In Manto's "kebab full of ants"
Last year, the world commemorated the birth centenary of Saadat Hasan Manto, a literary great who left an indelible mark on the world within his considerably short life. Ayesha Jalal, a Professor of History at Tufts University and additionally, his niece, recently released her comprehensive book - The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide; assuring us that, “There’s a lot more to Manto that needs to be discovered on its own.”
Jalal, a respected historian, tells us, “The book is a product of the Lawrence Stone Lectures’ project that I delivered at the Davis Centre at Princeton University.” Despite its academic premise, Jalal weaves a comprehensive and easy-to-read narrative that flows between the disciplines of history, biography and literature with equal ease. In the preface, she divulges on the origin of the book, “When my sister-in-law mentioned something about her father’s letters to his mother, my ears pricked up.”
Detailing these invaluable documents, she says, “These include letters from his relatives, friends, and admirers; handwritten manuscripts; and a collection of photographs.” The book, aptly divided into - stories, memories and histories - certainly makes for an endearing read as it is imbued with a personal tinge as Jalal tells us over the phone and in the preface that “I grew up with his conspicuous absence or absent presence”.
Mumbaikars will relish when Jalal conveys how instrumental Bombay was for Manto. We chuckle over his description of the first megalopolis of the country as “a kebab full of ants”. His outspoken style gains an incinerating edge especially in his sketches of celebrities known as Bald Angels. In fact, Sitara Devi’s outline drew much mischievous delight from the iconic Habib Tanvir.
Known for his short story genre, Manto “addresses social issues in a truthful manner”, mentions Jalal. The book’s initial chapter “Knives, Daggers, and Bullets Cannot Destroy Religion” relates one of Manto’s stories about a group of Punjabi good friends among which two - Mumtaz and Jugal - have a fallout as Jugal disturbed over his uncle’s murder in Pakistan threatens his Muslim chum in case “violence broke out in the neighbourhood”.
Unable to take the seething communal tension, Mumtaz decides to migrate to Pakistan and in the end states, “Muslims in Lahore killed your uncle and you killed me in Bombay. What medal do you or I deserve? What medal is your uncle’s killer in Lahore worthy of? I would say that those who died, died a dog’s death and those, who killed, killed in vain.”
Jalal, time and again, extols the direct and incisive aspect of Manto’s writing as she comments, “Manto wrote in the short story genre which is known to be a particularly, difficult genre. But he always wrote about people he knew well. Murali ki Dhun, in particular, has moving sketches”.
The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, Ayesha Jalal, HarperCollins India, Rs 599. Available at leading bookstores