Insaan, aye Insaan! by Hasan Manzar is a well-paced novel with an intriguing coming-of-age plot. It begins when the eight-year-old protagonist, Tilmeez, is sent to the strict and stifling environment of his eldest sister’s house, to live with her religious husband and their children. The purpose of the move, away from the warmth of his mother’s love and his other siblings, is to prevent him from waywardness. The result turns out to be completely opposite. A life of rebellious resentment, for being thrown out of his home, and resultant excesses unfolds, leading to crimes and imprisonments. The novel is a stream of consciousness review and analysis of his own life when he is on the death row, before an unexpected ending.

What makes Tilmeez’s character engaging is the realism of his irrational and destructive behaviour. The subsequent shattered relationships and alienation make life increasingly difficult and unhappy for him, providing impetus to his character. And while the characters of most of Tilmeez’s tormentors — his father, brother-in-law and older sister — tend to be flat, the main characters are mostly lively and multidimensional, close to life. They are complete with contradictions, with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices.

Although dates are not mentioned in the novel, the period in which the story is set appears to be, roughly, from the early 1940s to the mid-1960s. The social, political and cultural background of the narrative is remarkably detailed, adding substance to the plot and characters. Pre-Partition northern India, the freedom struggle, the conditions that drove people to leave their ancestral homes and settled communities, as well as resettlement in a new country, are depicted minutely. We see how families and communities are devastated, and reconstitute, providing a touching account of life during the years before and after Independence.

Manzar has an unusual propensity for describing places in clearly recognisable countries and cities, but without actually naming them. This lack of naming seems to allow the readers broader and unbiased room to relish the characters and plot developments.

Historical facts as well as myths about Partition are admirably portrayed by Manzar, providing insight into relationships between characters belonging to different ethnicities who are all affected by the events. Manzar has also effectively highlighted the trauma, destitution, as well as the opportunism that emerged among those who resettled on both sides of the border, particularly the unnamed Pakistan, during the early post-Partition years. We are reminded of the now forgotten social presence, influence and status of the British colonisers and their families in the subcontinent.

An interesting dimension of Insaan, aye Insaan! is the language Manzar uses. From a heavy content of Hindi and old Urdu, it gradually evolves into contemporary lingo as the story progresses chronologically. Compared to other reputed Urdu novels set in a similar time setting, for instance Abdullah Hussein’s Udaas Naslain that exudes the influence of the English language in its expression, or Alipur ka Ailee by Mumtaz Mufti that conveys a strong Punjabi texture, Insaan, aye Insaan offers an opportunity to savour the native vintage diction and syntax of Urdu prose.

The debate about religion, faith and the existence of God is explored in detail, particularly through the central character who swings between agnosticism, atheism and belief.

Insaan, aye Insaan! is a panoramic novel. Human nature, social dynamics, historical events, philosophic questions and their influence on lives combine to make this lengthy and meticulously written novel an important book. All this, despite occasional distractions caused by shifts between third person and first person narrations, and a few repetitions. And although the overall feel of the novel may be termed gloomy, a sprinkling of wit and humour can be found off and on.

Insaan, aye Insaan! is a detailed account of a life, a fictional biography in which the author seems to be, arguably, pointing out that we are fallible and predestined to remain so.

Insaan, aye Insaan!


By Hasan Manzar

Scheherezade, Karachi