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Updated: May 12, 2012 00:10 IST

Curator of a hollowed conscience

Ayesha Jalal
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Saadat Hasan Manto
Saadat Hasan Manto

If there is a birthday present Pakistanis and Indians can jointly give Manto, it is to admit the reality of the problems he spelt out in his writings on partition

Saadat Hasan Manto, whose birth centenary is being celebrated in Pakistan and India today, once remarked that any attempt to fathom the murderous hatred that erupted with such devastating effect at the time of the British retreat from the subcontinent had to begin with an exploration of human nature itself.

For the master of the Urdu short story this was not a value judgment. It was a statement of what he had come to believe after keen observation and extended introspection. Shaken by the repercussions of the decision to break up the unity of the subcontinent, Manto wondered if people who only recently were friends, neighbours and compatriots had lost all sense of their humanity. He too was a human being, ‘the same human being who raped mankind, who indulged in killing' and had ‘all those weaknesses and qualities that other human beings have.' Yet human depravity, however pervasive and deplorable, could not kill all sense of humanity. With faith in that kind of humanity, Manto wrote riveting short stories about the human tragedy of 1947 that are internationally acknowledged for representing the plight of displaced and terrorised humanity with exemplary impartiality and empathy.

Partition's personal dimensions

Manto's partition stories are a must read for anyone interested in the personal dimensions of India's division and the creation of Pakistan. Pieced together from close observations of the experiences of ordinary people at the moment of a traumatic rupture, his stories are not only unsurpassable in literary quality but records of rare historical significance. Unlike journalistic and partisan accounts of those unsettled times, Manto's transcended the limitations of the communitarian narratives underpinning the nationalist self-projections of both Pakistan and India. He did not create demons out of other communities to try and absolve himself of responsibility for the moral crisis posed by the violence of partition.

A cosmopolitan humanist, he rejected narrow-minded bigotry and refused to let distinctions of religion or culture interfere with his choice of friends. During a brief life that fell short of 43 years, he lived in Amritsar, Bombay, Delhi and Lahore, forging friendships that survived the arbitrary frontiers of 1947. The constellation of friends he left behind in India included the trendsetters of progressive Urdu and Hindi literature, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai and Ali Sardar Jafri as well as icons of the Bombay film industry like Ashok Kumar and Shyam.

Faced with a dramatic disruption in social relations along ostensibly religious lines, Manto rejected the communitarian modes of interpretation privileging religion over all other factors that have dominated explanations of partition and its cataclysmic aftermath. ‘Knives, daggers, and bullets cannot destroy religion,' he had proclaimed in his semi-autobiographical story 'Sahai',inspired by an exchange with Shyam after hearing the woeful tales of a Sikh refugee family that had fled the violence in Rawalpindi perpetrated by Muslims. Manto had asked Shyam whether he could kill him for being a Muslim to which Shyam replied: ‘Not now, but when I was hearing about the atrocities committed by Muslims…I could have killed you.' If a Hindu killed a Muslim, Manto wrote in 'Sahai', he would have killed a human being, not Islam, which would not be affected in the least bit. Muslims who thought killing Hindus could eliminate Hinduism were equally mistaken.

First story

To make sense of the bloodthirst that engulfed his own home province of Punjab at the dawn of a long awaited freedom, Manto looked into the inner recesses of human nature. What he saw of the violence and turmoil of 1947 and its lingering after-effects led him to conclude that it was neither religious zeal nor piety, but human greed and man's astonishing capacity for bestiality that had brought the subcontinent to such a sorry pass. While creative writers have written more effectively on the human experience of partition than professional historians, Manto excelled in this genre with his no holds barred depictions of everyday life amidst chaos, simplicity of language and fast pace of storytelling. He gave as much attention to the perpetrators of violence as their victims, most controversially in 'Thanda Gosht' (Cold Flesh), the first story he wrote on Pakistani soil and for which he was charged by the newly formed Muslim nation-state under the obscenity laws of the departed colonial masters. The story centres on a homicidal Sikh, who is rendered sexually impotent after discovering that the young girl he had kidnapped with the intention of violating was dead. Manto was inspired to write the story not because of any perversity as his tormentors among the state censors suspected. He wrote passionately about the unconscionable humiliation and brutalisation of women by men of rival communities in Punjab. Which religion sanctioned such abominations? Who was responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people?

