LET’S begin this review with a few understatements: Sadat Hasan Manto is one of the finest Urdu short story writers; Krishan Chander is a literary force to be reckoned with; and Intizar Husain is a master storyteller. These obvious assertions give birth to a question: has the above-mentioned literary giants’ influence, in the 21st century, resulted in spawning literature that delineates the psychosocial trauma associated with the Partition of the subcontinent? How many writers who were born after the division of India have been moved or touched by the bloodshed that took place in 1947 in the name of religion? I’m afraid the answer is: not many, if not none at all.
The hefty body of Holocaust literature is the yardstick against which this argument could be measured. It is the third or fourth post-World War II generation of writers in the West; and the Holocaust seems to haunt them with the same intensity seven decades after the war came to an end. It stirs them into creating poems, making paintings and writing novels based on the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Patrick Modiano, who won the 2014 Nobel award for literature, was born only a couple of months prior to the end of the Second World War. And yet, some of his novels have strong Holocaust themes. Another example is of a Joshua Harmon play that has recently had a successful run in America and the UK with the motive, as quoted by the Guardian: “How can the current generation of young people carry forward the memory of such a major historical event that is so recent, so closely connected to their identity, and yet so far from anything they have experienced themselves?”
This is not the case with contemporary Urdu literature. The stories of 1947 have been left at past masters’ thresholds. Today, writers in India have other fish to fry, and their counterparts in Pakistan are turning more and more inward-looking and regional. There’s nothing wrong with that: present-day reality is no less significant than historical truth. But where does that leave Partition?
It is in this context that it becomes essential to discuss Zulmat-e-Neem Roz: Fasadaat Ke Afsaane selected by critic Mumtaz Shireen and compiled by writer and translator Asif Farrukhi.
Shireen passed away in 1973. The critic had developed the idea of collecting and publishing significant stories depicting the violence that enveloped certain parts of the subcontinent when Pakistan and India were about to gain independence. However, the project did not materialise. Therefore readers owe a big debt of gratitude to Sang-e-Meel Publications and Farrukhi who were able to gather and compile into a book these very important works of literature.
Make no mistake, the compilation is a great read, and an essential guide to understanding how Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, who had been living together for centuries, suddenly became sworn enemies, as if a dormant monster within them was goaded into action, inflicting unimaginable pain and suffering on each other. On the other hand, as it always happens in a battlefield, there were some who kept their wits about themselves and never lost sight of humanity in the darkest of hours.
Great stories like Manto’s ‘Thanda Gosht’, Krishan Chander’s ‘Peshawar Express’ and Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi’s ‘Dilli ki Bipta’ had to make the cut. Their inclusion in the book was almost automatic. At the same time ‘Lekin Ashiana Jal Gaya’ by Qurrutulain Hyder and ‘Aakh Thu’ by Premnath Dar substantially add to the selection, indicating that the issues pertaining to rioting did not just have a physical side to them; they also had psychological dimensions which perhaps were more poignant.
The book contains essays by prominent critic Muhammad Hasan Askari and Shireen. They remind us of their tiny tussle with the Progressives who never showed enough fondness for Manto (when he was alive, that is), whereas Askari and Shireen always favoured him and his individualistic approach to life in general and Partition in particular.
That said, now that I read their essays I can’t help but think that both critics were in a hurry to pass judgement. Praising Manto, Askari says that the writer has looked for human truth and meaningfulness (“insaani maanviat aur sadaqat”), ignoring all other preferences. Shireen suggests that the stories written with a certain time gap in mind instead of those penned in times of crises have a lasting effect because the lapse in time broadens the background of those stories (“waqt ki doori pas manzar ko zyadah wasii bana deti hai”). Is that really the case?
Today, all we have in terms of Partition literature is what our elders have written. No one is writing about the migration experience today. And you can’t fault them, because it’s not their experience. However, this is not a cogent argument. You don’t always write about what you experience. You can also pen down your feelings. This implies that no one in the 21st century is feeling the pangs of Partition, because if you do, you will be accused of being stuck in the past. Not just this, it is terrible that not enough literary material on the fall of Dhaka is available in Urdu literature. Isn’t that a tragedy?
Therefore wouldn’t it be inappropriate to raise the question about the relevance of the tales in Zulmat-e-Neem Roz? Because if they are, then why aren’t they influencing the younger generation of storytellers (filmmakers and painters included), making them probe the events of 1947 anew? If they aren’t, then will Manto and Chander remain great writers because they wrote stories that happened in a certain time frame? It is a tough question to respond to. The onus is on our writers and critics — particularly on the latter, if they exist.
Selected by Mumtaz Shireen
Compiled by Asif Farrukhi
Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore