One would be hard-pressed to find a reader who, after reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story, Toba Tek Singh, could shake off the feeling of unease and helplessness tightly pressed between his prose. Unsurprisingly, like almost every writer who hopes that his work remains relevant forever, Manto often said that Saadat Hasan would, naturally, die, but Manto must live on through his short stories.
Given Manto’s popularity and achievement in the short story genre, his wish has been granted. Now, his grandniece, historian Ayesha Jalal, who is also Professor of History at Tufts University, gives his desire a more substantial shape with her book, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide.
Jalal’s book is not a literary effort but a more historical and personal one on the man only heard of when she was growing up in Lahore, but had never met. With the help of stories, letters, memoirs and “imaginative retellings” by her family members, Jalal reveals the man behind a body of work that continues to provide much nuance to the Partition even today.
Few writers can claim to have exposed the pointlessness and hypocrisy of the one of the bloodiest events in the Indian subcontinent. Through stories and personality sketches, Jalal draws out the Manto few now know of. The book begins by charting Manto’s childhood, his life with his parents and his less-than-impressive relationship with formal education. Even then, Manto’s imagination sought the world outside classroom and all things unfettered.
The book is significant because of the details revealed about the people Manto meets early in life (who later become mentors) and whom he passionately admires. Apart from the chronological and absorbing narrative which Manto fans would enjoy, Jalal also gives readers insight into things they have always wondered about -- just which events in Manto’s personal life shaped his unforgiving, incisive gaze? What made him write short stories that ripped some characters apart yet managed to keep hope alive?
Excerpts from an interview with author Ayesha Jalal:
Tell us about the Manto you met through the research for your book -- how different was he from the accounts you may have heard from your family, for instance (especially Nighat and Nuzhat Manto, his daughters)?
I grew up with a larger than life image of Manto based on family memories of his likes and dislikes, personal strengths and foibles. So for instance I knew how he sat when he wrote; what he liked to eat, etc., What I found instead through my research was a multifaceted individual and writer with a cosmopolitan sensibility and a galaxy of fascinating friends ranging from top film stars, directors, musicians, and lyricists to talented photographers and artists. Researching and writing The Pity of Partition made Manto’s life, work and times come alive for me in ways that received memories alone could not.
Even today, in India, Manto is being immortalised through adapted plays, book readings and so on. Where does he stand in the minds of readers and the general public in Pakistan today?
Manto has an ardent following in Pakistan even though there is no official sponsorship of his work on television and radio or in the educational curriculum at government institutions. This is beginning to change with the proliferation of private television channels and independent filmmakers. Some of his short stories are being taught at private educational institutions. He is generally considered to be a fearless rebel who would not hesitate to expose societal ills and hypocrisies.
In the book, you explain that historical narratives are delicate matters and have limitations. How, then, did you sift through Manto’s personality sketches and letters knowing that those, too, would inevitably present the same constraints?
What I meant was that historical narratives require certain conventions which historians can ignore only at their peril. However, careful uses of fictional narratives can embellish historical narratives so long as the historian’s craft is not compromised. Manto’s personality sketches and letters, as opposed to his short stories, were enormously helpful in allowing me to retrieve the history of Manto’s life, work, and times.
Manto exposed the hypocrisy of his times -- how would you contextualise Manto’s writing in the India and Pakistan of today?
Manto wrote on matters of perennial social relevance and has his place in the literary pantheon of both countries as a maverick and whistleblower on hard social truths. Even those who dislike the themes he wrote about are hard pressed to deny his literary genius and success with the genre of short story writing.