Book excerpt: Bhisham Sahni on his relationship with his 'more famous' brother Balraj

In his memoir, out now, Bhisham Sahni discusses his tricky relationship with ‘more famous’ older brother, Balraj Sahni, swinging between envy and hero worship

It's apt that the English translation of prominent Hindi playwright-actor Bhisham Sahni's memoir, Bhisham Sahni: Today's Pasts, a memoir is out in the year of his 100th birth anniversary. Select excerpts.

Bhisham Sahni with actor Balraj Sahni in the late 1940s
Bhisham Sahni with actor Balraj Sahni in the late 1940s

I was born in 1915. My father and mother, though, were not in agreement about the date and month. My mother said that I was one year and eleven months younger than my older brother, Balraj, but my father entered my birthdate as 8 August 1915 in the school's registry, which increased by a few more months the gap between my brother and I. Father kept a notebook in which he kept detailed records of birthdays, wedding anniversaries and accounts of loans within the clan. But there was no mention of my birthdate anywhere in the notebook. When my brother and I fought in our childhood, Balraj always said, 'You aren't even my real brother. Father found you on the rubbish heap.' As proof, he'd say, 'I'm fair and you're a darkie; I'm well-built, you're sickly; I know all of the evening prayers by heart, and you can't remember a thing, etc.' Whenever we talked about my birthday, Mother would count the months and days on her fingertips. Nonetheless, it was certain that I had been born, and eventually the debate about my birthday waned and everyone settled on 8 August 1915.

Bhisham Sahni and Dina Pathak during the filming of Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! Pics/Bhisham Sahni: Today’s Pasts, a memoir
Bhisham Sahni and Dina Pathak during the filming of Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! PICS/Bhisham Sahni: Today’s Pasts, a memoir

When Balraj was born, a band was called to play in front of our house. Mother recalled that she fainted when she heard the music. The story was that whenever Mother had given birth before, my uncle would sit on a cot outside the house and eagerly await the news of a son. But when he heard it was a daughter, he'd shake his head, begin muttering, and get up and leave. This had happened five times already; when a son was born, he was so overjoyed that he ran to the market and called the band, and the sound of their playing made Mother faint.

As actor with IPTA in the late 1940s
As actor with IPTA in the late 1940s

But there was no band when I was born. Whenever my brother and I fought, he always brought up this fact....

Father believed in manliness. Manliness and simplicity. Which meant we had to get up at dawn, and if we didn't we'd have cold water splashed on our faces. Then we had to go for a walk. Father would always go on ahead and we brothers lagged behind, chatting and dragging our feet. The inventory of manliness also included bathing with cold water through summer and winter, a topknot dancing on your head, mustard oil on the shaved part of the head around the topknot, and, for me, my brother's cast-off clothing, because he was getting tall very quickly. Later, he began to get Father's cast-off clothes, and then they came to me. The first time I wore a new coat that was tailored to my measurements was on the occasion of the Arya Samaj's fiftieth anniversary, when Father took the two of us with him to Mathura.

Simplicity also meant avoiding meat and fish. Our kitchen only ever produced dal and vegetables, and there was a lot of milk and yogurt. Mother said, 'If ever one of your father's business associates comes whom he wants to feed fish or meat, then he must have it prepared outside my kitchen.' She'd take the plates that they ate from and have them cleaned with live coals.
On the other hand, Mother wasn't very strict, nor did she have any strong belief in the virtues of simplicity. She was always hiding some money away in a pocket of her waistcoat. When she collected a certain amount, she'd buy something that we children wanted. Once she collected eighty rupees in her waistcoat pocket and we got a gramophone. Father was quite upset but Mother was completely unconcerned.

The gurukul's teachings were having an effect on Balraj, which is why he wanted to talk to me one day. We were heading towards the gurukul.

'What is it?'
'You need to walk behind me. From now on, walk behind me.'
'Because you are the younger brother. The younger brother doesn't walk beside the older.'
I looked up at his face.
'Ram and Lakshman never walked side by side.'
'I am not Lakshman.'
'You are my younger brother.'
Then he shoved me behind him.
'And listen.'
'What is it?'
'From now on, don't call me Balraj. I am your elder brother, jyeshth bhrata.'
'So what should I call you?'
'Revered Brother! You should call me 'bhrataji'. Now get behind me.'
As we continued walking, he said, 'When Ram and Lakshman ran, they were one in front of the other. I'll show you how they used to run.'
At first I just kept staring at his face, but then I said very unwillingly, 'Okay, bhrataji!' I agreed to this order and also got behind him.

When we got home and I addressed him as 'bhrataji!' my sisters guffawed out loud.

'The crow is trying to walk like a swan!' my older sister said.

But my mother said, 'It's a good thing. Call him bhrataji. At least you'll learn something. Who calls their older brother by their name?' But I used to choke on the word 'bhrataji'.

'I'm going to go play gilli-danda. Do you want to come . . . bhrataji?'

Once when I was late in coming back home, Balraj grabbed me by the arm so I jerked my hand free and barked an insult: 'He always goes home, my bhrataji!'

That day I got chilli in my mouth for even saying 'bhrataji'. But slowly I became accustomed to this discipline, and for years I only called him 'bhrataji'. But after I finished school, the popular Punjabi term 'bhapa' took the place of 'bhrataji', and that form of address lasted the rest of our lives.

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.

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 all together 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.

Reproduced with permission from Penguin Random House India

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