“Here lies buried Saadat Hasan Manto in whose bosom are enshrined all the secrets and art of short story writing. Buried under mounds of earth, even now he is contemplating whether he is a greater short story writer or god.”

It is not easy to trace the life and works of a man who wrote these words as an epitaph for himself. It is no ordinary task to try to understand a man whose journey was as complex as the period he lived in. It is no ordinary task to juxtapose his experiences with those of million others to understand one of the most complex event in history of the subcontinent, and indeed all of humanity. Yet, it is this mammoth task that Ayesha Jalal sets out to do in her book The Pity of Partition.

Born a hundred and seven years ago on May 11, 1912 Manto – the man and his words – continues to fascinate readers, theatre goers, movie makers and writers even today. A lot has been written about him in the recent past. Biopics have been made on him both in India and in Pakistan. If you visit theatres in large cities and even small towns, chances are that you’d find a number of plays being shown based on his work. In this vast pool of resources about the man, Jalal’s interwoven personal and historical account of Manto in The Pity of Partition stands out as both fresh and insightful.

Linking memories to history

The complete name of the book sets the stage: The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work Across the India-Pakistan Divide. Jalal engagingly combines facts and fiction to understand how the events of and around 1947 shaped Manto’s life and narratives. By the time she wrote this book, her command over the historical facts related to the Partition had already been established in earlier works like The Sole Spokesman, which talked of Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Published in 2012 The Pity of Partition is set apart by the use of a microscopic lens of an individual’s life to analyse the macro historiography of an event considered to be a turning point in South Asian history. Jalal herself describes the technique used as an endeavour “to chalk out a new interdisciplinary way of reconnecting the histories of individuals, families, communities and states in the throes of cataclysmic change.”

In line with this approach, she divides the book into three sections: “Stories”, “Memories” and “Histories”. The use of this method is a fitting tribute to a writer who often used symbols, be it the dog in “Dog of Tetwal” who was stuck between the borders of India and Pakistan, or the asylum patients in “Toba Tek Singh” who were to be transported across border according to their religion.

How Manto saw the Partition

Manto was Jalal’s father’s maternal uncle, and also married to her mother’s elder sister. Although he died a year before her birth, Jalal uses her personal ties with Manto to include private narratives and excerpts from letters he wrote to his near and dear ones. She dedicates the book to Manto’s wife, and her aunt, Safiya, whom she describes as “a wonderful aunt, caring mother, and gentle-mannered soul who stoically stood by Manto through his highs and lows.” Jalal uses her familial ties to dig up fragments of Manto’s life hidden from the public eye. Consider an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his friend, which Jalal includes in her book:

“Now before our eyes lie dried tracks of blood, cut up human parts, charred faces, mangled necks, terrified people, looted houses, burned fields, mountains of rubble and overflowing hospitals. We are free. Hindustan is free. Pakistan is free.” 

Such excerpts from Manto’s own writing enables Jalal to create a much more vivid picture of the destruction wrought by the Partition than bland historical facts could ever have.

The author makes it clear that she chose Manto’s life and works as the lens to understand the chaos and confusion created by the Partition as he had “witnessed the psychological trauma of 1947 at close quarters.” Manto, who was greatly shaped both as a person and as a writer by the vibrant heterogeneous culture of Bombay and its world of cinema, eventually chose to move to Pakistan.

However, till his premature death in 1955, driven by alcoholism, he regularly expressed a yearning to come back to the land he had left behind. In one of his letters addressed to the writer – and his close friend – Ismat Chugtai, he wrote:

“Try as I did, I wasn’t able to separate Pakistan from India and India from Pakistan. Again and again, troubling questions rang in my mind: Will Pakistan’s literature be separate from that of India’s? If so, how? Who owns all that was written in undivided India? Will that be partitioned too?”

His characters too expressed similar anguish over the confusion created by the birth of new identities overnight. A patient in “Toba Tek Singh”, for instance, climbed a tree and famously said, “I neither want to live in India nor in Pakistan. I’m happy in this tree.” Similarly, in the story “Dog of Titwal”, a poor dog stuck in no-man’s land is seen by each side as belonging to the enemy, and, in the end, killed. A soldier in the story laments, “Even dogs will now have to decide if they are Indian or Pakistani.”

This makes the book a fascinating account of Manto as the voice of all those who were stranded between conflicting identities. It highlights how the arbitrarily drawn border cut through hearts and words, shaping lives and literature. It warns us of the consequences of actions driven by nationalist fervour, the dangers of which we continue to face even today. It also reminds us that Manto’s work is just one of the many shared legacies which the two countries must preserve and protect.