Important for historians

Not an aberration to be dismissed as a fleeting collective madness, partition for Manto was part and parcel of an unfolding drama that gave glimpses into the best and the worst in humankind. Manto's stories are important sources for historians because they unsettle the dominant communitarian mode of analysing partition violence. He knew how to sting and rankle. The success of his stories about the violence unleashed by the British decision to divide and quit can be measured in direct proportion to the discomfort felt by those used to perceiving and seeing things through the distorting prism of religious identities.

In 'Tayaqqun' (An Anguished Certitude), Manto derided the efforts of the two post-colonial states to sew together the tattered pieces of women's honour by rehabilitating those who were abducted during the communitarian frenzy in Punjab. The heartbreaking story revolves around a dishevelled and crazed woman who is desperately looking for her daughter. The liaison officer communicating the story tells the old woman that her daughter had been killed and she should accompany him to Pakistan. She refuses to believe that her beautiful daughter could have been killed. One day she spots her daughter walking down the street with a young Sikh, who upon seeing her tells the girl, ‘your mother.' The young woman glances at her mother and walks away. The distraught mother calls after her daughter, only to drop dead when the liaison officer swears on God's name that her daughter is indeed dead. Manto leaves it mystifyingly unclear whether the young woman had run away with the Sikh or, if she was kidnapped, had made her peace with him and no longer wanted to be reunited with her hapless and tragic mother.

Combining facts collected from forays into refugee camps with elements of realistic fiction, Manto documented the multifaceted partition miseries that have eluded professional historians due to the methodological limitations of their craft. Unencumbered by the statist narratives of two rival post-colonial states projecting their clashing national ideologies, he pierced the souls of the perpetrators and victims of violence without compromising his sense of humanity and reasonableness. ‘I rebelled against the great upheaval that the partition of the country caused,' Manto confessed, and ‘I still feel the same way.' But rather than wallow in despair, he came to terms with ‘this monstrous reality.' Falsely accused of being intemperate in his treatment of sensitive social issues, all he did was to plunge himself in the sea of blood to find ‘a few pearls of regret at what human beings had done to human beings…to draw the last drop of blood from their brothers' veins.' He had ‘gathered the tears that some men had shed because they had been unable to kill their humanity entirely' and strung them together in a book called Siyah Haashye (Black Margins), published in 1948 and translated into English by Khalid Hasan.

As witness to history

On his hundredth birthday, Manto stands taller on the literary horizon than others who wrote about the mass migrations of 1947. Where he needs greater appreciation is in the role he played as a witness to history through his chilling narratives of partition. In a country where history as a discipline has suffered from calculated neglect in the interests of projecting statist ideology, Manto's partition stories are an excellent entry point for enquiring minds eager to understand the past that has made their present fraught with such uncertainty and danger. The ever-percipient Manto had anticipated the problems of treating religion as a weapon rather than a matter of personal faith and ethics, which have over the past three decades surfaced with a vengeance in Muslim Pakistan. His words of warning have a resonance that is louder than when he said: ‘Our split culture and divided civilization, what has survived of our arts; all that we received from the cut up parts of our own body, and which is buried in the ashes of Western politics, we need to retrieve, dust, clean and restore to freshness in order to recover all that we have lost in the storm.'

If there is a birthday present Pakistanis and Indians can jointly give Manto, it is to admit the reality of the problems he spelt out in his writings on partition. It may then become possible for them to take the requisite steps towards recovering what has been lost by the myopic refusal of their respective nation-states to understand each other's position, rectify past errors, and strike a mutually beneficial and sustainable historical compromise.

(Ayesha Jalal is Mary Richardson Professor of History and author of The Pity of Partition: Manto as Witness to History — Princeton University Press, forthcoming. A longer version of this article first appeared in the May 2012 issue of the Pakistani magazine, Herald. Photo of Saadat Hasan Manto courtesy Manto family archive.)

