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Book Review: Ayesha Jalal’s ‘The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide’

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By Safia Begum

The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide.
Ayesha Jalal
Harper Collins India, 2013.

“Possible that Saadat Hasan dies and Manto lives on” – Manto

There are numerous scholarly works both in literature and history on the Partition of India (1947). In Indian literatures, too, there are a number of writers who have depicted both the physical and mental trauma of partition creatively. However, Saadat Hasan Manto, the skillful and magnificent short story writer of Urdu, dealt with the issue in a manner that no other writer could outdo. Manto’s works are, as claimed by him, known for their portrayal of the realities of life. Not only the situations and settings of his stories but the characters are the people whom he knew, encountered, and saw. Today, there are numerous scholarly works available on his life and works in different languages such as Urdu, English and Hindi. His works have been translated into various languages as well.

Ayesha Jalal’s book, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, deals with the issue of Partition from a novel perspective. It links an individual writer’s life and his body of work with the historical event. It highlights his realist fiction, life, and other genres of writings and interlinks history and the literature. In interconnecting these two distinct poles of writings – history and literature – Manto’s realist fiction plays a crucial role. The work captures Manto’s life and looks at the historical event of Partition from Manto’s point of view by arguing that Manto’s writing  was not fiction or just the social realities of his time, but a depiction of the real people, who were around him.

The book opens with a “Prelude: Manto and Partition”, which is followed by the three chapters that are sub-divided into three parts. The first chapter, “Stories”, is divided into (1) “Knives, Daggers, and Bullets Cannot Destroy Religion” (2) Amritsar Dreams of Revolution (3) Bombay: Challenges and Opportunities. The second chapter, “Memories”, contains (1) Remembering Partition (2) From Cinema City to Conquering Air Waves (3) Living and Walking Bombay. The third chapter, “Histories”, includes (1) Partition: Neither End nor Beginning (2) On the Postcolonial Moment, and (3) Pakistan and Uncle Sam’s Cold War. The three chapters can be understood as Manto’s “Stories”, Manto’s “Memories”, and Manto as a part and viewer of “Histories”.

In “Stories”, the first part, “Knives, Daggers, and Bullets Cannot Destroy Religion”, begins with two of his stories that are partly autobiographical. It narrates Manto’s belief in humanity that he depicted through his various characters. “Amritsar dreams of Revolution” explores his early life, his first exposure to the literary world through the translations he was doing of Russian and French short stories, the literary personalities whom he read, the first short story he penned, “Tamasha”, based on the Jallianwala Bagh incident, which he experienced as a seven year old child, and the reasons of his migration to Bombay. “Bombay: Challenges and Opportunities” opens another chapter of his life as an editor of a journal called, Mussawir (Painter), and his first appeal to the Bombayites to maintain religious harmony, his career in films as a script writer, and his marriage. Briefly, “Stories” explores his personal and early life as a writer.

In “Memories”, the first part “Remembering Partition” re-looks at the event of partition and proffers that the recent trend in memory studies of traumatic events undermines the significance of historical events. Referring to the riots of 1984 that took place after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the riots following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, Jalal comments that “these tragic incidents have been naturalized in narratives of social conflict…as periodic occurrences whose only certainty lies in their recurrences.” The reasons and consequences are not delineated appropriately; rather, it obscures the matter and pushes the events under the term of religious communalism. Hence, memory studies have its limitations. “From Cinema City to Conquering Air Waves” explores Manto as a playwright in All India Radio, who produced more than a hundred plays during this very brief period of life he spent in Delhi. Manto was content at this stage of his life but the sudden loss of his son and later the politics at his work place forced him to leave the job and return to Bombay. However, the time he spent in AIR is considered to be the most prolific and successful that popularized Saadat Hasan Manto as “Manto”. “Living and Walking Bombay” takes the reader once again to Manto’s cosmopolitan life in Bombay, where he met and shared lasting friendships with the people like Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Ismat Chughtai, etc. Here, he worked as a script writer and tried his hand at acting as well.

The third chapter takes the readers back to the traumatic event of Partition. As a product of undivided India, Manto felt disoriented after his migration to Pakistan: “He felt as if he were 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.” Further, the chapter narrates the post-partition sufferings of the newly formed Pakistan through Manto’s stories and the obscenity charges he faced for two of his stories, “Thanda Gosht” and “Khol Do”. “Pakistan and Uncle Sam’s Cold War” presents Manto’s letters to Uncle Sam that informs his political insights and concerns about the contemporary issues facing the newly formed country.

The Epilogue, ““A Nail’s debt”: Manto Lives on…”, narrates the situations soon after Manto’s death and the response of the country, the writers with whom he was associated and the Writers Organizations, Progressive Writers’ Association and Halqa-e- Arbab-e Zauq, with whom he was never associated. The epilogue argues that though Manto was not appreciated during his lifetime for his literary contributions by his fellow writers and the country but his readers loved and respected him. At his funeral, many of his characters appeared to have the last glimpse of their writer. Of course, soon after his death, the news was broadcast on Radio Pakistan Lahore, a station where his dramas were prohibited from airing. However, through his writings Manto lives on…

During his life, Manto embodied the displacement and alienation that the Partition of India produced. He could not endure it and suffered miserably at the hands of his own people. Ayesha Jalal’s excellent book works as an old wine in a new bottle. The strength of the book is the framework through which Manto’s life, times and works are explored. Otherwise, the book would have become one more addition to the already burgeoning field of Manto studies in different languages, which repeatedly focuses on Manto’s life, works, friends, enemies and so on. Moreover, what also adds to the strength of the book are some hitherto unexplored sources like his personal unpublished letters that he received from his friends and admirers, also known as Manto Papers. No scholar has so far accessed these letters and these new archival sources offer a rare glimpse into Manto’s life and his times.

Safia Begum is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for Folk Culture Studies, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad. She works on the Folklore of Muslim Communities. She is from Hyderabad.

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