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Updated: August 27, 2013 01:40 IST

The mother of all problems

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman
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The Pity of Partition.
Special Arrangement
The Pity of Partition.

Ayesha Jalal argues that partition was not the answer to the political questions confronting India before Independence

Historians would continue to quibble over the validity of the use of short stories as the equivalent of archival evidence in writing history. Scholars of other hues would generally suspect the objectivity of a work by an author who writes about her close relative, and fondly introduces her subject as, “Manto Abbajan.” Nonetheless, the value of this book by Ayesha Jalal is beyond such concerns. This book challenges the conventional orthodoxy of methodological disputes. She explains as follows, “An imaginative inquiry into Manto’s personal and literary biography enables an expansion of historiograhpical apparatus deployed thus far in explaining the causes and narrating the experience of partition.”(p.3)

Like Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, Ayesha Jalal was catapulted to stardom by virtue of her exceptionally original doctoral research on Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Ever since, Prof Jalal has pushed the boundary of history writing in each of her successive projects in more than two decades of her global career as a major historian on South Asia. In these works, she has made seminal arguments about some universal questions on core issues of identity, Islam and nation-state. After reading this book, Manto fans have a legitimate question for her: Why did Ayesha Jalal take so long to write this book? Well, it is a good question. But the most desirable answer is that these two decades have positioned her to put the weight of her credibility and fame to expand the reach of this work hopefully to a varied audience of a new generation. Manto remains an iconic voice of post-Ghalib Urdu writings at a time when the Urdu language is decoding survival puzzles in the subcontinent, especially in India.

The book has three sections: stories, memories, and histories. Each part has three well-researched chapters. The first part deals with the biographical aspect of Manto, though fragments of it appear in subsequent parts in relation to narratives of his various stories. The other two parts grapple with substantially different questions, about partition politics, and related issues of identity, global politics, and human nature. The political argument that dominates the book was that partition was not a solution. Rather, it has become the mother of all problems in the politics of the sub-continent, and has given birth to such mire that outside forces have become inevitable players, and increasingly, it is not the progress, but the survival of various nation-states that has become the paramount question of our time. Manto perhaps saw it all as a visionary story teller. The chapter titled “Pakistan and Uncle Sam’s Cold War” is based on Manto’s letters and reflects a few layers of such arguments. He was deeply critical of both the United States and the Soviet Union. He wrote the first of his nine letters to Uncle Sam on 16 December 1951- eleven days before being admitted to the anti-alcoholic ward in a mental hospital.

Sadat Hasan Manto was born on May 11, 1912 at Sambrala in Ludhiana district, a descendant of a Kashmiri Muslim trading family that had migrated to Punjab in early 19 century. The name Manto comes from the Kashmiri word, Mant, meaning a stone weighing one and half seer, or approximately three pounds. It refers to what his Saraswat Brahman ancestors were entitled to collect as rent from the cultivating peasants.

Manto’s mother, Sadar Begum, was the second wife of Khwaja Gulam Hasan, a trained lawyer who went on to become a Sessions Judge. Manto, his most genius son, failed to realise his father’s ambition. As a child, Manto was fond of kite flying, but extremely poor in formal education unlike his siblings, some of whom earned British degrees. Manto passed his school-leaving examination in the fourth attempt but failed in Urdu.

Real-life people

Manto was inspired by the popular folk hero, Bhagat Singh. The early chapters offer detailed insights to the circumstances in which Manto was drawn to writing. His subjects were invariably real-life people, and his characters were the products of illicit social exchanges that took place in the alleys of notorious urban neighbourhoods. Through the translation, and reading of writers such as Maupassant, Hugo, Chekhov, and Tolstoy and many others, Manto taught himself the craft of story writing.

The first part is essentially biographical. These narratives give the factual details of his family history, and stories about his upbringing. Its first chapter is titled “Knives, Daggers, and Bullets Cannot Destroy religion.” But the chapter on Bombay, and another titled, “Living and Walking Bombay” in the following section, offers deep insights into the challenges he confronted during his writing career. He eventually had to leave Bombay, owing to the partition. Manto arrived in Lahore via Karachi around 7 or 8 of January. He wrote his first story, Thanda Gosht, (Colder than Ice) mainly to please his friend, Ahmed Nadeem Quasimi, for his newly launched journal, Naqoosh. The chapter, On the Post- Colonial Moment, offers details about many of Manto’s iconic stories and the context in which they were written. He wrote Toba Tek Singh in 1954, after spending time in Lahore’s mental asylum for his alcoholism, which remains the finest satire on partition in any language so far.

The final chapter, “A Nail’s Debt”, offers the details about his death, and stories about his friends and fans. The author writes, “As his body was lowered to freshly dug grave at Miani Saheb, several of Manto’s fictional characters were spotted in the crowd, among them, Babu Gopinath; Kanshi, the pick pocket of Jaib Katra, and Bishan Singh of Toba Tek Singh.” This chapter also highlights the indifference of the Pakistan state towards one of its most gifted citizens, and his family. The Pakistani state looked at him more as a pornographer, and alcoholic, and its radio and television chose not to air his stories, and its text books chose not to teach his stories. On August 14, 2012, however, Pakistan honoured him with the highest civilian award, Nishan- e-Imtiaz (Order of Excellence), but given the kind of humanist he was, he would have perhaps turned down that award, particularly because it was given on August 14. All in all, this is an indispensable piece of reading for literary critics, historians and scholars of South Asia.

(Mujibur Rehman teaches at the Jamia Millia Central University,

New Delhi)

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