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

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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

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