The Pity of Partition


Ayesha Jalal in conversation with William Dalrymple



By Shivani Bhasin, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2016 Blogger


Few people understand the trauma that Partition unleashed on the Indian subcontinent better than famed short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto. The Partition was responsible for slicing the Indian subcontinent into two: the nation of India, which was majority-Hindu, and the nation of Pakistan, which was majority-Muslim. The event was characterized by mass violence and confusion. Overnight, people descended into savagery. Neighbourhoods ran red with blood as people rioted and murdered in the name of religion. There was a profound identity crisis as an arbitrary border, demarcated by the British, now decided where people’s loyalties should lie. It was during this tumultuous period that Manto’s writing flowered. He captured the confusion of being torn apart as both an Indian and a Pakistani like no writer before him. In the session, The Pity of Partition, Manto’s grandniece Ayesha Jalal opened up the great writer’s life to an enraptured audience.

Jalal is probably in the best position to document Manto’s life. She knew him not only as one of the greatest writers of Urdu fiction, but also as her troublesome uncle. In her household, ‘everything started with Manto.’ As the title of her book The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work Across the India-Pakistan Divide suggests, Jalal was interested in studying the ‘microcosm of Manto’ against the ‘macrocosm of Pakistan.’

Manto loved the Indian city of Bombay. It was instrumental in his construction of his sense of self. It was the city where he met all his friends and also where he had achieved fame for his numerous radio plays. When he left Bombay for Lahore in 1946, he did not realize that he would never return. Partition, according to Jalal, ‘destroyed Manto as a person but remade him as an author.’ His vivid memories of Bombay would lead him to write some of his best short stories in Pakistan.

Jalal narrated the story of Manto’s committal to the Lahore mental asylum for treatment of his alcoholism. Though this seems like a personal tragedy, in reality, his internment led him to write one of his best stories about Partition. Toba Tek Singh is a story about a lunatic who doesn’t know if he belongs to Pakistan or India. This period was one of the most productive times in Manto’s writing life.

Manto’s life was far from easy: alcoholism forced him into destitution and he was constantly fighting with his wife, Jalal’s khala (aunt) Safiya Manto. On top of this, his colleagues in the Progressive Writer’s Movement boycotted him because they thought he was politically conservative, yet the government of Pakistan thought his stories were too risqué. He was dragged to court on many occasions for the so-called ‘obscene’ content in his stories. His famous defence was that he was not an obscene writer, but only wrote about people who used obscene language. The courts let him go. Jalal remarked that the fact of his release showed ‘an openness of mind which is [now] in danger of shutting down.’

As a concluding observation, Jalal stated that there is no contemporary writer who can carry Manto’s literary legacy forward. Manto’s writing was born of a time when bloodshed and betrayal turned even the closest of friends into adversaries. He captured Partition with a chilling sense of irony that is almost impossible to replicate. Manto may not have a literary heir, but his voice, as a bridge between two divided nations, will endure.

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