By Farooq Sulehria
June 22, 2013
Three years before his death, Saadat Hasan Manto “undertook to compile a book of his friends’ observations about his personality” so that his readers “know as much about him as possible through the eyes of those who knew him well”, says Ayesha Jalal. Manto, according to Ayesha Jalal, named the proposed book ‘Nakhun ka Quarz’ (A nail’s debt).
Manto’s friends did not pay that debt. This delayed debt has now been paid by his grandniece, the noted historian Dr Ayesha Jalal, through the lovingly written ‘The Pity of Partition: Manto’s life, Times, and Works across the India-Pakistan Divide’.
Slated to mark the Manto centenary last year, the book fondly and intimately unravels Manto’s personality. Fondly because, born a year after Manto’s self-hastened death, Ayesha Jalal grew up with ‘Manto Abajan’s’ “conspicuously absent presence”. Intimately, because she is a credible source in her own self and as an insider with access not only to the Manto archives carefully preserved by the family but also a host of family secrets. Manto’s fans and students of his work are lucky that she divulges these secrets every time Manto’s emotional and psychological make-up has to be deconstructed.
For instance, it is not a widely known fact that Manto’s Partition masterpiece, Toba Tek Singh, was penned after his stint at the Punjab Mental Hospital in Lahore in April 1951. While rumours were rife across the Subcontinent that Manto was going through psychological problems, the fact was that the mental hospital was the only place in Lahore that could deal with alcoholism. Though Manto stayed away from his favourite drink for a while, in December 1951 he was forcibly readmitted to the same hospital. After two weeks, he was released since the hospital did not treat patients against their will. “The experience embittered Manto towards his family”, on the one hand, while on the other his wife Safia seriously began to contemplate divorce.
However, Manto would never write under the influence. He would also avoid “drinking on national holidays like Pakistan Day on 23 March, not for any nationalistic reasons but merely to devote himself to the amusement of the children, whom he helped put up buntings and flags all over the front of the house.”
While he appears as an irresponsible family head, he was indeed a loving father and husband. Could that be due to his own childhood experience? Manto’s mother Sardar Begum was Khwaja Ghulam Hasan’s second wife. Being Pakhtun, Sardar Begum was looked at with contempt by Manto’s extended Kashmiri family. While Manto as a child resented the treatment meted out to his mother, he was also terrified of his father with whom he was never able to forge any meaningful relationship.
This pent-up anger could have translated into violent crime. Instead, an unlikely encounter with Bari Alig, a Marxist, preceded by an introduction to world literature, moulded Manto into someone entirely different. He named his room, near the eastern entrance of his family house in Amritsar’s Lawyer’s Colony, the ‘Dar-ul-Ahmer’ (red room). While the fireplace in his ‘red room’ was adorned by a bust of Bhagat Singh, the walls were decorated with posters of Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and a photograph of his father. His writing table as well as his cupboard was stacked with the works of Victor Hugo, Lord Lytton, Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Leonid Andreyev, Oscar Wilde and Maupassant.
Ironically, critics have written “long essays on how he was influenced by Schopenhauer, Freud, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx when”, according to Jalal, “he had read none of these luminaries”. In fact, Manto himself thought that “his proclivity for storytelling was quite simply a product of the tensions generated by the clashing influences of a stern father and a gentle-hearted mother”.
As if expressing this tension, he dedicated his first anthology ‘Aatish Paray’ to his father; on his mother’s advice he would inscribe the numerals 786 before writing anything. Manto would share his short stories with his mother as well as sister, Iqbal. Again in the case of Iqbal, the relationship was full of tension. While he loved his sister, Iqbal’s husband and Manto did not get along well. In fact, the two siblings did not reunite until Iqbal’s husband died.
Such emotional traumas were often compounded by Manto’s financial woes pre- and post-Partition. While he did earn fame and a decent income as a successful writer before 1947, Manto’s refusal to compromise constantly landed him in financial worries. This is what explains his oscillation between Bombay and Delhi. Jalal not only describes these conflicts vividly, she also narrates Manto’s hilarious encounters with his contemporaries.
During his first encounter with Krishan Chander, for instance, Manto handed over a story to Krishan Chander to read. As if to recognise Chander’s great status as well as assert his own importance, Manto pointed out: “I don’t show my stories to anyone, not even my father. I am showing it to you, though you don’t write very well...but there is one thing about your stories that I appreciate, understand, Krishan Chander, MA?”.
Conscious of his self-proclaimed status as Urdu’s greatest storyteller, Manto was not alien to intellectual disputes. During his stay in Delhi where he worked with All India Radio scripting over 100 plays, he ran into situations with Upendranath Ashk and Devendra Satyarthi. His story ‘Taraqi Pasand’, in fact, is a “hilarious yarn based on an actual incident involving Bedi and Satyarthi”.
In turn, Satyarthi “retaliated with a story called ‘Naye Devta’ (New God), which was overseen by Bedi while Faiz is also said to have had a hand in the story”. It would be remiss of me not to point out that there are only fleeting, often unsympathetic, references to Faiz in the work under review.
Jalal accuses Faiz of a cold response when Manto was on trial facing charges of obscenity – for writing ‘Thanda Gosht’. This allegation is neither substantiated nor explored. While it is true that Faiz did not consider Manto a great writer of international significance – his letter from jail to Alys on Manto’s death is an indication – Faiz did give up his membership of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) owing to his differences with the former on ostracising Manto and Iqbal. Even if Jalal justifiably grills the PWA for its Stalinist-style blacklisting of Manto, the dissenting voices within the left should not be sidestepped.
However, such ‘banal’ objections do not in any way lessen the invaluable contribution Jalal has made through this biography – not only to Sub continental culture but the history of Partition as well. In fact, woven into the texture of this personal biography is the larger history of the partition of the Subcontinent with a point of view that challenges official narratives. Jalal claims, for instance, that Manto’s ‘A Story of 1919’ “gives the lie to nationalist narratives identifying Gandhian nonviolence as the primary dynamic in the ant colonial struggle”.
To challenge official narratives, even oral history is a flawed source in the case of Partition – according to Jalal. In her view, historians should untangle Partition through a synthesis of socio-political experiences and cultural discourses. Manto with his “knack for plumbing the depths of human psyche”, in Jalal’s view, is both “an important resource” and “an intriguing case study” in this regard. This makes ‘The Pity of Partition’ an invaluable attempt.
Farooq Sulehria is a freelance contributor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org