Magazine 2013
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
A Comparative Study Of  
Ruskin Bond’s “A Flight Of Pigeons” And  
Bhisham Sahni’s “Tamas”  
Ishrat Ali Laljee  
History has lent a theme to much world literature since time immemorial. In India, significant  
historical events which have impacted literature in the last two centuries have been the freedom  
struggle and the culmination of the struggle accompanied with the partition of the Indian sub-continent.  
These events though unpleasant have certainly enriched the literature of the land. The novellas in this  
comparative study, Ruskin Bond’s ‘A Flight of Pigeons’ and Bhisham Sahni’s ‘Tamas’ mark two  
watershed years in Indian history; 1857 and 1947 respectively. Ruskin Bond writes from information  
received and researched upon. He has a more objective hindsight since he suffered no personal  
trauma and he is able to review the scene from a neutral lens perhaps because has was born a Briton,  
but grew to love India and subsequently embraced its nationality. Bhisham Sahni, on the other hand  
had a hands-on experience of the gory realities of the final stages of the freedom struggle and the  
partition riots. Both books are factual accounts embellished in fiction and facilitate a better comprehension  
of significant passages of Indian history. The novellas have been studied from both primary and  
secondary sources including press articles, the movie ‘Junoon’ which was based on ‘A Flight of  
Pigeons’ ,and both the tele serial as well as the movie ‘Tamas’ based on the novella of the same name.  
Unpublished Personal Interviews with Ruskin Bond, author of ‘A Flight of Pigeons’ and Shyam Benegal,  
Director of ‘Junoon’ have also been a part of the research.  
Keywords - History, Neutral Lens, Experience, Movie  
Ruskin Bond’s A Flight of Pigeons written in the 1960’s and set in 1857 and Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas  
written in the 1970’s and set in 1947 mark significant waypoints in the socio-political history of India. Bond’s  
novella which covers the period that witnessed the Indian sub-continent’s first agitation to shake off the fetters  
of colonial rule was the outcome of the author’s familial connections with the incidents recounted, as well as a  
visit to the locale of action and intense personal research. Bond’s father who was born in the Shahjahanpur  
military cantonment a few years after the revolt had narrated to his son, the story of Mariam and Ruth Labadoor,  
pivotal characters in A Flight of Pigeons. Curiosity then led Bond to read up a Personal Diary of Ruth, as well  
as District Gazetteers. This reading fomented him to visit Shahjahanpur since he believes and recommends that  
History is best enjoyed by visiting the scene of actual events, and allowing the imagination to wander back  
and forth in time” Saili and Bond (2004). In the novella Bond has ingenuously resurrected the events that  
marked the town of Shahjahanpur in those turbulent days, replete with interplay of rioting, hospitality, passion  
and importantly political power transpositions between the British who were briefly subverted by the militant  
local populace before they retaliated and restored their authority. This altercation of power status symbolically  
lends to the book its title. An analogy is drawn between the British rulers who suffered recesses from which they  
soon recovered. “They come flying like white pigeons, when disturbed, fly away, and circle, and come down to  
rest again.” Bond (1999).  
Sahni’s book has recounted the culmination of the agitation for independence nine decades later. India  
was freed from political subjugation, but not without a painful geo-political surgery that claimed over a quarter  
million lives and is recounted as the largest mass migration that the world has ever witnessed. Sahni had been  
a first hand observer of the freedom struggle and partition riots and many of the events and characters resurrected  
in his novella had long been incubating in his memory. The author’s painful experiences had refined him both  
as a person and as a litterateur; they had made him better, not bitter. Sahni is rarely given to a sentimental and  
dramatic response. In fact, “His creativity is characterized by deep reflection upon and understanding of the  
complexities and nuances of reality. Nihalani. (1988). His message is directed against the sickness of  
communalism. There is simplicity of expression, honesty of observation and a deep, compassionate secular  
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
vision. Interestingly, ‘Kites (and vultures) shall fly (over this town)’ Sahni (1988) is a recurring line in Tamas and  
was to lend to the book its alternative title - ‘Kites Shall Fly’ to convey a sense of foreboding violence. Directly  
or indirectly, birds figure in the title imagery of both novellas, though the birds range from docile to predatory.  
Early in A Flight of Pigeons occurs sordid violence in the premises of a church comparing closely with  
the commencement of the novella Tamas in which the carcass of a pig is cast on the steps of a local mosque  
resulting in retaliation and subsequent communal violence. Both books attempt to decode the psychology of  
mob violence. Places of worship are vulnerable targets and the absolute and unreasonable brutality of rioters  
is demonstrated by the characters of Javed Khan and his unruly band in A Flight of Pigeons who simply  
demand a contribution from Jhunna Lal of another community and punish his refusal by suspending him from  
a tree by his legs and casting his account books in his well. In Tamas, Ramzan and his truculent horde pursue  
and victimize Iqbal Singh pushing him down to the nadir of self-respect with shameless ridicule and follow this  
by forced religious conversion.  
That women have borne the brunt of most cataclysms in history is well known and well demonstrated in  
both stories under study. Physically and emotionally traumatized, forced to leave their homes and totally at  
the mercy of rapacious males are the characters of Mariam, Ruth and Khan-Begum in Bond’s novella. Parallel  
examples in Tamas are the raped corpse of the girl who tried to flee to save her modesty and the ‘bagri ‘girl  
who was put to death even though she offered her modesty to the men who pursued her.  
