“Why do we find it easy to mock others?”: Balraj Sahni

Balraj Sahni 

Edited excerpts of the convocation address delivered at JNU in 1972. It remains as relevant today as it was then, 46 years back

This year my own province honoured me by nominating me to the senate of Guru Nanak university. When the invitation to attend the first meeting came, I happened to be in the Punjab, wandering around in some villages near Preet Nagar – the cultural centre founded by our great writer S Gurbakhsh Singh. During the evening’s gossip, I told my villager friends that I was to go to Amritsar to attend this meeting and, if anyone wanted a lift in my car, he was welcome. At this one of the company said,

“Here among us you go about dressed in tehmat-kurta, peasant fashion; but tomorrow you will put on your suit and become Sahib Bahadur again.”

“Why,” I said laughingly, “If you want I will go dressed just like this.” “You will never dare,” another one said. “Our sarpanch Sahib here removes his tehmat and puts on a pyjama whenever he has to go to the city on official work. He has to do it, otherwise, he says, he is not respected. How can yon go peasant-fashion to such a big university?”

A jawan who had come home on leave for the rice sowing added, “Our sarpanch is a coward. In cities even girls go about wearing lungis these days. Why should he not be respected?”

The gossip went on, and, as if to accept their challenge, I did make my appearance in the Senate meeting in tehmat-kurta. The sensation I created was beyond my expectation. The officer – perhaps, professor – who was handing out the gowns in the vestibule could not recognise me at first.

When he did, he could not hide his amusement, “Mr Sahni, with the tehmat you should have worn khosas – not shoes,” he said, while putting the gown over my shoulders. “I shall be careful next time,” I said apologetically and moved on. But a moment later I asked myself, was it not bad manners for the professor to notice or comment on my dress? Why did I not point this out to him? I felt peeved over my slow-wittedness.

After the meeting, we went over to meet the students. Their amusement was even greater and more eloquent. Many of them could not help laughing at the fact that I was wearing shoes with a tehmat. That they were wearing chappals with trousers seemed nothing extraordinary to them.

You must wonder why I am wasting your time narrating such trivial incidents. But look at it from the point of view of the Punjabi peasant. We are all full of admiration for his contribution to the green revolution. He is the backbone of our armed forces. How must he feel when his dress or his way of life is treated as a matter of amusement?

It is well-known in the Punjab that as soon as a village lad receives college education, he becomes indifferent to the village. He begins to consider himself superior and different, as if belonging to a separate world altogether. His one ambition is to somehow leave the village and run to a city. Is this not a slur on the academic world?

I agree that all places are not alike. I know perfectly well that no complex against the native dress exists in Tamil Nadu or Bengal. Anyone from a peasant to a professor can go about in a dhoti on any occasion. But I submit that the habit of borrowed and idealised thinking is present over there too. It is present everywhere, in some form or degree.

During the last war, I spent four years in England as a Hindustani announcer at the BBC. During those four years of extreme crisis, I never even once set my eyes on a member of the British cabinet, including Prime Minister Churchill. But since Independence, I have seen nothing else but ministers in India, all over the place

Let me go back to trivialities again. Ten years ago, if you asked a fashionable student in Delhi to wear a kurta with trousers, he would have laughed at you. Today, by the grace of the hippies and the Hare Rama Hare Krishna cult, not only has the kurta-trousers combination become legitimate, but even the word kurta has changed to guru-shirt. The sitar became a star instrument with us only after the Americans gave a big welcome to Ravi Shankar, just as 50 years ago Tagore became Gurudev all over India only after he received the Nobel Prize from Sweden.

Can you dare to ask a college student to shave his head, moustache, and beard when the fashion is to put the barbers out of business? But if tomorrow under the influence of Yoga, the students of Europe begin to shave their heads, I can assure you that you will begin to see a crop of shaven skulls all over Connaught Circus the next day. Yoga has to get a certificate from Europe before it can influence the home of its birth

Urdu and Hindi

Let me give another example – a less trivial one. I work in Hindi films, but it is an open secret that the songs and dialogues of these Hindi films are mostly written in Urdu. Eminent Urdu writers and poets-Krishan Chandar, Rajinder Singh Bedi, KA Abbas, Gulshan Nanda, Sahir Ludhianwi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, and Kaifi Azmi are associated with this work.

Now, if a film written in Urdu can be called a Hindi film, it is logical to conclude that Hindi and Urdu are one and, the same language. But no, our British masters declared them two separate languages in their time.