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great article,thanks to the writer.I am working on my PhD thesis on Munto and hiss mordenity.Writers like him do not belong to any country.

from:  ABRAR AHMED
Posted on: Jun 18, 2012 at 00:23 IST

Manto was a man with a heart who could empathize in a time when people forgetting anything and everything while baying for each others' blood in the name of religion. But he stood his ground to oversee the madness of people from both side who could ever prone to slay an innocent and helpless without any rhyme and reason. It was just me against you and nothing else. If religion can make people so despicable and diabolic better live without it rather espousing it. I know the tenets of Hinduism is based on sacrifice, truthfulness, self-effacing disposition. We have never been a invading tribe in the history and therefore anything contrary to this characteristics is not us. But with the advent of so many religious faiths and cults post Sanatan Dharma of India, Hindus have also lost their ever pristine character to embrace all including enemies. We must learn to live with ever changing situations but also learn to be assertive so that no future DIVISION of INDIA is ever thought of.

from:  Pradip Kumar Sinha
Posted on: May 19, 2012 at 16:54 IST

A beautiful tribute!! Toba Tek Singh was very instrumental in understanding the partition era..

from:  Ritika
Posted on: May 15, 2012 at 14:41 IST

This is an excellent piece on Manto, one of the leading short story writers India has ever produced. Manto was well ahead of his times. His stories have an amazing ability to touch human hearts. A man of fine sensibility he wrote about the marginalized sections of society with deep candour. He wrote with passion about the sufferings of women, the poor and the underprivileged. As an artist we cannot circumscribe his identity as a mere Muslim, he was for all humanity. He stood above the race, class, gender, religion and Nation State dichotomy. His voice is the voice of humanity and he painted the displacement and the pain associated with it with a rare creative energy.

from:  Ranu Uniyal
Posted on: May 13, 2012 at 23:07 IST

Would it not make sense to disclose in the first line that Ayesha Jalal is grand niece
of Manto. Why do these feudals always write about their family members in third
person as if Manto was someone else. Why can't they begin this piece with
something endearing like dadajaan loved Ardoo!!

from:  Asad Ali Khan
Posted on: May 13, 2012 at 12:53 IST

Dr. Khan raises a crucial point. When we think of celebrity writers,
poets, singers, actors and so forth, sometimes we wonder what made
them so great…..was it their innate talent or some talent egged on by
liquor or some stimulant. In which case, what would that person be
without liquor or the abused narcotic substance? What about those
athletes on steroids and horses on steroids? If such consumption is
fraudulent in athletics, why is it not so in real life? Were greats
like Sigmund Freud, Arthur Koestler, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson
and Whitney Houston inherently great even without substance abuse? How
about many Indian actors, singers, writers and others? Without their
narcotic substances, would these people be like Ben-Hur without his
hair?
But the main issue of this article on Manto by Ayesha Jalal is whether
the two communities can live together without stepping on each other’s
toes. If the ISI and the Army in Pakistan shared these views all can
live in peace, and prosper.

from:  S. Char
Posted on: May 13, 2012 at 07:18 IST

Very thought provoking article. Just for the record at the time of partition Muslim population
in India was just 8%and now it about 12%. Whereas in Pakistan similar numbers for Hindus
are 6% then and 1% now. Make your own conclusions.

from:  Chandran
Posted on: May 13, 2012 at 06:20 IST

Dr. Khan raises an crucial point. When we think of celebrity writers,
poets, singers, actors and so forth, sometimes we wonder what made
them so great…..was it their innate talent or some talent egged on by
liquor or some stimulant. In which case, what would that person be
without liquor or the abused narcotic substance? What about those
athletes on steroids and horses on steroids? If such consumption is
fraudulent in athletics, why is it not so in real life? Were greats
like Sigmund Freud, Arthur Koestler, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson
and Whitney Houston were inherently great even without substance
abuse? How about many Indian actors, singers, writers and others?
Without their narcotic substances, would these people be like Ben-Hur
without his hair?
But the main issue of this article on Manto by Ayesha Jalal is whether
the two communities can live together without stepping on each other’s
toes. It would be a good start if the ISI and the Army in Pakistan and
extremist elements in India do not get hung up on India and the
neighbor accepts India’s hand of friendship. That would work wonders
for the subcontinent and their alliances could be the strongest
influence for peace and prosperity of both. An overwhelming majority
of the two populations thirst and pray for it, but the leaders,
especially in Pakistan, are not up to it.

from:  S. Char
Posted on: May 13, 2012 at 05:07 IST

Sir, When I was a teacher of social sciences, I always read and discussed issues raised by your eminent columnists to bring more openness and sharpen thinking skills of myself and the young adults in my class.My only regret is some of the exciting revelations ( eg., Curator of a hollowed conscience) come a bit late and I sincerely hope the minds which got exposed to such writings and the teachers who took over from me, will continue the dialogue to bring in more tolerance and acceptability.This is more important to counter bigotries who may take center stage and (mis?)lead our young innocent minds .

