‘He was more than just a short story writer’

Saadat Hasan Manto’s grand-niece Ayesha Jalal talks about her new book on his life, times and work.

August 08, 2013 02:34 pm | Updated 02:34 pm IST

Ayesha Jalal at the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2012. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Ayesha Jalal at the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2012. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

For decades, Saadat Hasan Manto was a name familiar only to connoisseurs of Urdu writing and those who were interested in Partition literature. Some of his more famous stories — ‘Toba Tek Singh’ being the best known — were read more widely, but he remained on the margins, at least in India.

But now a Manto revival of sorts is under way. New translations are continuously being published and not just about his fiction — a delightful compendium of his smart and satirical profiles of film stars of the 1940s, Stars from Another Sky, has been much appreciated too. In Mumbai, the writer’s deep love for the city — he called himself a “walking, talking Bombay” — has been noted by younger readers who are now discovering him.

It was entirely fitting then that Prof Ayesha Jalal’s latest work, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work Across the India-Pakistan Divide, was launched in Mumbai last month to a packed audience. She brings her historian’s rigour to the book but what really lends it a special flavour is that Jalal, who teaches at Tufts University, is the grand niece of the author who died at the young age of 42 in 1955.

“He died before I was born, but I grew up hearing about him. I was also very close to his wife; she was my favourite khala (aunt),” Jalal says. “Through her I got to know of his cosmopolitanism, his early school life, his love for literature from other parts of the world. The relationship helped me get access to many papers and to family memories. I didn’t know several things earlier, such as how he began his professional career as a translator in an Urdu newspaper.”

In her book, Jalal has chosen to focus on his Partition writing, arguing that such fiction offers a narrative of that turbulent period that academic histories don’t. “He was more than just a short story writer. His essays throw light on that particular post-colonial moment and I am not going to find that in the archives or in the memoirs of those who lived through those times.” Many of his stories bring a strong human dimension to a political decision and its aftermath. The protagonists of his stories are ordinary people who are left to cope with the monumental tragedy of millions of families being torn asunder, losing their homes and their lives. In the middle of loot, rapes and killings, Manto shows us the small rays of humanity.

After working in Delhi and then in the film industry in Bombay, the Punjab-born Manto left for Pakistan in 1948. So far, it has been said that he suddenly upped and migrated because he felt disillusioned with the rising communal tension in Bombay and, particularly at his work place, Bombay Talkies. Jalal gives a more nuanced explanation. “Someone asked me if he felt betrayed by Ashok Kumar (who was running Bombay Talkies) and others. That is too strong a word. He was disappointed with the way things were going in Bombay Talkies. He had earlier left his job in All India Radio in Delhi because of his disagreement with writer Upendranath Ashk and had walked off with his typewriter. Similarly, when Bombay Talkies chose to make Kamal Amrohi’s film and then Shahid Latif’s film Ziddi before his (Manto), he felt slighted. He didn’t up and leave because he was upset with the Hindu-Muslim thing — that needs to be emphasised. Also, my mother and father were getting married in Lahore and he had to be there. Once he got to Pakistan, the extent of the horrors of partition became apparent to him and his wife did not want him to go back. I have seen letters from Ashok Kumar and others asking him to come back, saying, we miss you and your humour.” A plan was made to visit Bombay but he did not apply for a passport in time and it never happened. His greatest commercial success, Mirza Ghalib was released in 1954 but by then he was too unwell. It was almost a Manotesque irony.

Jalal has also re-examined the nine letters he wrote to America soon after Pakistan was formed. “He anticipates how things would turn out in his letters to Uncle Sam written all those years ago; those are the letters any Pakistani would like to write today.” In one of them, he wrote, almost presciently: “Once military aid starts flowing, the first people you should arm are these mullahs. You must also send them American-made rosaries and prayer mats…Cutthroat razors and scissors should be top of the list.”

Controversial to the hilt, his writings had already attracted anti-obscenity laws under British rule, when he had had to visit Lahore from Bombay to attend court cases. But now, even the government of newly-created Pakistan charged him with similar crimes. (He was never found guilty.) What irked him was that even the leftist progressive writers of the time — Sajjad Zaheer, Ali Sardar Jafri and others — denounced him, primarily for his association with some friends who they thought were reactionary and government stooges.

Jalal has written about that phase in detail. “He was furious with the so-called progressives,” she explains. “They closed the doors to him; he couldn’t publish in government journals and these guys, who were his friends, ostracised him. It was over petty things. The progressives wanted to hold on to Manto. He was never a Marxist and never even a progressive writer or a card-holding member. The problem is looking at things from a national paradigm; today those who are reacting badly to my views on Manto are the left. ‘How can she write about someone who was ours’, they want to know.”

One of the criticisms against Jalal’s book is that it does not give adequate attention to the literary milieu of the time, when writers like Ismat Chugtai and Rajinder Singh Bedi too write about contemporary social issues. “I do talk about it, perhaps not enough to the desire of literary critics; it is a work of history, not a work of literature. Ismat Chugtai and others were his contemporaries and friends. He started writing at a time when the progressive writers were coming into their own. He was very much aware of them but he did not try to become a part of their group—he wasn’t a groupie.”

Ironically the Left has now rediscovered him and even the PPP government in Pakistan gave him the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, the highest civilian honour. That does not, however, mean that the conservative element does not dislike him even today. “The bureaucracy had shot it down (the proposal to give him an award),” Jalal says. “There is still the conviction that he wrote obscene stuff, even though they may not have read him. Or they read him and are repulsed. In today’s Pakistan he would have been killed for blasphemy. Given that it was his centenary, nothing much was done, compared to what was done in the case of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Manto’s celebrations were not state-sponsored but by individuals.”

Jalal feels that there is much to be written on Manto, since barely one-third of his prodigious output has been examined; certainly his Bombay writings deserve more study. He would have been quite delighted at the recognition he is getting — he always had a sense of self-worth about the quality of his writings and his literary legacy. She also says he should be seen beyond the narrow prism of Partition and what he wrote at the time. “Manto would have remained great, whether Partition happened or not.”

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