Radical Books

Review: ‘The Pity of Partition’

Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013, ISBN: 978-0-691-15362-9

Ayesha Jalal is a renowned historian of modern South Asia and her writing (particularly The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan, published in 1985) has already reshaped the way in which Partition is understood, so a new book from her about the subject is a big event. That’s even more the case when she asserts, in the introduction, that her aim is a bold one – to strive ‘for a new historical methodology that imaginatively connects fictional and historical narratives in an attempt to embellish the historian’s craft’.


The human experience of Partition in 1947 was initially reflected much more in fiction, film, fine art and indeed TV drama than in historical inquiry, so Jalal’s goal is both ambitious and necessary. Historians of Partition have been uncertain how to make best use of creative writing – it has to be more than simply ornament or illustration, but how do you foreground work which is by definition fiction when you are striving amid the minefield of competing narratives to establish authoritative fact?

The theme of the book is the life of Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the commanding Urdu writers of the twentieth century, whose short stories (some of them very short) are widely, and rightly, regarded as the most powerful and compassionate accounts of the Partition violence. Manto was born in 1912 into a Muslim family in Punjab, the region which suffered the gravest communal violence at Partition with hundreds of thousands killed and many millions of refugees. He spent many of his most creative years in Mumbai (at the time Bombay), but in the aftermath of Partition he left for Pakistan, and died in Lahore – with alcoholism contributing to his early death – in 1955. Ayesha Jalal, born the following year, is the daughter of Manto’s nephew, and the personal connection with and indeed reverence for her subject is an important aspect of the book.

As Jalal demonstrates, there was much more to Manto than his Partition stories, but these are his best known writings and lie at the heart of his reputation and of this account of his life and work. Several of his most powerful stories display an almost morbid attention to profound violence, and sexual violence in particular. Two among these, ‘Thanda Gosht’ [Cold Meat] and ‘Khol Do’ [Open It], were the basis of Manto’s prosecution for obscenity in his adoptive nation of Pakistan. His most renowned story, ‘Toba Tek Singh’, seeks to demonstrate the absurdity of Partition and the arbitrary nature of the new international boundary through an account of the splitting up of inmates of an asylum according to their religion. The story borrows from Manto’s own experience of confinement in a mental asylum in Lahore where he was being treated for alcoholism.

‘Manto’s stories are important sources for historians’, Ayesha Jalal asserts, ‘because they seriously unsettle the dominant communitarian mode of amazing partition violence’. It is striking that Manto strenuously avoids any sense of identifying a group or community as the principal perpetrators of violence, and on occasions portrays the perpetrators as themselves victims of the dehumanising aftermath of Partition. Jalal goes on to state:

Blending hard facts with shards of realistic fiction, Manto was able to document the multifaceted nature of human sufferings at the time of partition that has eluded professional historians owing to the methodological limitations of their craft. Unfettered by the demands of communitarian narratives promoted by postcolonial states to project their national ideologies, he enters the hearts and minds of both the perpetrators and victims of violence without compromising his sense of humanity and reasonableness.

That’s an important statement of the value of ‘realistic fiction’ from a historian of the “high politics” of Partition. Yet it applies not only to Manto’s lacerating writings, but to the Partition novels of such as Bapsi Sidhwa, Bhisham Sahni and Krishna Baldev Vaid, all based in some measure on personal experience, none of whom are mentioned here. There is a bigger issue which remains incompletely addressed – Jalal asserts the need for a new historical methodology, demonstrates the force and value of her great uncle’s fiction, but doesn’t quite make the step of how to fold it within a broader historical narrative.

When Ayesha Jalal talks of using fiction to ‘embellish’ the historian’s craft – and let’s turn to an online dictionary here, which offers for ‘embellish’ this meaning: ‘Make (a statement or story) more interesting or entertaining by adding extra details, esp. ones that are not true’ – it still suggests a hierarchy of authority, information and narrative. This is not about defining or reshaping the principal historical narrative, but leavening it with human experience, humanity, compassion and – to borrow from this book’s title – ‘pity’. These accounts are being hung from the scaffolding of a core narrative about politics and nations, rather than helping to determine that core narrative.

The Sole Spokesman, to quote its author in this book, ‘pioneered a fresh approach to the high politics that led to the division of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. … I showed … that the end result of partition must not be confused with the aims of Jinnah and the Muslim League to win an equitable share of power for the subcontinent’s Muslims’. In the almost three decades since that landmark study, the focus of writing and research on Partition has moved away from the political process to greater reliance on oral history and personal testimony as the basis of an exploration of how Partition was experienced by the millions swept up in its wash. Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence (1998) was the hugely influential work which signaled this turning. Jalal is not entirely comfortable with this new approach, or rather believes that the pendulum has swung too far.

There has been a near obsession with memory studies among recent scholars of traumatic events in modern history. Memory as a means of historical retrieval has its limitation. Apart from the problems inherent in selective remembering, there is memory’s intrinsic and complex relationship with the knotty issue of responsibility … A recent tendency to romanticize memory and nostalgia in anti-historical representation of the past has obscured the ways in which the manipulation of memories of trauma both reinforces and advances nationalist narratives of the post-colonial state. Even when the fracturing of national imaginaries allows memories to escape the statist imprint, personal and collective memories are rarely if ever immune from the persistence of the present in selective remembrances of the past.

Jalal is right to emphasise that memories, especially those shared with outsiders, must always be seen through the prism of the present day. An explicit acceptance that our understanding of Partition, and what it meant for those who lived through it, has benefitted hugely from the focus on the lived experience of that turbulence would have given Jalal’s argument more force.

Nevertheless, this important book points the way, hesitantly, towards a greater integration of high politics, personal testimony and creative writing in accounts of India’s moment of independence and the creation of Pakistan. Ayesha Jalal argues for the need to look at ‘the other side’ of Partition – not simply the subaltern experience, but something more than that:

Looking at the other side of partition entails cutting across the communitarian morass and foregrounding the cosmopolitanism of everyday life that bound people belonging to rival religious communities both before and after the severity of a forced separation no one had quite envisaged, simply because there was no precedent for it in India’s history.

That approach runs in her family – and Manto’s work testifies to that. She offers a revised epitaph for her forbear, though by posing the question she proposes the answer: “Here lies Manto, who is still wondering whether he is the greater storyteller of the past and retriever of memories than the historian.”

The opening sentences of Manto’s ‘Khol Do‘, translated by Savio Pashana:

A special train left Amritsar at two in the afternoon and reached Mughalpura after eight hours. En route many were killed, injured and some went astray in the mayhem.

10:00 AM. Sirajuddin lying on the cold ground of the camp, opened his tired eyes. The swelling sea of women, men and children perplexed him. He kept staring at gloomy sky for a long time. There was havoc all across the camp, but Sirajuddin’s ears were blocked. He couldn’t hear anything. Anyone seeing him would easily conclude that he was lost in deep concern. But it was not so. His senses were numb. He felt consumed by a void.

Browsing aimlessly at the gloomy sky he glanced upon the sun. The piercing rays woke him up with a jolt. And in a jiffy, many an image flashed in front of his eyes: loot, fire, stampede, station, bullets, the night, and Sakina. Sirajuddin got up suddenly and, like a lunatic, started frantically searching through the vast sea of women, men and children. For over three hours he looked out for Sakina but he couldn’t find his young, and only, daughter.

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