Q&A | Ayesha Jalal
Ayesha Jalal, Mary Richardson professor of history at Tufts University, US, is one of the world’s foremost historians on modern South Asia. Having written books on subjects ranging from jihad in the region to the history of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League, her next project is more personal: It is a history of Partition connected to the life and work of Saadat Hasan Manto, who happened to be Jalal’s great-uncle. On a visit to India earlier this year, she spoke to Lounge about The Pity of Partition: Manto as Witness to History, to be published early in 2013 by Princeton University Press, and in India by HarperCollins India. Edited excerpts:
What was the origin of this book?
When I was invited to give the Lawrence Stone Lectures at Princeton (University, in 2011), somebody said “Why don’t you do a microhistory?” The microhistory that came to mind was Manto’s, because I’d been in the process of organizing and locating some of his papers. I thought I could connect his life and his work—the micro—to the macro event of Partition.
How do you approach Manto as a reader?
I must first of all say that he’s known as a fiction writer, but for me he is a terrific writer of memoir. He has written many essays that are crucial in the writing of Muslim and Pakistani history. His short stories are clearly very important, and I enjoy them. He writes concisely; he’s gripping. I’ve been reading them or hearing of them since I was a child.
On history: Ayesha Jalal. Hindustan Times
And then, he is my grand-uncle. He was dead by the time I was born, but I grew up in a household calling him Manto abbajaan. So he was present in his absence.
He had a lot of influence on me and why I turned to studying history. I was curious to know what he wrote was more than fiction; (it) was fact. I turned to history for that.
What did you find?
It was corroborated to the extent that I accept that Manto was better. He captured that violence better than any historian could. We are constrained by our methodologies, in our need to be able to produce the sources. In many ways Manto was a great historical writer but, of course, he didn’t have to suffer the constraining aspects of history.
He was something of a polarizing figure in his lifetime.
He was that. But the beauty of Manto was—he said, you know, I don’t write filth. I don’t write obscenity. I only write what is there in your society. So why are you so ashamed? Clearly he made people uncomfortable; the sort of people who didn’t blink an eyelid going to a prostitute, but would be infuriated if any mention was made of the prostitute as a human being. But, you know, we keep harping on how Manto was polarizing; I must also say he has a lot of admiration across the subcontinent and I think that is very unifying as well.
Was there an emotional tension in writing about someone to whom you are related?
All I’ll say is that I would not have written this book as my first book. But there comes a time to do it, and I always knew I would do it