Bhisham Sahni’s The Mansion or Mayyadas ki Marhi traces the history of a town in Punjab which sees the change in fortunes and lives of the people as the old Khalsa Raj is defeated and the British rule is established. Spanning over a period of almost three hundred years is the Mansion that has stood the test of time, even if its masters have not. Beginning with a marriage between equals gone horribly wrong, the author, in his unique way, takes us on a journey through the town’s past and present, touching on the lives of many characters who appear to come alive in front of us, enacting their role in the theatre of life and adding a whole new perspective to the narrative. There are Diwans and farmers, money lenders and freedom fighters, each with his own traits and destiny.
Mayyadas was a Diwan well-respected in the times of the Khalsa Raj where traditions were adhered to and values such as loyalty and integrity were admired. He was well-off, generous and fair but with the fall of the old order, his eminence in the town begins to diminish. With the new government comes the new order of Diwans and landed gentry with privileges gained due to services rendered to the British, and things began to change in the town. A person who was ridiculed earlier comes to be esteemed highly, even though the means by which he gained riches were barely respectable. Such is the reversal of fortunes that can happen in the blink of an eye.
Addressing many of the social stigmas and superstitions of the era, Bhisham Sahni brings to light some of the reforms that were undertaken and the opposition faced by regular people who dared to trod the unbeaten path. Subjects like education of the girl child, stories of valour and betrayal, sweeping changes brought about by the British Raj, traditions and customs of the bygone time are brought to light delicately but vividly so that you get a sense of living in that age. One cannot help but feel a sense of solidarity with the great mansion, with its living walls, observing silently the metamorphosis of the quiet town into a bustling city retaining none of the elements from the time it came into being. We get a premonition of things to come with the systemic collapse of a symbolic structure of the old town called the Kabuli Gate. Perhaps a similar fate awaits the Mansion.
About the author: Bhisham Sahni is one of the pillars of Indian literature. Most widely acknowledged for his masterpiece, Tamas, based on the dark period of Indian partition, he was a prolific writer and has produced many short stories and plays as well. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan for literature in 1998, and Sahitya Akademi Fellowship in 2002.
This review was first published at www.ingoodbooks.com