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Daily Rockwell’s Book review of ’The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide by Ayesha Jalal

14 July 2013

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Caravan Magazine

The Myth of the Lone Ranger
The inadequacies of a new biography of Manto
| 1 June 2013

IN THE PAST FEW DECADES, mostly on the strength of English translations of his Partition stories, the Urdu author Saadat Hasan Manto has ascended to the status of a non-English language author who is nevertheless widely read and discussed in the subcontinent. His short stories appear in more translations than any other Urdu author, and those about Partition, especially the short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’, have been extensively read and commented upon in the English-language world. In his English-language incarnation, Manto seems to be considered an anomaly, a fiercely independent spirit who is not generally associated with any literary movement or group of authors. This is a state of affairs that Manto would no doubt be pleased by; during his lifetime he did, more often than not, promote such characterisations. Manto’s alcoholism, the six obscenity trials he faced both pre- and post-Independence for allegedly objectionable content in his fiction, and his racy stories all add to his suitability for literary cult status.

In her new biography of her great uncle (The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, HarperCollins India, 265 pages, Rs. 599), historian Ayesha Jalal does little to dispel the notion that Manto should be lionised as a unique writer who need not be considered in the context of a literary milieu. Though she does nod at his many contemporaries, this is only to showcase Manto’s place as a combative genius among lesser figures. This tendency is particularly noticeable when she discusses his relationship with the Progressive Writers’ Association, which blacklisted him in 1948 for being a ‘reactionary’ writer. Relying mainly on Manto’s own narrative of events, she depicts a scenario in which Manto the iconoclast stands apart from the lockstep of the PWA, ignoring the fact that there were many writers who fought and made up with the organisation in those days and that Manto was one of them. It is not clear whether Jalal’s portrayal of Manto is owing to the fact that she is not familiar enough with the literary history of the time (she states repeatedly that she has not set out to write about Manto from a literary standpoint) or because she has relied too heavily on Manto’s own recounting of his life. In either case, the end result is a biography that seems curiously thin and borders on the hagiographical.

An example of the latter arises in discussions of Manto’s alcoholism. According to Jalal, Manto was merely a “heavy drinker” when he lived in Bombay, but became a true alcoholic after he moved to Pakistan, due primarily to the terrible local liquor he was forced to drink. The premise of this argument is that the quality of the liquor he drank in Pakistan was so poor that it somehow hastened his early demise. While we can only speculate on the true nature of Manto’s alcoholism and his early death, this reads a bit like a family story: if only good whisky had been available in Pakistan, Manto wouldn’t have been taken from us so soon! The rotgut he drank in Pakistan was also referenced by Manto himself, but cirrhosis of the liver doesn’t take root overnight and there is plenty of evidence in his own writings and accounts by his contemporaries to suggest that he was probably a confirmed alcoholic many years before he moved to Pakistan.

Like many writers, Manto had a stake in promoting the notion that he should be set apart from his fellow authors. Which author wishes to see his legacy as simply a small dab on a large canvas? And Manto was a writer of enormous energies, leaving behind him, when he died at the young age of 42, a vast body of work, including short fiction, plays, screenplays and essays. Certainly, Manto wrote a lot because he wanted to, but he also wrote as much as possible because it was how he earned his livelihood. As it happens, in those days when it was marginally possible to make a living writing in Indian languages, prolific writing was something of the norm. Manto had the ability to pound out story after story, play after play, sometimes freelance, sometimes on salary, crouched on his chair in front of his Urdu typewriter.

MANTO WAS BORN IN 1912 in Amritsar to a respectable, sharif family, but he was a child of his father’s second wife, and funds were scarce by the time they reached his branch of the family. Early on in life Manto showed a proclivity for carousing: drinking, gambling and pulling pranks. By his early adolescence, he was already up to all manner of hijinks, and though the gambling may have stopped later in life, the drinking and pranking never really did. While Manto has written that he learned his craft translating European short stories into Urdu (Guy de Maupassant was his favourite), early 20th century urban life in Punjab was a hotbed of literary activity—from the rowdy Punjabi bait poets, to the more refined Urdu shayars, to the wandering madaris singing tales in the bazaars. An intelligent young swashbuckler like Manto would likely have been surrounded by mushairas, street-side qissa performances and competitive bait-baazi showdowns. In addition, someone more drawn to the written word could buy cheap novels in Urdu and English—everything from detective stories and romances to Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee to classics of Western literature—at bookstalls. And if he couldn’t afford to buy the books, he could pay a small price to borrow them. For those in particularly desperate financial straits, there was always the option of just standing at the stalls and reading novels and short stories right there.