from:  LALITHA KRISHNAMURTHY
Posted on: May 12, 2012 at 12:36 IST

article uses too many adjectives and doesnt convey anything special about Manto. Yes we all thought the violence in partition was bad. So what was special about Manto.
For eg. what a stiff sentence:
"Unencumbered by the statist narratives of two rival post-colonial states projecting their clashing national ideologies, he pierced the souls of the perpetrators and victims of violence without compromising his sense of humanity and reasonableness."

from:  ashokr
Posted on: May 12, 2012 at 01:46 IST

Sir.
Manto was indeed an enlightened and an intelligent soul. He had an acute sense of reality which he expressed freely in a conservative world and he had great acumen to express it in most vivid terms. The vulgarity and incisiveness of his writing was a protest more than an attempt to spread immorality as his detractors want to portray him. Unlike the tutored “intellectuals”, a true artist only shows a mirror to the society so that it can see its image and correct it. A society which had no courage to fight the immoral behavior and tolerated it was so outraged at Manto,s writing is only a proof of its hypocrisy.
The most tragic aspect of this shining star of Urdu literature is his end. In one of the issure of the renowned literary magazine of yesteryears “Nuqoosh”, edited by Mohammad Tufail, his last days are chronicled by his close family members and friends. It is a tragedy which has outdone Macbeth. And what makes it more profound is that it is real.
Those who take to the business of correcting the society are so disappointed by the limitation that they face in face of the arduous task, they seek refuge in intoxicants. In the beginning it gives a false sense of euphoria and enlightenment, but ultimately they are consumed by their addiction. As he was at the end of stage of his life with cirrhosis of liver and was vomiting blood, he begs his wife to give him more drink. His wife persuades him against it but he insists so much that she has to relent. He dies after consuming the last drop from the goblet and vomiting it out with lots and lots of blood.
Only if he was not deceived by the power of Alcohol possibly he would have lived long and given more to the society and literature. Some may argue that he was able to give what he gave because of his inebriation which took away from him the inhibitions which come in way of expressing truth as one sees it.
To express the truth as one sees it probably one need to be a little bit inebriated, but to understand the truth as it is one need to be fully conscious and in his original senses. This is what failed not just Manto but several other people in most important and serious positions of power and authority. This scourge of substance abuse is continuing to have its toll on many a young men and women in our universities on whom rests the future of our civilization.

from:  Dr Basheer Ahmed Khan
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 22:41 IST

i was confused with the headline "Curator of a hollowed conscience" .. seemed like the Curator with hollowed conscience .. but it took me long to understand , what it actually meant

from:  Prasanth Pai
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 21:17 IST

Indeed, the only Manto story I ever read was "Toba Tek Singh" translated By Khushwant Singh. His ability to simultaneously depict the ridiculous and the tragic while preserving the humanity of his characters was incredible. The story could be compared to the tragedy of King Lear except that Manto was writing about a real tragedy and not an imaginary one.
I don't know why the above story is not compulsory reading in Indian schools. We only have patriotic fervour whipped up by Dinkar's poems, so full of "tatsam" Hindi and so martialistic in their tones.
Since Partition, Pakistan has turned its Hindustani to Urdu whereas India has expunged Urdu words from its Hindustani in its attempt to get to "Shuddh Hindi". This is also a partition - linguistic and cultural one, and one where we deny our past.
Premchand, that great writer said - "I write in Urdu in the morning and in Hindi in the afternoon". How would he have reacted?

from:  Vivek
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 15:20 IST

Sir,
Manto was a popular but very controversial writer of his times, who faced many prosecutions because of his so called ‘sex oriented’ expressions. Many of his stories were banned by the then Government of India and Pakistan on the plea that they were too sex oriented, and were not palatable to the conservative society of that time. He was prosecuted and convicted, yet he continued writing in his own style.Saadat Hasan Manto was undoubtedly one of the best short story tellers of the 20th century, and one of the most controversial as well. He is often compared with D. H. Lawrence, and like Lawrence he also wrote about the topics considered social taboos in Indo-Pakistani Society. His topics ranged from the socio-economic injustice prevailing in pre- and post- colonial subcontinent, to the more controversial topics of love, sex, incest, prostitution and the typical hypocrisy of a traditional sub-continental male.

from:  J. AKSHOBHYA
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 12:39 IST

