Two Nations, One Luminary: The Tragic Tale of Manto

Video: Highlights from the program (7 min., 31 sec.)

MUMBAI, July 18, 2013 — With last year marking the centenary of his birth anniversary, renowned author Saadat Hassan Manto is till today remembered as one of the finest fiction chroniclers in Urdu, whose words conjure to life scarring memories and perturbing images of his experiences during the 1947 partition.

To honour his body of work, and the trials and tribulations of his life, Asia Society India Centre presented a discussion with Manto's grandniece, Pakistani-American historian Dr. Ayesha Jalal, author of the recently-published The Pity of Partition: Manto's Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide. Joining her was poet and author Jerry Pinto, with opening remarks made by Padmi Shri-winning filmmaker Shyam Benegal.

Benegal opened the discussion by emphasising his admiration of Manto's work, which he commented as reading exceptionally well even in translation. He shared with the audience his own appreciation of Dr. Jalal's new book, which he found captured the essence of Manto's voluminous body of work as a partition chronicler. He found that the book was at once a literary biography as well as a piece of history, rendering it a funnel into the period she speaks of, rather than an academic read.

Dr. Jalal wove through her speech excerpts from Manto's writing, snippets of his personal life, as well as anecdotes of his encounters with friends and family to offer deep insights into Manto's motivations, sensibilities and ruminations. Living in Mumbai most of his life, Dr. Jalal briefly recounts how Manto "could not seem to disconnect himself from it ever." Born to a Kashmiri-Muslim family in Ludhiana, Punjab, Manto moved to Mumbai in 1936, working for the All India Radio, and then moving onto Bombay Talkies, where he was their main screenwriter for several years. Although Manto formed some of his closest bonds and relationships in the city, Dr. Jalal said that Manto moved to Lahore shortly after the partition in 1948 largely due to familial and religious reasons.

When exploring Manto’s literary skill, Dr. Jalal recognised one of his most important contributions as bringing forth insights into the cosmopolitan dimensions of partition, cutting across solely the communitarian and religious morale, and focusing on its ramifications in the larger cities. She attributed this to his worldly character,employing varied examples of him being a lover of Chinese, Russian and French literature, as well as him not allowing religious distinctions to interfere in his friendships. She admits that while being a controversial figure often seen as a social renegade, she stills views him as an interesting case study, given his “knack for plumbing the depths of the human psyche [in his short stories] and raising ethically challenging questions."

Drawing on particular moments in his life, Dr. Jalal categorises such events as lending themselves to a historian as the perfect blend of "personal history and collective memory," as such glimpses into the "social and cultural history were often lost sight of in partition studies, in the torrent of nationalist reconstructions." Through his innumerable friendships with some of the most noted poets such as Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander and Ahmad Nadeem Oasimi, as well as actors including Shyam, Ashok Kumar and Noor Jahan, Manto made acquaintance with Bombay's most elite in his time in the city. One particular moment that Dr. Jalal elaborated from his writings in the city, was on the Hindu festival of Holi in March 1942. She narrates pieces of how some of Bombay's most affluent, from all religious backgrounds, came together in fun and frolic to rejoice in the festival of colours, bridging the differences that the partition would bring to surface.

In the last segment of her speech, Dr. Jalal spoke of the turn in Manto's life, as the impending partition of the nation loomed closer. The bloodletting in the city and the stories of murder triggered in Manto a new understanding on the changing perspectives of religion. She recalled his comparison; where once it had resided in the heart, it was now a question of what religious cap you adorned. Although Manto's own friendships survived the violence rupturing all around him, he pondered whether in the circumstances that several refugees and others found themselves in, what he himself would have done. Dr. Jalal elucidates how he began to realise that the true “pity of the partition lay in human nature, where humans were slaves of bigotry, animal passions and barbarity." She concluded by recounting that Manto moved to Lahore largely due to familial reasons, but forever remained in agitated confusion, unable to separate India from Pakistan. He died a few years later, after "playing a spectacular innings."

A conversation then ensued when Jerry Pinto joined Dr. Jalal to further discuss more about Manto, and question her on literary and historical elements. When asked on how Manto was received in Pakistan, Dr. Jalal admitted that while sections revere his work, there are others who didn't appreciate him being too much of an independent spirit. Pinto went on to inquire as to whether Manto edited his work, due to some of the incredibly lewd images used in his work. Dr. Jalal responded in the negative, as she found Manto to be an author who lived by his writing, as he wanted to question what he saw as society's hypocrisy. On some level, Dr. Jalal saw him as wanting to talk about such things that made people uneasy. In his final question, Pinto introduced the feminine angle, wondering what female inputs went into his stories. Dr. Jalal confirmed that Manto was always keen to hear stories through family members, and other more risqué women, which provided him with some fascinating material.

Reported by Isha Gulati, Intern, Asia Society India Centre

Presented in partnership with

Outreach partners include Urduwallahs, Tufts Alumni Association and Princeton Club of India

Related Links:
Interview: Historian Investigates the 'Pity of Partition' Through Manto's Life and Writing
Another Pakistan podcast: Ayesha Jalal, Part I
Another Pakistan podcast: Ayesha Jalal, Part II