It was from this melting pot of literary genres and languages in Punjab that many of the great Punjabi writers of the 20th century emerged: Manto, Upendranath Ashk, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, and Yashpal were all born there in roughly the same era and all went on to write prolifically and create impressive bodies of work in Urdu and Hindi. All were educated and born of respectable but poor families and all of them needed to scramble to write for a living. From their hometowns across Punjab, they moved to Lahore to study or work, and many of them ended up in demeaning jobs at newspapers where they were hired to churn out weekly stories and work as ‘sub editors’ or ‘translators’—lofty titles given to the exhausting and menial task of working all afternoon and late into the night translating English Associated Press wire news into Urdu. Yashpal and Ashk have both written fiction in this setting: a young writer starts out elated that he will receive a salary to do work that is marginally literary, only to learn that the work is menial at best and soul-killing at worst.

In Ashk’s short story ‘My First Letter of Resignation’, the narrator enumerates the many reasons why he is quitting one such job, among them

sleeping during the day and then staying up most of the night like the owls and the flying foxes, and at two in the morning, after getting off work, walking while feeling one’s way through the alleyways, and bumping into the charpoy of a person sleeping in the bazaar, and running off followed by cries of ‘Thief! Thief!’, and then walking along holding one’s breath for fear of dogs.

Manto’s stint at the Urdu newspaper Paras in Lahore lasted only a few months in 1936, after which he left in disgust at the yellow journalism practiced by the paper and went to try his luck in the film world in Bombay.

Manto, Ashk, Bedi, Krishan Chander and many other Hindi and Urdu authors ended up either in Bombay, writing screenplays and dialogues for the film industry, or working for All India Radio in New Delhi, writing stories and radio plays. (An exception to this was Yashpal, who joined a Lahore bomb-making factory in the early 1930s, an activity that landed him in a British prison.) There was a well-beaten path between the two cities during the 1930s and 1940s, with the authors often flitting between the generous financial terms of Bollywood and the greater artistic freedom of AIR, and then changing their minds again. Manto lasted at AIR for about a year, from 1941-42, a tempestuous period culminating in an argument with the station master, NM Rashid, that resulted in Manto grabbing his typewriter and storming out of the station, never to return again.

Descriptions of the atmosphere at AIR in those days make it sound like something between a utopian writers’ colony and a fraternity party. The offices were packed with rising literary personalities and inflated egos. Spats and infighting were commonplace, as were pranks and competitive behaviour. The scrappy, fast-talking Punjabi writers who had pulled themselves up from poverty with their ability to hammer out short stories at the rate of one or more a week were now corralled together in one building and asked to create a national literature, not just for readers, but for listeners. Manto is said to have written over 100 plays and other programmes in the year he was there. He boasted during that time that he could write a story on any subject. As Jalal writes:

His colleagues turned this into a source of amusement, betting a dozen bottles of beer on Manto’s writing plays with odd names like Kabutri (literally, female pigeon). Once, while Manto was pondering over an off-the-wall theme, someone came to the door and said, “May I come in?” Manto was immediately challenged to write a play by that name, which he did promptly.

Working in the film industry had many drawbacks, but it paid well and Manto and his wife were both attached to Bombay. Working for the Filmistan studio, Manto had a number of successes and many of his screenplays came to fruition, but there were also disappointments. The studio might arbitrarily decide to use one script or story over another, and such outcomes made Manto bitter and frustrated. Rajinder Singh Bedi, on the other hand, stayed in the film industry for much of his life. Ashk left Bombay for UP after Independence, deeming work for the film industry “prostitution”.

WITH PARTITION, there was a diaspora of the Punjabi authors of this era. Certainly, it had started many years before but after 1947 many of them were separated permanently from the cities and towns of their birth. For the Indian authors, though they had left it many years before, the loss of Lahore, the city of their literary birth, was felt profoundly. Aftershocks of these losses can be read overtly and obliquely in all of their work. Yashpal’s magisterial Jhutha Sach (This is Not That Dawn) chronicles the flight and dispersal of a Hindu family from Lahore who resettle in India; Ashk, never overtly political, wrote Girti Divare (Falling Walls), a multi-volume novel of life in the 1930s in undivided Punjab, creating a veritable cultural history of the era; and Manto wrote a number of stories on the chaos of Partition violence, including the slim, haunting volume Siyah Hashiye (Black Borders), a collection of ultra-short stories—what is called ‘flash fiction’ nowadays.