Enquiring minds eager to understand human nature must pay attention to Monto’s conclusion, in the wake of the violence and turmoil of 1947 and its lingering after-effects, that “it was neither religious zeal nor piety, but human greed and man's astonishing capacity for bestiality that had brought the subcontinent to such a sorry pass”.

from:  Sreehari Pusuluri
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 11:58 IST

Religion when politicised becomes a curse on mankind and that is the problem with islam. We need to reflect on Manto's message and work towards coming together. The current status is unnatural.It was the imperialist thug Churchill who encouraged the Muslim League to seek Pakistan. Let us realise the dream of coming together and start by reconnecting the Punjab - the land of all Punjabis.

from:  Sohail Zahid
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 11:49 IST

Our time,as in the aftermath of the tragic events of partition in 1947,long for writers and thinkers like Manto who can stand above the petty label identities and dare challenge the human conscience. Manto's scathing portrayal of the human nature to succumb to slogans to descend to the lowest nature of man was a challenge then and now. Ayesha Jalal's befitting tribute to Manto is in fact an invitation to people on both sides of the divide to forego their pettiness and indulge in the finer human nature.

from:  Saleem Mir
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 10:39 IST

The writer has given a fitting tribute to a writer who faced abject criticism for his forthrightness. There is sadly an attempt at branding Manto's work as "obscene" even today and his works are not encouraged to be read by students and impressionable minds. This needs to be addressed as present generation is largely ignorant of the reasons and horrors of partition. And ignorance is dangerous.

from:  Rohit Mishra
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 08:57 IST

The pain of partition and the agony that ensued emanated, as they say,
from religious affiliations and what the religious scriptures nurtured
in them. But even with the little of knowledge of what the religious
scriptures like the quran, the Bible and the Geeta have in them one can
argue that all these in their entirety don't preach violence. The
zenith of peace and harmony, the silent preacher of brotherhood and the
interconnection of human welfare across different religious spectrum
are the messages I have derived with only the parts of the Quran and
the Holy Bible I have gone through. May be the seeds of partition were
sown by the English but it was watered and fueled by wrong
interpretations of gospel and quranic verses. The difference between
sect and religion was engulfed by sense of inter sect hatred that our
people developed then. The problem persists as there is nobody that can
tell the humanity," religion don't warrant violence and hatred sect
inflicts and fuels it".

from:  Ajeet Tiwari
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 08:42 IST

A fabulous and an inspiring article. Let's we all shed the prejudice of fear and hatred, learn from our past and move toward a glorious future.

from:  Sumit
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 08:33 IST

Writers like Manto do not belong to a country. Their message is universal. They trascend the sectional and sectoral pettiness and clearly state the fpplishness of religious bogots. Manto belongs to the whole subcontinent and the world at large. I salute his heritage.

from:  Ashok Malhotra
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 08:03 IST

Excellent article and a very rich and flowing tribute to one of the best short story writers of the region. Manto was a legend and his writings are still so relevant in today's world of hatred and chaos that we witness in the name of religion. It should be an inspiration for people in India and Pakistan to work more forcefully to break down barriers and demolish artificial borders for bringing peace and brotherhood in the region. Hats off to the writer for
bringing out the various facets of manto's life and writings.

from:  Sujay mehdudia
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 08:02 IST

It is sad that Punjab got divided in the middle in 1947. Punjabis of all
religions are friendly open minded people who are ready to accept
everyone else. The demand for religion based states were raised
somewhere else & we suffered. Manto is a representative of the soul of
Punjab. Spread of Sikhism has changed the nature of this place. We had
Maharaja Ranjit Singh ji who did not discriminate between religions &
castes. From arts to economics Punjabis have made stellar contributions.

from:  Gurinder
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 02:10 IST

What we need is a truth commission. Articles such as these gloss over history by pointing to atrocities by all sides. What they fail to point out that there was realpolitik at work. Muslim League declared National Action Day as a flashpoint for violence. Based on a flawed mythology, they were confident that Pakistan could be cleansed of Hindus and Sikhs. As Hindus and Sikhs were massacred in areas around Rawalpindi, violence spread to large parts of North India. In the end, violence notwithstanding, it served Muslim League well, as ethnic cleansing continued. Today Pakistan has less than 1% Hindus and Sikhs. On the other hand, secular India has been left to deal with onerous task of building a society where different religious groups co-exist with each other in an environment scarred by the violence of the partition.

from:  Gopal Vaidya
Posted on: May 11, 2012 at 00:56 IST
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