Therefore, even 25 years after Independence, our government, our universities and our intellectuals insist on treating them as two separate and independent languages. Pakistan radio goes on ruining the beauty of this language by thrusting into it as many Persian and Arabic words as possible; and All India Radio knocks it out of all shape by pouring the entire Sanskrit dictionary into it. In this way they carry out the wish of the master, to separate the inseparable. Can anything be more absurd than that? If the British told us that white was black, would we go on calling white black for ever and ever?

My film colleague Johnny Walker remarked the other day, "They should not announce ‘Ab Hindi mein Samachar suniye’ [Now listen to the news in Hindi] they should say, ‘Ab Samachar mein Hindi suniye’ [Now listen to Hindi in the News]"

I have discussed this funny situation with many Hindi and Urdu writers – the so-called progressive as well as non-progressive; I have tried to convince them of the urgency to do some fresh thinking on the subject. But so far, it has been like striking one’s head against a stone wall. We film people call it the “ignorance of the learned”. Are we wrong?

Afraid to fly

No country can progress unless it becomes conscious of its being – its mind and body. It has to learn to exercise its own muscles. It has to learn to find out and solve its own problems in its own way. But whichever way I turn, I find that even after twenty-five years of Independence, we are like a bird which has been let out of its cage after a prolonged imprisonment - unable to know what to do with its freedom. It has wings, but is afraid to fly into the open air. It longs to remain within defined limits, as in the cage. Individually and collectively, we resemble Walter Mitty. Our inner lives are different from our outer lives. Our thoughts and actions are poles apart. We want to change this state of affairs, but we lack the courage to do anything different from what we have been doing all along, or different from what others expect us to do.

I am sure there must be some police officers in this country who in their hearts want to be regarded as friends rather than enemies of the public. They must be aware that in England the behaviour of the police towards the public is polite and helpful. But the tradition in which they have been trained is not the one which the British set for their own country but the one which they set for their colonies.

So, the policeman is helpless. According to this colonial tradition, it is his duty to strike terror into anyone who enters his office, to be as obstructive and unhelpful as possible. This is the tradition which pervades every government office, from the chaparasi to the minister. One of our young and enterprising producers made an experimental film and approached the government for tax exemption. The minister concerned was being sworn into office the next day. He invited the producer to attend the ceremony, after which he would meet him and discuss the matter.

The producer went, impressed by the informality with which the minister had treated him. As the minister was being sworn in, promising to serve the people truly, faithfully, and honestly, his secretary started explaining to the young producer how much he would have to pay in black money to the minister and how much to the others if he wanted the tax exemption.

The producer got so shocked and angry that he wanted to put this scene in his next film. But his financiers had already suffered a loss with the first one. They told him categorically not to make an ass of himself. In any case, if he had insisted in making an ass of himself, the censors would never have passed the film, because it is an unwritten law that no policeman or minister is corrupt in our country.

But there is something which strikes me as being even funnier. Those same people, who scream against ministers every day, cannot themselves hold a single function without some minister inaugurating it, or presiding over it, or being the chief guest.

Sometimes the minister is the chief guest and a film star is the president, or else the film star is the chief guest and the minister is the president. Some big personality has to be there, because it is the age-old colonial tradition.

During the last war, I spent four years in England as a Hindustani announcer at the BBC. During those four years of extreme crisis, I never even once set my eyes on a member of the British cabinet, including Prime Minister Churchill. But since Independence, I have seen nothing else but ministers in India, all over the place.

A great saint of the Punjab, Guru Arjun Dev, said,

"Jan ki tehl sanbhakhan jan sio uuthan baithan jan kai sanga

Jan char raj mukh mathai laagi aasa puuran anant tharanga

[I serve His humble servants, and speak with them, and abide with them. I apply the dust of the feet of His humble servants to my face and forehead;my hopes, and the many waves of desire, are fulfilled]."

It is my earnest hope and prayer that you, graduates of Jawaharlal Nehru University, may succeed where I and so many others of my generation have failed.

(This convocation address remained in circulation for many years after 1972 as the JNU Students Union used to bring it out as a booklet. And then for many years, it went out of public domain till Professor Chaman Lal – courtesy whom it appears here – then President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association, hunted it out of the archives and made it available on the JNUTA Website in 2007)

This is the second part of a three-part article that first appeared in National Herald on Sunday.

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