In the 65 years since Partition, numerous works of fiction have been written about the violence and its aftermath, many of them in English, but it is worth arguing that the further we get from the event, the more we must read these works as inspired not just by hindsight but also current events that are seen as repercussions of the events of 1947. Urvashi Butalia has written, for example, that her non-fiction, first person accounts of the Partition were spurred by the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Manto and Yashpal were neither of them eye-witnesses to the violence of Partition, as is often believed, but their work carries with it an immediacy that gives the reader that impression.

Jalal’s title for her biography of Manto, The Pity of Partition, conveys her intent to focus specifically on the aspects of his life story and fictional writings that deal directly with the Partition. And in fact, as she writes in her introduction, the book should not be viewed as a mere example of life writing: it should really be seen as a new direction in writing history. As she explains:

It is possible to chalk out a new interdisciplinary way of reconnecting the histories of individuals, families, communities, and states in the throes of cataclysmic change. Microhistorical detail can illuminate the texture of macrohistorical change. Historical investigations of causation and experience have been running of late on parallel tracks and would benefit from being put on a collision course. The aim, however, is not simply to craft a new historiographical method, but to deploy it in an attempt to glean innovative insights into the modern and contemporary history of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The counterpoint between literature and history deployed in the writing of this book is intended to illustrate the extent to which the contours of the cultural nation, creatively and broadly construed, do not map neatly onto the limited boundaries of the political nation.

This all sounds promising, but is not actually that revolutionary. I remember sitting in a graduate political and social science seminar at the University of Chicago in 1992 featuring the historian Gyanendra Pandey, in which he promised much the same thing and then proceeded to give a rudimentary reading of ‘Toba Tek Singh’, Manto’s famous short story about the partitioning of the inmates of a Punjabi insane asylum. Slowly but surely, the room full of social science graduate students postulated that perhaps there was something one could learn from literature when it came to studying the Partition (a claim that humanists such as myself find self-evident). Pandey went on to write up his thoughts in his essay ‘The Prose of Otherness’, in which, after paraphrasing the entire story, he comes to the rather facile conclusion that “...Manto offers a resolution of the paradox that he set out at the beginning of his story through the suggestion that, in this time of ‘madness’, it is only the ‘insane’ who retain any sanity”. Jalal herself made similar claims in her Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy (2007) co-authored with Sugata Bose, in which they too cited ‘Toba Tek Singh’ and one of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poems as evidence that literature was somehow better able to cope with the challenges of writing about Partition than history.

In The Pity of Partition, Jalal reiterates this claim, and sets about to prove the hypothesis with more in her arsenal than one short story and one poem. Unfortunately, she is not entirely sure how to demonstrate the point. Her introduction contains the disclaimer that this volume does not set out to treat Manto’s work from a literary point of view, but how then will she engage with it from a historical perspective? The path she charts amounts primarily to summarising and paraphrasing Manto’s writings, often in such a way that it is not clear if she is quoting him or expressing her own observations. In this passage, for example, it is likely she is paraphrasing a sad but amusingly written letter or essay by Manto, but the presentation makes the authorship unclear. If it is Manto’s writing, we’d be better off with a direct quote. If these are Jalal’s own turns of phrase, the prose, in a scholarly work, feels flamboyantly purple:

He believed that “if life is spent in abstinence, it is a prison, and if one spends it intemperately, it is also a prison.” He had done half his life’s work and would complete the rest slowly because “I do not want to die too early.” “The day I know who I am, I will not shun death.” His life was like a wall whose plaster he scratched with his nails. Sometimes he wanted to write on all the bricks, and at other moments considered breaking down the wall and rebuilding it anew. Owing to incessant work and his inner intensity, Manto’s temperature was one degree above normal. He had much to say and wanted to write a great deal. If only he could get some peace of mind, he might be able to collect his thoughts, which were flying in the air like kites during the monsoons. If someone promised to condense all that was in his mind in a bottle, he was prepared to die instantly. “Manto is alive for Manto,” he exclaimed, but of what concern is this to anyone? After all, “what kind of devil is Manto?”

To the end of this paragraph is affixed a footnote that references text from Manto’s collected works in Urdu, but nowhere in the note or in the body of the text does Jalal bother to explain to us what kind of document she is reading and why.

