Ayesha Jalal: Manto Wrote What He Saw -- and Took No Sides -- During the Partition of India

Roundup: Talking About History

Dr Ayesha Jalal is the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University and author of The Pity of Partition: Manto as Witness to History (Princeton University Press, forthcoming).

Any attempt to fathom the murderous hatred that erupted with such devastating effect at the time of the British retreat from the subcontinent, Saadat Hasan Manto remarked, had to begin with an exploration of human nature itself. For the master of the Urdu short story this was not a value judgement. It was a statement of what he had come to believe after keen observation and extended introspection. Shaken by the repercussions of the political 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.

Manto’s Partition stories are a must read for anyone interested in the personal dimensions ofIndia’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 transcended the limitations of the communitarian narratives underpinning the nationalist self-projections of both Pakistan and India. There is more to Manto than his Partition stories to be sure, but there is no denying his remarkable feat in plumbing the psychological depths of an epic dislocation with telling insight, sensitivity and even-handedness. 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 theBombayfilm 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 Saha’e, 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 Saha’e, 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....

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