By Umair Khan
The talk given by historian Ayesha Jalal on Saadat Hasan Manto was a unique literary experience. Writer Ali Sethi, who was moderating the session, asked pertinent questions and Jalal, being Manto’s grandniece, had the privilege of accessing the writer’s ‘personality’ as remembered by his family. She also analysed his writings in the sociopolitical context of Partition. This blend of personal and academic makes her recent book on Manto, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, an eye-opening political commentary on a literary giant of the 20th century.
Jalal said that she had always wanted to write a book on Manto. The opportunity presented itself when she was invited to deliver lectures on him, on which the book is based. She also found several of Manto’s personal letters and used them for better understanding the man. She pointed out that while she and Manto both wrote about Partition, they asked different questions. Her work unravels its historical causes while Manto’s is focused on the social consequences. She said: “Manto embellished a historian’s craft into fictional narrative; moreover, he was a fantastic social critic.”
Sethi remarked that Manto more than just confirms the history of Partition, he adds to it. His writings transcend his time and speak to us in a manner that is relevant even today. Moving onto his lifestyle, the two discussed cosmopolitanism, as that is regarded as a hallmark of Manto’s life in Bombay. “Being cosmopolitan means openness to different cultures and languages,” said Jalal. “It doesn’t submerge identities but creates an ambience that is conducive to dialogue. The history of Islam in this part of the world has been that of cosmopolitanism. Difference of faith was not a barrier to trade.” She also said that Manto had beautifully captured the cosmopolitanism of Bombay.
Jalal also spoke about Manto’s friendship with film actor Shyam, who told Manto that he could have killed him during the Partition riots but could not at the time of the conversation. According to Manto, Partition transformed people. Manto used true stories as inspiration for his fiction. His narrative was more than just contemporary — it was about human nature.
Manto’s battles with the literary establishment of his times, which became a central feature of his life, were also discussed. He was charged with obscenity many times but the judges were liberal enough to acquit him, emphasised Jalal. According to her, in today’s Pakistan, this would not be possible.
When asked to comment on the similarities between Manto and French writer Guy de Maupassant, Jalal said Manto had read Maupassant’s stories and was influenced by him, but did not imitate him. Maupassant was a product of a rich literary tradition but Manto had to define his own tradition in Urdu literature. Jalal read out passages from Manto’s letters to Uncle Sam to focus on his non-fiction writing.
In response to a question from the audience, Jalal explained her thesis on Partition. She said that the notion that Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and was determined or doomed to be Talibanised is ahistorical. Jinnah fought against religious fanatics and Manto also criticised them, she said.
The horrors of Partition were well known, but few liked to talk about them. There was a collective silence as most people were traumatised. Manto broke this deafening silence by revealing the impact of Partition on not only the victims but also the perpetrators of those crimes. As always, the poor were the primary victims and that is why they are ubiquitous in all of Manto’s stories.
WHAT NEXT FOR URDU
IT was the first session of the second day and maybe for that reason the auditorium was scarcely filled. Two of the panellists, Ataul Haq Qasmi and Tehseen Firaqi, also did not show up. However, the discussion on ‘The Future of Urdu Literature in the Punjab’ was carried out brilliantly by Asghar Nadeem Syed and Intizar Husain, moderated by Ali Usman Qureshi.
Qureshi traced the evolution of Urdu language in the Punjab through the colonial era and said that the British government prioritised the use of Urdu as opposed to Punjabi. Punjab, and particularly Lahore, welcomed Urdu quite graciously which is evident from the emergence of several towering literary figures of the twentieth century from the province.
Husain referred to Maulana Muhammad Hussain’s observation that the literary centre of Urdu had transferred from Delhi and Lucknow to Lahore. He also said that Lahore produced a great poet — Iqbal —who could be compared with Ghalib, and after him Faiz, Rashid, Miraji, Nasir Kazmi, Munir, Manto, Baidi, Krishan Chandra etc. followed. Syed added that Lahore was also the centre of the Progressive Writers’ Association. That generation established their own trends in language and literature but there is no replacement of these trends.
Language and literature are dynamic, evolving and renewing themselves constantly. Husain explained that each new generation rebels against the norms of the older generation. But he felt that the current generation is not experimenting in Urdu or Punjabi. One reason for this is the commercialisation of the media. Now writers want to be popular and bestsellers in a matter of days, he said.
Syed criticised Ziaul Haq’s regime for its suppression of those writers and academics who challenged the state narrative. He also said that a boring, irrelevant and inaccurate syllabus of Urdu as taught in schools is alienating students from the language.
According to Syed, the current intellectual barrenness is more evident in non-literary areas. While poets and fiction writers are contributing, not much quality work is being done in the fields of history, psychology, sociology, philosophy and anthropology. New movements in philosophy and psychology are being introduced to Pakistani readers by literary critics and not by the experts of those fields. Similarly, fiction is playing the role of a social historian.
What was missing from the session, and the festival, was the presence of writers such as Mirza Athar Baig and Abdullah Hussain, whose contributions to Urdu literature have been momentous.
— Umair Khan