However, in both books there are powerful women characters too who in spite of their forlorn circumstances  
show rare mettle. Mariam Labadoor is able to rein the desires and designs of Javed Khan on her daughter and  
win the reverence of his family members even while she lives under his roof. She also displays an uncommon  
courage in beleaguered circumstances when she confronts the troopers that attempt to molest her family as  
they are on the move out of Shahjanabad. In Tamas, the characters of Harnam Singh’s wife Banto and Nathu’s  
wife are memorable on account of their patience, loyalty and faith, while Rajo, wife of Ehsan Ali stands out as  
a woman with a strong and independent mind who shelters and conceals the presence of the fleeing Harnam  
Singh and his wife. Rajo is even willing to face the wrath of the men folk of her household because her theism  
and character prevent her from turning away a person who has knocked at her door. She goes a step further  
and returns to the fleeing couple their ornaments that had been looted by her husband. The Sikh women at the  
gurudwara’ who jump into a well, preferring death to dishonor are also emblematic of both victimization and  
courage in an age fraught with terror.  
That an atmosphere of violence penetrates into the human psyche and results in uncalled for cruelty and  
aggression are seen in both the novellas, though the contents in Tamas are far more gruesome and horrific as  
compared to A Flight of Pigeons. This is perhaps the outcome of recounting history from primary sources as  
against secondary sources and also probably because the warring factions in 1857 were unequally pitted,  
while in 1947 there was a balance of terror. Besides, in the latter case the violence was religion driven and  
therefore more zealous, albeit in a negative sense. The characters of Javed Khan in A Flight of Pigeons and  
Shahnawaz and Ranvir in Tamas make for interesting psychological observations. Javed Khan lashes his half-  
brother Saifulla with a whip so severely that the young lad is laid up in bed for days groaning with pain. Javed  
Khan had simply given vent to his rage and frustration and remains unrepentant as he threatens to repeat the  
flogging if Saifulla doesn’t stop groaning. Shahnawaz, on the other hand is portrayed as a bundle of  
contradictions. As a missionary of mercy he risks his reputation to salvage his friend Raghunath’s jewels, but  
kills Milkhi, Raghunath’s servant boy only because he had never liked Milkhi’s dirty eyes, whining tone, puny  
body and effeminate mannerisms. On similar lines is drawn the character of Ranvir who without reason puts to  
death a harmless elderly perfume seller because killing a person of the ‘other’ community was perceived by  
him as a service to his own community. The gory death which ‘General’ of the Congress party meets while  
delivering an impassioned patriotic speech, in Tamas also evokes gross revulsion, especially since it is as  
unnecessary as it is unprovoked.  
Sufi ‘pirs’ with mystical powers of prediction who are revered by the local populace figure in both  
books, resurrecting a period image of the contemporary culture in north India in the years when Muslim  
influence was particularly strong in that region. Black, white and grey characters of different communities who  
were either victims or aggressors are represented as Sahni works towards debunking communal categorizations.  
As observed by Justice Bakhtawar Lentin and Justice Sujata Manohar of the Bombay High Court, Tamas  
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depicts how communal violence was generated by fundamentalists and communalists in both communities,  
and how innocent persons were duped into serving the ulterior purposes of rascals on both sides.  
The point that white women are particularly attractive for average Indian men is also a trivial, but noticeable  
point of commonality in both the novellas. Javed Khan finds Ruth irrestible and declares, “…life is not so long  
that I can wait an eternity to quench my desires” Bond (1999); while the Deputy Commissioner, Richard plainly  
informs his wife, ‘And…and…they love the white woman without exception.’ Sahni (1988). Richard also describes  
Indians to his wife, as an irascible lot who fight the British for the sake of their country and against one another  
in the name of religion and further informs her that rulers don’t look for similarities among the ruled, they are  
only interested in finding out what can keep them apart. He advertently admits the role of the British as the  
fomenters of trouble, which is a political fact that glares out of both the novellas and is succinctly expressed by  
the character of Bakshiji in Tamas with the words, ‘First, they let the sparks fly and then they put out the fire.’  
Sahni (1988).  
Renowned writer, Ismat Chugtai chanced upon A Flight of Pigeons and  
shared it with filmmaker, Shyam Benegal who based on it a film titled Junoon,  
while Govind Nihalani first serialized Tamas for television and later made it a  
feature film. The former was passively received, but the latter evoked a strong  
emotional and political response all over the country as it was feared that  
communal embers would be re-stoked. However, a High Court ruling, upheld  
by the Supreme Court destined its telecast and made a point that “naked truth  
in all times will not be beneficial but truth in its proper light indicating the evils  
and the consequences of those evils is instructive …” Nihalani (1988).  
A Flight of Pigeons marks a failed agitation for independence, which in fact, had an undesired consequence.  
Foreign rule in the country was reinforced with the governance passing from the company to the crown. Most  
rebel leaders, as per gazette records were either killed or brought to trial, and in all cases, their property was  
confiscated. The Indian sub-continent however remained intact. Tamas marks a positive waypoint, as  
independence became a reality, but there was Tamas i.e. ‘Darkness’ as it came at the price of communal strife  
and the dismemberment of the sub-continent, the wounds of which yet remain unhealed. The novella also  
serves as a prophetic warning against the use of religion as a weapon to gain and perpetuate political power.  
Both novellas facilitate historical journeys - unpleasant at times, but revealing and instructive. (1765 words)  
Bond, Ruskin. Collected Fiction. New Delhi: Penguin India (P) Ltd., 1999. Print.  
Bond, Ruskin & Saili, Ganesh. Ruskin, Our Endearing Bond. New Delhi: Roli Books. 2004. Print.  
Sahni, Bhisham. Tamas. New Delhi: Penguin Books (India) Ltd., 1988. (With an Introduction by Govind  
Nihalani) Print.  
Works/Websites Referred:  
Dunbar, Sir George. A History of India. Delhi: Neeraj Publishing House.1981.  
accessed on January 10, 2013  
accessed on January 10, 2013