lineage to Kishan Chander, some years senior to him, is unmistakable: there is the same cynicism, but Mantoís self-mockery would not have received Kishan Chanderís approval. In the case of Bhisham Sahni, the commanding influence was of course Premchandís. A misfortune of our times, the language Premchand and Bhisham Sahni had chosen for themselves is being hijacked by the parivar for its nefarious purposes. Should it succeed in its manoeuvring, Hindi literature would experience a further set-back. The works of both Premchand and Sahni would nonetheless endure, even if as samizdat stuff, hopefully to be reclaimed for posterity once the season of crudity was over.
Bhisham Sahni was much more than the author of Tamas or Amritsar Aa Gaya, just as Balraj Sahni is much more than the protesting hero of the searing tragedy, Do Bigha Zameen. They were, let it be reiterated, an integral part of the heritage bequeathed by Lahore Government College. This heritage has been rendered into smithereens by the travails of history.
But some of it lingers in rarefied circles in India and Pakistan: decency, fellow-feeling, sensitivity for aesthetics, abhorrence of sectarian communalism, empathy with the underdog. Music, painting, acting, film-making, editing, participation in active politics, et al, were facets of the mode and manners that tradition taught. One became successful in life, one built palatial houses, one climbed from one pinnacle of power and glory to the next higher one, but the decency and the social conscience did not go away. Most of the Lahore Government College crowd retained ó those still living retain ó the grace which the college ambience imbued them with and the philosophy of neighbourliness that was an inevitable part of it.
This was perhaps bound to happen. In recollections, the two brothers, Balraj and Bhisham, tended to be hyphenated. It was always the Balraj-Bhisham duo, so much so that, even as these lines are being written, it is difficult to be precise which brother it was who was invited by the Jawaharlal Nehru University decades ago to give its annual convocation address. That was an ecstatic experience. It was a different kind of address, no written script, the Sahni who spoke to the girls and boys and the assembled glitterati spoke extempore, but he spoke from the heart. And he chose issues which usually escape the entrapment of university syllabi, but are basic to the culture of living: he spoke about commitment and social activism.
Come to think of it, it does not matter even if oneís memory has gone awry, whether the person addressing the convocation was actually Balraj, not Bhisham, or it was the other way round. For while the brothers preferred different media, they spoke the same language, the language which enables one to get on the same wave-length with ordinary men and women. The endeavour does not always succeed, the wavelengths fail to meet, the nobi-lity of the effort still deserves accolade.
The Sahni brothers belonged to that group of effort-makers. One brother bid adieu years ago, the other one bowed out only this month. It is a sad, but fair, assumption that neither departure means anything to the generation currently thronging the corridors of the countryís universities; they have other preoccupations, for instance, H1B visas and slashed immigration quotas.