• Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review from Syed Badrul Ahsan

The agony of the writer

The Pity of Partition Manto's Life, Times, and Work Across the India-Pakistan Divide Ayesha Jalal HarperCollins Publishers India
The Pity of Partition Manto's Life, Times, and Work Across the India-Pakistan Divide Ayesha Jalal HarperCollins Publishers India

Almost every account of the way Saadat Hasan Manto's final years of life in Pakistan were spent raises the inevitable question: what compulsion was there, really, for him to leave Bombay behind and opt for a country that did not look promising for a writer of his intellectual range? While it is true that he was persecuted by the British colonial authorities on such charges as obscenity in his writings in pre-1947 India, there were reasons to think that conditions for literature, indeed for the arts, would be somewhat more encouraging in a free India. Perhaps it was a truth easily acknowledged by Manto. All truths in 1947, however, were subsumed by the bigger, uglier truth of communalism. Manto moved to Pakistan. He would suffer there in a way few writers in modern times would suffer.

Ayesha Jalal's The Pity of Partition is, in a broad manner of speaking, a narrative that speaks not just of Manto but of all those forces of creativity condemned to suffer the agony of Partition and its attendant displacement of population. Two million people perished in the process of the vivisection of the country. Millions more were left hearth and home. Women, on all sides of religious faith --- Muslim, Hindu, Sikh --- were abducted, raped and killed. Those who survived had little hope of living a normal life. In short, Partition was that eerie moment in time when collective madness, engineered by parochially-oriented politicians, when indeed civilization was brutalized in the Indian subcontinent, was rampant.

For Manto, nothing could be more poignant than an observation of the unfolding tragedy. Partition became for him a literary weapon through which he decried the mauling of culture and tradition in the country in the 1940s. Toba Tek Singh remains, of course, a point of reference. And there were others too. Thanda Gosht, again the story of a woman abducted in the frenzy of communalism, was one more manifestation of the macabre nature of truth. The new, ideology-driven authorities of Pakistan did not see it that way. Manto, they made it abundantly, and indignantly, clear, was undermining the cause of the new state through referring to Muslim women being subjected to abduction and rape by Hindu or Sikh men. Off with his head, said they, in that metaphorical sense of the meaning.

And it was Manto's head that the state was always after post-1947. It did not matter that Manto happened to be the most prolific, truth-telling writer the state of Pakistan ought to have been proud of claiming as its own. As it happened, his fellow-writers, many of whom had like him migrated from the old India to settle in Pakistan, were irked by his ceaseless attacks on their so-called progressive credentials. For their part, they thought they saw in Manto a willing spokesperson for the state. Such ironies are what Ayesha Jalal, all these years after her much acclaimed Sole Spokesman, a work on Mohammad Ali Jinnah, projects in The Pity of Partition. She does it with feeling, seeing that she is related to Manto and has therefore had access to various facts about him from the family cellar.

Manto's was a mind, as Jalal would have us know, consistently expanding through wide reading. In his youth (he was still a youth when politics and illness claimed his life in his early forties), his room 'was filled with the works of Victor Hugo, Lord Lytton, Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Leonid Andreyev, Oscar Wilde, and Maupassant.' His interaction with Abdul Bari Alig was a turning point in his life, for in Bari he spotted all those elements he thought could be principles on which aspiring intellectuals would need to construct their lives. And yet Bari, for all his fervour, at a point disappointed Manto. When the police came looking for the young men who had put up a 'subversive' poster announcing a theatrical presentation of Wilde's Vera in translation, Bari slipped away. Manto and his friend Hasan Abbas were carted off to prison. It was a brother-in-law of Manto's, a former deputy superintendent of police, who scolded the policemen who had come to ask him questions about the detained young men: 'These are our children, go and do your work.' Manto and Abbas were freed. Some years later, it would be Manto's misfortune to find Bari employed in a lowly position at the British consulate in Lahore. It was a bad coming down.

The Pity of Partition is history encapsulated in the story of Saadat Hasan Manto. The march of characters, all of them literary, is revealing of the trauma Urdu literature went through in the course of the division of India. The instance of Thanda Gosht must come in once more. The case against Manto was brought before the Press Advisory Board of Pakistan. The poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who himself would soon be a victim of the communal state, was at the time editor of what was a progressive Pakistan Times and convener of the PAB. At one point of the inquisition, for that it is what it really was, Faiz attempted to defend Thanda Gosht. That elicited an angry roar from a self-professed defender of the Pakistan ideology, Maulana Akhtar Ali (the editor of Zamindar): 'No, no, this sort of literature will not work in Pakistan.'

Manto was eventually acquitted of the charge of obscenity in the Thanda Gosht affair. An unknown admirer from Gujranwala, thrilled by the judgement, wrote to Manto: 'Your victory is for the betterment of literature, how can a donkey know the value of saffron?' Apart from Manto's run-ins with the state, there are the details of his skirmishes with the Progressive Writers Association which Jalal provides in the work. In 1948, the PWA, obviously influenced by Soviet communism, decreed that a non-Marxist could not be considered a progressive. That effectively put Manto and other writers, such as Mohammad Hasan Askari and Rajinder Singh Bedi, on the PWA's exclusion list. It did not bother Manto. 

It was despair more than drink that killed Manto. His alcoholism led him to rehabilitation centres for treatment. But it was a malaise that did not keep him away from his principles. He remained, to the end, a proper husband to his wife Safia and a loving father to his daughters. By the age of thirty nine, he had authored twenty two books and yet he did not own any property, could not afford it. Poverty stalked him all his life. He has, since his death in 1955, largely remained taboo --- except for the early 1970s when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto presided over Pakistan.

Manto wrote his own epitaph before death claimed him:

Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and mysteries of short story writing…Under tons of earth he lies, wondering who of the two is the greater short story writer: God or he.

His bereaved elder sister would not have the epitaph put up at his grave, for fear it might cause fresh outrage among an increasingly conservative Pakistan. The alternative was, again, in Manto's words:

This is the grave of Saadat Hasan Manto, who still thinks his name was not the repeated word on the tablet of time.

Ayesha Jalal gives you reason for refreshing new pain. After all, Manto's was a life lived in unmitigated pain.

Published: 12:01 am Monday, August 04, 2014

Last modified: 8:16 pm Monday, August 04, 2014

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