The best parts of The Pity of Partition give us insights into Manto’s private life via the family archive, which includes some wonderful, rarely seen photographs and letters. Jalal has constructed this part of her narrative authoritatively from documents that are only available through her family; she had access to Manto’s letters to his mother, for example, and we get to learn about the closeness of that relationship, as well as Manto’s bond with his sister. Both mother and sister supported him throughout, as did his wife, despite the obscenity trials and other controversies in his life.

Jalal’s book is the result of a lecture series she gave at Princeton University in 2011 and, unfortunately, retains the choppy quality of a series of talks that have been strung together. Thus, while some of the early biographical sections are lovely, elsewhere there are many repetitions. Further, the introduction includes an extensive summary of Jalal’s own previous scholarship, particularly her work on Jinnah, The Sole Spokesman, an inclusion hardly necessary in a biography on Manto. Urdu words are transliterated oddly at times, in defiance of the scholarly conventions for rendering the language in the Roman script, and names of authors are sometimes wrongly spelt, as though these prominent figures had not chosen for themselves how to spell their names in English. Surely the author would bristle at having her name spelt ‘Aisha Jalaal’ throughout a handsomely produced work of scholarship.

In the final chapter of the book, Jalal discusses Manto’s famous series of letters to Uncle Sam. As in previous chapters, Manto’s words are not allowed to breathe, but instead processed through Jalal’s paraphrasing, with observations about Manto’s prescience and occasional jabs at the current state of Pakistan. Again we are not sure whose thoughts these are—Manto’s or Jalal’s:

Manto’s letters skillfully weighed the benefits of US military and economic aid to Pakistan with the concrete gains that could accrue from the extension of American cultural influence. Most Pakistanis were ambivalent, if not opposed, to the proposed alliance. Even a simpleton could tell that the main purpose of American military aid was not the betterment of the common people. The promised economic aid was nothing compared to what India was getting, despite its policy of nonalignment, and would merely end up fattening the bank accounts of the corrupt and already-prospering sections of the ruling elite.

Beyond Jalal’s propensity for summarising and paraphrasing, she also tends towards careless hyperbole and unsubstantiated statements or those without footnotes. Passages such as this one make one wonder if she feels that in writing about fiction instead of engaging in traditional historiography, she may kick off her shoes and write in what she sees as the Bohemian style of creative writers:

The truth was that during his school years he had cared nothing for the subtleties of Urdu. He had remained unfamiliar with the sweetness of its diction, which had made it so popular within a short span of time that it was the third most widely spoken language in the world.

Does Jalal really think that Urdu’s sweet diction made it the third most widely spoken language in the world? And was it the third most spoken language in Manto’s youth? And does she think Hindi is just as sweet (given that Urdu must be grouped with Hindi to achieve its current number three status amongst the world’s languages)?

Jalal indicates in the introduction that Manto and his writing will be used to get at some essence—specifically, the pathos—of the emotional toll of Partition, which historians have failed to describe, hence the title of the book. But in her insistence on paraphrasing and summarising Manto’s words, she shows that she has not yet learned what’s in the secret sauce of literary expressions of pathos. The key ingredients are in fact the words of the author himself, and when those words are chopped up and scattered about, they lose their power.

In her final paragraph, Jalal concludes with this ringing call to humanity: “There cannot be a better centenary commemoration of the man whose work captured the pity of Partition so poignantly than a grand initiative for honorable peace in the subcontinent.” This sentiment—that in honour of Manto’s centenary there should be brokered a grand peace agreement between India and Pakistan—though laudable, demonstrates her consistent reduction of Manto’s life and work to what she sees as his apotheosis in his Partition writings, a body of work, it could be argued, that she does not seem to fully understand. Early in the book, she observes in reference to Manto’s Partition stories that, “Manto turns short story writing into a testament of his belief that human depravity, though real and pervasive, can never succeed in killing all sense of humanity.” When one thinks about the stories in question, one can easily recall many instances of the said human depravity: rape, necrophilia, looting and violent mayhem of all kinds. What is harder to perceive is the supposed underlying humanity that Jalal sees Manto as optimistically championing through it all. Such atrocities are indeed uniquely human; most of these behaviours would never be found among animals. But the humanity that Manto holds up for us to see could hardly be called uplifting. In fact, it reveals something much darker: that depravity itself is an essential component of humanity. Therein lies Manto’s genius, and the pity of Partition.

Daisy Rockwell is an artist and writer who divides her time between Delhi, Chicago and Vermont in her imagination, but actually lives in the middle of New Hampshire.

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The above review article from The Caravan Magazine is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use