ONE might wonder if the title of the book Zulmat-e-Neem Roz has something to do with Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon. The answer is no, not at all. In fact the writer, Mumtaz Shirin, in her later years, had planned to compile a volume comprising select writings of various authors, picked out from what had been written during the post-Partition years. But her untimely death did not allow her to print that collection. Her husband Samad Shaheen had presented the manuscript to the Pakistan Writers Guild, but the Guild did not publish it for reasons best known to it. Shaheen did not get the manuscript back. However, after some time the writer Asif Farrukhi got some tips from Shaheen, and traced some portions published in different journals. He compiled the volume and published it with Sang-e-Meel’s cooperation.

The book made its appearance at the Islamabad Literature Festival when a full session was reserved for discussing the Partition years under the title ‘1947: The Blood Stained Dawn’. Masood Ashar, Arfa Syeda, Farrukhi and I were the participants. Indian publisher Urvashi Butalia also joined us in this discussion. She narrated the sad tale of her own family, which was divided under the stress of those violence-ridden times. As narrated by her, while the family had chosen to migrate, the young son of the family refused to leave his land. His mother, who was Butalia’s maternal grandmother, chose to stay with her dear son. After a number of decades she embarked on a journey to search for her relatives. She reached Lahore and succeeded in locating her maternal uncle. Her nani, however, had already passed away. Butalia’s mother had a different kind of worry; she wanted to know if her mother had been cremated in accordance with Hindu rituals. Butalia has traced a number of such cases and compiled them in a volume titled The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. But we were expected to discuss those cruel years with reference to our literature, where the clash of two points of view had led to a big controversy.

I refer back to Zulmat-e-Neem Roz. Almost all the prominent story writers from India have here been included with their stories written in those years. Krishan Chander with his story ‘Peshawar Express’ is followed by Rajinder Singh Bedi with his ‘Lajwanti’ and Ismat Chughtai with her ‘Jarain’. The list of story writers from Pakistan is comparatively short. Manto with his two stories ‘Khol Do’ and ‘Thanda Gosht’ is the leading figure. At least one story writer, Qudratullah Shahab, with his ‘Ya Khuda’ can be treated as a pure Pakistani product. But I wonder why Shirin did not include Manto’s Siyah Hashiye in her selection of fictional pieces. This little book, in fact, was a bombshell in progressive circles. What added to the fury of Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Ali Sardar Jafri was the inclusion of Mohammad Hasan Askari’s preface in the book. The outright dismissal of Siyah Hashiye on their part led to the flare up of a bitter controversy. Now we find progressive writers arrayed against Manto. On the other hand, we see the two distinguished critics Askari and Shirin at Manto’s beck and call. The controversy soon transformed into an ideological battle between two factions.

Now this whole period along with its sentimentality and fury has receded into the realm of the past. It forms part of our literary history. And so we are in a position to see and judge it in an objective way. Seen from a distance, the period festered in bitter controversies appears to have some positive aspects. Precisely speaking, those controversies had not erupted on the basis of personal or group prejudices. Instead they appear to have been an ideological battle. Or we may say that it was a clash of two points of view, both based on deep thinking about literature, about society, and about human relations at large. Such controversy is never harmful; instead it enriches the literary tradition and provides food for thought for coming generations.

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