Manto: Partition’s Literary Legacy
On her grand-uncle Saadat Hasan Manto’s birth centenary, AYESHA JALAL shares an exclusive excerpt from her upcoming book, The Pity of Partition
MANTO ARRIVED in Lahore via Karachi around 7 or 8 January 1948 and spent the next three months in a state of agitated confusion. Was he in Bombay, Karachi or Lahore where musical gatherings were being held at restaurants to collect money for the Quaid-i-azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah Fund? It felt like watching several films simultaneously — all chaotically interlinked — sometimes it was Bombay’s bazaars and backstreets; at others Karachi’s fast-moving trams and donkey carts and, the next moment, Lahore’s noisy restaurants. Slouched on a single seat sofa at 31 Lakshmi Mansions lost in thought, Manto was shaken out of his slumber once the money he had brought from Bombay ran out. He knew then that he was in Lahore, where he came periodically for his court cases and bought beautiful shoes. How was he going to make a living here? Lahore’s film industry was paralyzed. Film companies had no existence beyond signboards. The race for allotments of properties abandoned by Hindus and Sikhs was the only game in town, but Manto could not bring himself to partake of the loot bazaar. The poets Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Chiragh Hasan Hasrat drew him to writing for the daily Imroze. Mentally perturbed, Manto could not decide what to write about, “Despite trying I could not separate India from Pakistan and Pakistan from India.” He had innumerable questions and no obvious answers. In what ways would Pakistani literature be distinctive? Who owned the literature written in undivided India? Will it be divided as well? Weren’t the basic problems confronting Indians and Pakistanis the same? Was Urdu going to become extinct in India; what shape would it assume in Pakistan? “Will our state be a religious state?” Manto wondered. “We will, of course, always remain loyal to the state, but will we be allowed to criticize the government,” and above all else, “will independence make the circumstances here different from what they were in the colonial era?”
These fundamental questions about the nature of the post-colonial transition have continued to resonate in the public discourse of the subcontinent. They also were the inspiration for my own historical enquiry into the causes and consequences of India’s partition. The literary presence of the conspicuously absent Manto Abajan, literally father, as I grew up calling my great-uncle while living in Lakshmi Mansions and beyond, had a subtle role to play in the making of this historian. I grew up knowing the grim nuances of several of his partition stories. I was especially proud to have memorized the gibberish — “Upar di gur gur di annexe di be tehana di moong di dal of the laltain” — uttered by the main character in the highly acclaimed story ‘Toba Tek Singh’. Manto’s stories about the human depravity that marked independence and the birth of Pakistan, whether in the form of rapes, abductions and murders, instilled in me a desire to gauge the extent to which they were actually corroborated by the historical evidence. I was also keen to probe the self-definition of the new state that emerged out of the partition process and which persecuted Manto on charges of obscenity when he wrote about the experience of raped and abducted women.
Partition was both the central historical event in twentieth-century South Asia and a historical process that has continued unfolding to this day. It is common to hear in the subcontinent that the most pressing problems besetting India, Pakistan and Bangladesh today have their origin in the decisions of expediency taken in 1947. An exploration of Manto’s life and literature provides the historian with a novel way to address the complex relationship between the event and the processes of partition. Hailed as a keen observer of the moment of partition, Manto was equally, if not more powerfully, an astute narrator of its continuing aftershocks. His corpus of writings in multiple genres during the first seven years of post-colonial Pakistan offers historians a range of resources to reconnect the histories of individuals, families, communities and the state.
The growing availability of his short stories in translation in different languages, notably English, Hindi and Japanese, has made Manto increasingly more accessible to a global reading public. Although acclaimed for his non-judgmental portrayal of prostitutes and a plethora of other socially taboo subjects, Manto’s international reputation as a short story writer has for the most part rested on his gripping narratives of partition. An exclusive emphasis on Manto as a realistic short story writer has tended to detract attention from his
other no less significant writings. The value of his personality sketches as a means for the historical retrieval of different kinds of individual and collective memory has been delineated. He was a prolific essayist as well and wrote on a wide spectrum of burning social issues, placing him among the alltime leading public intellectuals of South Asia, if such a category could be deemed to exist in the aftermath of 1947. Not as well known as Manto’s stories, the biting social critique in his essays lend themselves well to the writing of histories of not just the long post-colonial transition, but also the politics of the Cold War era and the cultural and intellectual implications of the Pakistani state’s efforts to project an Islamic identity to exert an artificial sense of homogeneity within and distinctiveness without, notably in relation to India.
Manto’s popularity on both sides of the borders drawn in 1947 makes him an especially valuable source for the historian. With his no holds barred critique of society, unshakeable belief in the inherent goodness of people, however lowly and despicable they may seem to others, he makes the post-colonial moment come alive in all its ambivalences and contradictions. Accessible to a broad readership without slipping into shallowness or superficialities, he depicts partition like a realist painter rather than a photographer. He saw partition not simply as an event tossing on the surface of the waves that the strong tides of history carry on their backs, to borrow a phrase from the French historian Ferdinand Braudel. If it was an event, partition was a tsunami unleashed by a tectonic shift of transformative proportions. Hugely destructive but also potentially creative, partition as experienced and understood by Manto was an ongoing process whose inner and outward manifestations have neither a clear beginning nor a conclusive end.
Manto’s international reputation has for the most part rested on his gripping narratives of partition
Rewriting history Saadat Hasan Manto
Flashbacks Manto with his family