Bhisham Sahni


  • 31-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 21 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis.
  • Written by a published author with a degree in English Literature
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Tamas Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 31-page guide for “Tamas” by Bhisham Sahni includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 21 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Tamas and Racism.

Plot Summary

Tamas by Bhisham Sahni is a novel about the 1947 riots in Pakistan preceding the Partition of India. Based on Sahni’s first-hand experience, Tamas (Hindi for “Darkness, Ignorance”) is a fictionalized version of the riots, which pitted Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs against each other. Taking place in a frontier village, Tamas gives a personalized view of the bloody legacy of Partition.

The Partition of India was the division of the British Indian Empire into countries following Indian independence and the transference of control from British in Indian governments. Against the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi’s wishes, the Partition was done along religious lines. Pakistan was created as a homeland for India’s Muslim populations, while India’s border was drawn to contain the majority Hindu population. Partition is thought to have led to one of the largest mass migrations in history, as populations strove to migrate to their newly appointed countries. It is estimated that at least half a million people were killed in the riots, and that at least ten million more were rendered homeless. Riots broke out in many frontier communities preceding Partition, due to the preexisting religious tension and a desire for both sides to showcase the strength of their desire for adequately apportioned homelands. Muslim protesters in particular wanted to show that a single, Hindu-majority state was not acceptable, and that violence would continue until their country was secured. In addition, India and Pakistan were granted independence before Partition was enacted, and thus the British left policing these riots to the fledgling states, who had insufficient means to keep the peace. Both the British and Indian/Pakistani states did not provide sufficient plans or policing to shepherd the large migration and stop the sectarian violence.

The novel is episodic and therefore lacks a cohesive narrative outside of the overarching bent of history. As Sahni stated in an interview: “A novel based on recollections does not have any fixed predetermined narrative. Memories pushes the pens…the novels written under the weight of memories are weak from the point of view of structure.”

The novel opens with a man from a low caste, a tanner named Nathu, slaughtering a pig. He has been offered five rupees by an influential Muslim man named Murad Ali to kill the pig, having been told that it is for veterinary purposes. Murad instructs him to dump the carcass in a pushcart, and Nathu considers his work done.

The next morning, the pig’s body is found on the steps of the local mosque by the Congress committee, comprised of members of all three major religions. This act is seen as a provocation, assumed to be done by the Hindu community. In retaliation, a cow is slaughtered and the city, already full of tension surrounding the forthcoming Partition legislation, erupts into rioting and murder.

Richard, the British official (Deputy Commissioner) calls for a meeting of the Congress committee and leaders of the religious communities. Once assembled, he suggests that those gathered form a Peace Committee and implies that Indian leadership is to blame instead of offering any support from the British army or government. The gathered leaders and committee members lay blame on each other, and Richard is pleased. As he says to his wife, Liza: “When the people fight among, themselves, the ruler is safe.

As the riots intensify, the novel does not shy away from portraying acts of horror and violence. It portrays a twelve-year-old girl being raped to death and a boy, not yet in puberty, fatally stabbing an old man.

The second half of the novel introduces aged Sikh couple Harnam and Banto Singh. Their tea shop is burglarized,  their house set on fire, and their son forcibly circumcised and converted to Islam. They escape and seek refuge in a stranger’s house, who just happens to be the same Muslim who robbed them. They are none the wiser and the family actually shows them compassion and aid, showcasing the humanity amid the terrible sectarian violence. Though they manage to reach their daughter’s village, they do not escape the brutality. In fact, their daughter and other Sikh women fear further molestation so much that they jump into a well and kill themselves (a circumstance taken straight from history).

At last the British official, Richard, calls in support via air patrol to help curb the violence. When at last the riots die down, two refugee camps are set up to handle the uprooted citizens of the frontier area. Here, victims attempt to recall their suffering to the record clerk, but, a true avatar of bureaucracy, he shows no compassion and wishes to simply finish his work.

Tamas presents a snapshot of a violent and fractured period in Indian history and, through fictionalization, allows the reader to inhabit the minds of those who perpetrated and suffered through its worst crimes.

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Chapter 1-4