Excerpt: ‘Balraj was respectable, I cursed’

In his memoir, author and playwright Bhisham Sahni wrote about how hero-worshipping his elder brother and legendary actor Balraj Sahni, threatened the growth of his own personality.

In his memoir, author and playwright Bhisham Sahni wrote about how hero-worshipping his elder brother and legendary actor Balraj Sahni, threatened the growth of his own personality.

(Excerpted with permission from Bhisham Sahni’s Today’s Pasts, A Memoir, translated from Hindi by Snehal Shingavi, published by Penguin Books)

Balraj Sahni

Balraj Sahni

There were all kinds of plays in my life. My older brother, who was very obedient and ‘gentlemanly’ in his childhood, became combative as he grew up. I, who was nonchalant and worry-free, an idler, in my childhood, began to become timid by nature.

When I think about it now, it seems to me that my ‘well-wishers’, the ones who constantly compared me to Balraj, made some important contributions. Whoever said anything to me only praised Balraj’s virtues: ‘The difference between the minister’s older son and his younger son is the difference between the north pole and the south pole. The older one is fair, light-hearted, energetic, while the younger is wilful, wanders around aimlessly, and can’t concentrate on his studies.’ But slowly—and I don’t know when or why—a feeling of inferiority took root in me. He was fair, I was dark. He was healthy, I was skinny. He was respectable, I cursed, sang bawdy songs.

Bhisham Sahni

Bhisham Sahni

Until then we’d had a relationship of equals. Despite hearing all of these things, I never felt I was beneath him. No matter what anyone said, I’d followed my own path. But after hearing everyone’s criticisms over and over, my mind began to dim.

The youngest child of every family is altogether different from the others in the family. Everyone in the family is bigger than he is. The things he cannot do, his older brother can easily accomplish. The older brother gets all of the new things first: clothes, books, the first bicycle in the house, learning English, getting to be a scout, wearing a uniform, shaving, wearing trousers etc. The younger brother sees all of this with jealousy in his eyes. With each step, he feels that there are many things that his brother has available to him, of which he alone is deprived. Of course, he feels jealous, but this jealousy does not take root because he realizes that he will also have access to these opportunities eventually.

Over time, I was the only one who felt the weight of the difference between us, and I began to feel small. So much so that I began to think that the clay from which I was formed must have been defective. I felt jealous of this, but this jealousy didn’t stop me—I kept doing whatever I wanted to, marching to my own tune. Eventually it began to defeat me. One, I was jealous. Two, the weight of my smallness. And on top of that, a feeling of devotion towards him—a strange emotion that was growing inside of me.

At first I was confounded by his always getting to be first. He knew new games and I would excitedly play along, but there was always a feeling of equality between us. But he was turning into my ‘hero’. It would have been better if I felt animosity towards him. Then I could have stood my ground. But now, everything he said was right. I began to follow him around, and because he loved me and showered me with the love of an older brother, I was gradually becoming his disciple. He acted in plays, so I, too, acted in plays with great ardour. He began practising archery, so I started doing the same.

And this pattern took such a hold over me that my firm disposition began to come loose. This new relationship made my love for him even stronger. Whenever I fought with him, he held me in his arms. We slept in the same bed under the same blankets. Even if I kicked him in anger or pinched his arm, he still would never lay a hand on me.

Consequently, my true nature was significantly repressed. This devotion became such a part of me that I began to think of every talented individual as much greater than me, and thought of myself as insignificant and small. When I was very little, the boys from our neighbourhood would play marbles in the alleys. I played, too. Those days, a boy from another neighbourhood would sometimes come and play marbles in ours. He was such an incredible player that his pockets were filled with marbles he had recently won before your very eyes. I watched him, spellbound. He seemed to me an extraordinary being. Sometimes he would look at me and take a handful of marbles from his pockets and put them into mine. I was completely overwhelmed.

This was becoming part of my personality, too—being unconsciously influenced by the unique qualities of several others. And this was in direct proportion to feeling insignificant myself. There appeared to be a special kind of bearing amongst these talented folks that enchanted me. They had their own gestures, their own pleasures, a special kind of refinement.

Much later, I saw Dhyan Chand play hockey. When the ball fell to Dhyan Chand’s stick, it was as though Dhyan Chand was playing a musical instrument. He so deftly handled the ball and advanced it that it was captivating. The ball only ever went where he wanted it to go. It seemed as if everything was happening on its own; Dhyan Chand only barely moved his stick. There was nothing unique in Dhyan Chand’s deportment. But there was still something that separated him from other people. But was this uniqueness something that my eyes had manufactured? Or was there really something that I could see that others could not?

Among athletes, Gulzari—my first hero—was a bony boy, very skinny, who walked with his face first, but to me this is what made him special. I copied him and began walking with my face first. But I could never be Gulzari.

Tamas-Bhisham SahniAll together, the introduction of these characteristics into my life has been detrimental. To recognize the virtues of others is, of course, a virtue to possess, but if you begin to see others as better and gradually yourself as worse, to make everyone you see a ‘hero’, you will lose your essence, you will lose your uniqueness and the ability to see the virtues and vices of others naturally.

All of my childhood and much of my adolescence was spent fashioning ‘heroes’ for myself. My first hero was my big brother, my second hero was my literature teacher, etc., etc. Hero worship tends to destroy ambition for those who inherently possess no desire for self-discovery.

It devastated everything for me—my capacity for bold initiative and for independent thought, the development of an independent perspective. When it came to writing, I kept my fearless, spontaneous, fluent expressiveness under control. Which means that the development of a natural personality can face just as many obstacles as self-expression.

(Bhisham Sahni (1915–2003) was an iconic writer who transformed the landscape of Hindi literature. His oeuvre encompassed novels, plays, short stories and essays. Tamas, his best-known novel, won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975 and was subsequently adapted into a National Award-winning film by Govind Nihalani. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1998, and the Shalaka Samman, the Delhi government’s highest literary prize, in 1999.)


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