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The Pity of Partition | Ayesha Jalal

The many lives of Manto

Earlier this year, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, I happened to take part in a session on Saadat Hasan Manto. As speaker after speaker extolled the literary talent of the master storyteller, I made the mistake of hesitantly saying—hesitantly, because one does not say things like that about Manto—that I actually was not an unqualified admirer of Manto’s, that there were other writers writing at the time whom I admired more, and that occasionally, just occasionally, I found some of Manto’s stories a bit misogynistic.

A certain confusion arose. My co-panellists were in shock; meanwhile, a member of the audience turned to me and said you’ve probably not read him at all (not true, I’ve read enough, albeit in English, to know what I don’t like), and my panel chair allowed insult to be heaped on injury because she too could not credit that someone could actually say they did not like the master.

It was with some hesitation therefore that I approached Ayesha Jalal’s book, The Pity of Partition. What would this book tell us, I wondered, that has not been said before? Would it take a critical look at the writer, lionized as a master storyteller, a legend who lived life to the full, who felt the Partition deeply, who more or less drank himself into the grave at the young age of 42, and whose literary output was so prolific and so wide-ranging—plays, stories, journalistic pieces, critiques—that it would be difficult to match. Or would it be—given that the writer is Manto’s grand niece—just another hagiographical account?

As it happens, The Pity of Partition is none of these things. Instead, it takes a different tack altogether, with mixed results. The approach Jalal takes marks something of a departure for this well-known historian, although it does have parallels with her work on Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Basing her work on Manto’s life, his quintessential cosmopolitanism, the many journeys in which he traversed Amritsar, Delhi, Bombay and Lahore, and later, the borders of India and Pakistan, the friendships with other writers and film personalities, and the exploration of different forms of writing—all of this becomes a way of reading the history of Partition, and indeed questioning and resisting the colonial project of separation on the basis of religious identity. In her words, such an approach helps her: “to chalk out a new interdisciplinary way of reconnecting the histories of individuals, families, communities and states in the throes of cataclysmic change."

The Pity of Partition—Manto’s Life, Times And Work Across The India-Pakistan Divide: HarperCollins India, 265 pages, Rs599
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The Pity of Partition—Manto’s Life, Times And Work Across The India-Pakistan Divide: HarperCollins India, 265 pages, Rs599

Using micro stories to understand the play of the wider sweep of history is of course not new. In recent years many historians of Partition have done precisely that, although Jalal, unfairly I think, sweeps them all under one large communitarian carpet which allows her to dismiss their work as somehow lacking in what “real" (my term, not hers) historians have. Be that as it may, there is little doubt that Jalal’s book brings to life Manto, the person behind the legend, and shows how, in the shaping of his life, lie all the questions, the dilemmas, the upheavals, the anger, the sorrow, the bewilderment and the helplessness that Partition brought to the lives of millions of people in India and Pakistan.

For readers of Manto, and there are many, not only in the subcontinent, but also elsewhere, these insights into the life of this much loved writer will only add to the experience. Jalal shows how sometimes just a word, a thought, an action, led to the writing of an iconic story, and describes how many stories were based on real- life characters. More, she goes beyond the stories—and to my mind this is the signal contribution of this book—to look at Manto’s multifaceted writerly output. For in addition to the stories, he wrote screenplays, theatre plays (over a hundred, but very few were ever performed), and critical essays as well as a series of fictitious letters to “Uncle Sam" to express his anger at what the US was doing to Pakistan.

Almost prescient, he advised Uncle Sam to sign a military pact with Pakistan because “you are very worried about the stability of the world’s largest Islamic state. And why not, given that our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism. Once military aid starts flowing, the first people you should arm are those mullahs…." Could it be that the American establishment actually read Manto and took his advice?

As a writer who criss-crossed many worlds, Manto’s life provides a rich mosaic on to which can be mapped the troubled geography and history of Partition—a history that was as much a history of violence and cruelty, as it was of human compassion and courage. This latter is what I have often found lacking in Manto’s Partition stories, which to me remain the dark underside of history, but it is precisely this that is so prevalent in the work of other writers who were his contemporaries—Rajinder Singh Bedi, Yashpal, Ismat Chughtai and others. In time, historians will perhaps give this rich archive the attention it deserves.

Readers have a healthy curiosity about the lives of writers. Despite his considerable following, Manto’s readers have mostly known the broad contours of his life. This book, especially in the section on his school years, provides detail of the kind that often encourages readers to return to the work to see how life resonates with fiction.

Urvashi Butalia is a writer and feminist publisher

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