In memoriam

Bhishma Sahni 1915-2003

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WHEN television screens showed file shots of Bhishamji – that is what we called him, that is how Sheelaji addressed him, though he wrote his name formally as Bhishma – last week, he was not my Bhishamji. For many of us who were his colleagues at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Shimla, Bhishamji was this slightly stooping, frail figure in a firan walking up the slopes of the hill on which the Viceregal Lodge was located. The firan gave him the appearance of a sufi. His handsome face, crisscrossed with neatly arranged wrinkles, his flowing hair and those sparkling eyes were, indeed, that of a sufi. He was a sufi in the truest sense of the term. A very quiet and gentle sufi.

At the Institute, a lot of us wore our intellectual pretensions on our sleeve. Bhishamji compensated for our arrogance and verbiage by remaining quiet. When he spoke, it was about celebrating life: A good meal, a spectacular sunrise, spotting his first flying fox or discovering a scenic spot in and around Shimla. He showed me my first clear sighting of the snow-clad Himalayas on a clear, crisp day with a child-like delight. He was in every sense a writer in residence. He wrote quietly, spoke little about himself and spread goodness all around.

I remember an evening at the Institute cafeteria with Bhishamji where he was relentlessly questioned by a self-righteous colleague about his years spent in the Soviet Union. ‘Didn’t you get the feeling that something was rotten in the whole system,’ this colleague asked. Sheelaji decided to answer the question. She usually first answered all questions addressed to him. She was his protector, anchor and spokesperson and saved him a lot of precious breath and energy. But this colleague was persistent. He wanted Bhishamji to ‘confess’ – itself a very communist trait – that ideology had once deluded his vision. Bhishamji finally put an end to this pompous harangue by saying that he saw nothing wrong in the Soviet Union during his stay there. He was idealistic and so were people around him. They saw hope in the Soviet experiment. Having said so, he turned round to enjoy the spectacular sunset over Summerhill and the paneer pakodas that were getting cold.

The writer of Tamas, and several other classics, was true to himself. To deny any engagement with an idea or a thought or a feeling was an act of self-hatred. Bhishamji would have none of that. He lived his beliefs rather than talking about them and was a supremely happy man. Better still, he wrote about them. There were regrets, but these were of a larger nature, never personal. Re-reading some of his works, one is struck by Bhishamji’s commitment to spirituality. The Sikh gurus represented this best for him. In his novel Mayyadas Ki Maadhi, he says:

Human beings remain human. Their actions are often dictated by their passions and resentments. Alongside, they are also surrounded by values and ideals which influence people, individually and collectively... The establishment of the Khalsa interred in the hearts of ordinary people the values of generosity, goodwill, self-sacrifice and rectitude, and kept a check on their passions and resentments.

Writing at the time of the tercentenary of the establishment of the Khalsa Panth, Bhishamji wrote eloquently about the place of religion in society. This has to be read both as an exposition of his personal credo and as an indictment of the growing religious extremism in India:

Religious teachings are the savants’ great gift to humanity. It is when religion is institutionalized and an edifice is created, with the intention of spreading these teachings, that alas, in the course of time, they begin to develop a vested interest of their own, at times distinct from the teachings of the great savants and are often drawn into the vortex of worldly considerations, and, as a consequence, the teachings get marginalized.

I remember a seminar at the Institute on film theory. Halfway through the proceedings, I turned to him and asked, ‘Bhishamji, kuchh samajh mein aaya?’ I hadn’t understood a word and wanted to ask Bhishamji, Balraj Sahni’s brother, and an actor in his own right if he had made sense of what was being said. Bhishamji smiled, his eyes twinkling, and said, ‘Yaar, Kuchh bhi nahin. Hum thik seminar mein to aaye hain naa? Filam par hi baat ho rahi hai naa?’ He wondered whether he had walked into the right seminar. He spoke towards the end and held the audience spellbound. His message to all of us was simple: Art must make sense. The moment it ceases to make sense, it does not remain art. Bhishamji’s own work was an attempt to make sense of people and events around him.

Sheelaji’s death in 1998 must have devastated him. It was difficult to imagine him without Sheelaji. When I went to see him after her death, he gave me a warm hug. He paused for a moment and said, ‘You know, she was very fond of you. She always wanted to see you married.’ After her death, he plunged into work and tried his best to overcome his grief. I have in front of me a few postcards he wrote me on various occasions. Sheelaji’s health was a constant concern in these. Yet, amidst all adversity, he signed off these notes with words that were central to his view of life: Joy and a sense of fulfillment. These were words of blessings and benediction.

There is a beautiful Chestnut tree outside the building that houses the dining hall at the Shimla Institute. After lunch, we would proceed to sit under the tree and chat. Bhishamji would invariably turn towards me and say, ‘Yaar, aao cigarette peetey hain.’ He smoked the same brand as me and we often compared notes on the remarkable virtues of that brand. Mealtimes would often bring to fore contentious issues, ego clashes, and personal resentments as also a great deal of camaraderie to the surface among fellows. His invitation to smoke after lunch was a loaded one. It was an exhortation to forget our petty posturing as well as to set aside for a moment our ‘weighty’ academic issues. It was an invitation to participate in something he greatly enjoyed. Never was a single cigarette smoked. Both of us would light a second, and Sheelaji would say, ‘Bhisham, abhi to pi thhee.’ Having registered her protest about lighting another cigarette, she would share a few puffs from Bhishamji’s cigarette.

Both Bhishamji and Sheelaji have passed on. They had a good life. If someday I return to Shimla, I hope to sit under that Chestnut tree and smoke a cigarette in their memory. I will visualize Bhishamji closing his eyes as he took in the first puff of a cigarette and smile to himself.

Jyotirmaya Sharma