Sunday, January 10, 2016

Bhisham Sahni's Today's Pasts: A Memoir ( Aaj ke Ateet) - Book Review

 Name of the book: Today’s Pasts: A Memoir
Author: Bhisham Sahni
Translated from Hindi to English by Snehal Shingavi
Publisher: Penguin Group
First published in Hindi as Aaj Ke Ateet by Rajkamal Prakashan 2004
Number of pages: 434 pages
Price: Rs 499

“Life’s experiences couldn’t be considered irrelevant. These experiences provide perspective, improve perception, and affect a writer’s sensibility. I took courage from such notions.” – Bheesham Sahni

Sahni (1915-2003) was a writer -- one of the icons of modern Indian literature -- who transformed the landscape of Hindi literature. From novels, short-stories, essays to plays, he has delivered many substantial works. He was the proud recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975 for Tamas, his best-known novel that was subsequently adapted into an award-winning film by Govind Nihalani. Sahni was awarded the Padma Bhushan(1998) and the Shalaka Samman (1999)- the Delhi Government’s highest literary prize.
The translator, Snehal Shingavi is assistant professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin, where he specializes in teaching South Asian literatures in English, Hindi and Urdu. He is the author of The Mahatma Misunderstood, and has most recently translated the iconic short-story collection Angaaray to widespread acclaim.
This is the story or rather a vast chronicle of Indian and world history (especially of the Soviet Union) during the time of Indian independence and after that. Although the story starts much before independence, Bhisham, the younger brother of Balraj Sahni, an Indian film and stage actor, best known for his roles in Do Bigha Zameen (1953), Kabuliwala (1961), Garam Hawa (1973), takes the reader on a journey from the lanes of Rawalpindi, that is witnessing the first stirrings of the freedom movement, in the first few decades of the twentieth century. 
When he was born, in 1915 (his father and mother were not in agreement about the date and month. He was, according to his mother, 1 year 11 months younger than his older brother, Balraj), there was no band to play infront of his house, unlike when his elder brother was born, a fact that was always brought up when they fought during their childhood. Mischievous and naughty, he jumped on to moving tongas and then jumped down from them, while growing up. To think of this mischievous young boy growing into a timid person struggling to develop a natural personality and self expression seems unimaginable but Sahni credits that change in him to being unconsciously influenced by the unique qualities of several others which was in direct proportion to him feeling insignificant himself.
“To think of every other man as better than yourself, to keep putting yourself down, to see yourself as unworthy, so much so that you begin to see the timid parts of your nature as your virtues; that is to say timid people aren’t proud, aren’t ambitious, they aren’t egotistical, they are submissive, hard-working, averse to fighting (and perhaps this is also why they live longer), trustworthy, they have given up their ability to face challenges, and they stay away from danger so that they can live lives of sheepishness.”
This work is also a reflection of him upon his life, over the many things he had to let go or put an end to, like the end to the campaign to collect all of Premchand’s letters, end to hockey- a game he was exceptionally good at. Like people who live their lives and go with the flow only to look back and wonder if they could change some of the things in the past, Sahni also has some regrets and he is brave enough to put it on paper for the whole world to read and that in itself takes sheer confidence and a generous dollop of this thing called ‘experience’.
Partition and its horrific effects drove him to Bombay, Ambala and finally Delhi. It also traces his life in Moscow. By the time of independence, he was managing the family business, teaching in a college, putting plays from time to time and also writing. And soon, he was also actively taking part in Congress Party activities. 
This remains an essential reading for all those who would like to walk on the streets of Rawalpindi of the early twentieth century, to know what the neighbourhoods sounded and felt like; to understand the milieu of the youth at the time of Independence; to get a firsthand account of a man who joined the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), one of the oldest theatre organizations of India, and worked as a performing artist. It is also an insight into the life of his wife, Sheela, who was a constant support in his life and kept the family together inspite of his addiction to wanderlust and his writing career that left him with little time for family responsibilities.
In a broader context, this book provides an insight into the success of the democratic Soviet system and Sahni’s opinion about the downfall of one of the greatest systems of his time. It also traces the journey of the Progressive Writer’s Association to which he was connected as an official for a long time.
Sahni, through his words, comes across as a man who tries to get a perspective by looking back at his own life. “I didn’t learn any lessons”, he says, and “so who am I to teach anyone?” And yet, here is a book that has got so much to offer to everyone who is caught in the midst of life, wondering how to make sense of it. It tells you that no matter how insignificant an experience, it all comes together to help you whenever you are faced with an adversity in life.
The translation did feel bumpy at some instances where the reviewer was left to translate some sentences back to hindi in order to understand what Sahni would have wanted to convey to the reader. For readers alien to Hindi, some of the lines in the book might not convey the intended meaning.
But the intense research that Shingavi conducted and the way it has all been presented neatly is worth applause. 
The book might seem slow and much informative and detailed for those looking for a light read. For others, it is a rare escapism into today’s pasts!

A shorter version of the review can be found here.

- Divya Nambiar

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