104 years after his birth, Manto continues to teach us about valuing the human above any ethical or political standpoint, through his stark Partition stories.
Many Indians know Toba Tek Singh from their school textbooks – the poignant story set a few years after Partition that traces the transfer of Bishan Singh and his fellow asylum inmates from Lahore to newly created India.
2016 marks 104 years since Saadat Hasan Manto’s birth, and 61 years since he penned Toba Tek Singh. The year has already seen renewed explorations of his work, including dramatised readings and Nandita Das’ new film on the writer, yet to be released.
Toba Tek Singh is the culmination of Manto’s long literary preoccupation with partition, an event he lived through. Manto was born on May 11, 1912, in Paproudi village in Ludhiana district, Punjab, in a family of barristers. He began his career by reading Russian and French authors, and translating them into Urdu. As a student at Aligarh Muslim University, he became involved with the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association, started in England by a group of young Indian writers, with the objective of charting out a new direction for Indian literature by urging writers to confront the realities of Indian life. With that began Manto’s flowering – he went on to write, most famously, his partition stories, but also radio plays, essays and film scripts.
Manto’s stories are about partition – yet there is no mention of ‘Hindu,’ ‘Muslim,’ ‘India’ or ‘Pakistan’ in them. This is what makes them so striking, and relevant, even to this day.
On the whole, there is an utter lack of contextual detail or description of personality or identity in the stories. There is only confusion and bewilderment, action and raw detail.
In the story The Return, for instance, we are given no details about the protagonist Sirajuddin’s identity. Instead, we are immediately thrown into the confusion and terror of a refugee camp. As the events unfold, we continue to process them in a raw, immediate way. We are told that Sirajuddin asks a group of eight armed young men to look for his missing daughter Sakina; we are told that they have succeeded in finding her and are kind to her. Then the story abruptly ends. We realise, along with the unnamed doctor who had no previous importance in the story, that the armed men have actually raped Sakina and abandoned her by a railway track. This we realise through the single, simple yet devastating act of Sakina undoing and lowering her salwar, which acquires as much weight as her father’s search for her.
Manto the narrator never judges his characters; he simply describes their actions. The juxtaposition of one story and one character against another startles not because of clear binaries set up, such as that of Hindu/ Muslim, but rather because the characters react with equal vulnerability and aggression, shifting between the roles of perpetrator and victim. In stories like The Return, and also The Assignment, The Last Salute and Bitter Harvest, friends and neighbours turn into enemies, and victims into killers.
As we follow their actions, we lose all sense of identity and belonging, all motivation to define and blame. We are left only with the violence of partition.
Manto describes a completely new social and psychological space in which violence and “madness” is the norm. This is the space that belongs neither to India or Pakistan, but has been borne of the rupture of partition, and is, simply, human.
Manto’s lack of investment in any political or ethical standpoint initially may disturb. It translates into a tone that could be read as cold and detached. But it is his detachment, his refusal to linger over any one tragic detail over the other, which allows us to be thrown into the confusion and terror of partition. For that is perhaps what the experience of Partition was like: raw and immediate, with little sense of the depth of time and space, with little sense of the meaning of ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim,’ ‘India’ or ‘Pakistan’.
And while it serves to make Partition real, Manto’s detachment also means his stories become abstract, and universal. What lingers after we finish reading them is the violence, and at the same time, and above all, a deep sense of the human and the individual.
A new historiography
In Remembering Parition, Gyanendra Pandey argues that the historiography of modern India has been such that history has been homogenised and violence, including the violence of partition, has become an aberration and an absence.
As a counter to this mainstream nationalist history, Pandey argues for the need to pay attention to the “fragment”. He says that “histories of partition are generally written as accounts of the political and economic origins and causes of partition rather than histories of struggle, violence, sacrifice, loss, and the forging of new identities, loyalties, and ambitions… And in the end, they project ‘India’ as staying firmly and naturally on its secular, democratic, nonviolent, tolerant path. Even literary explorations of Partition, he says, represent it as a ‘natural disaster in which human actions play little part.” Here, Pandey gives the example of the earlier nationalist writer Bankim Chandra’s sentimental mourning of the violence of Partition and simultaneous exaltation in Mother India, Gandhi and a vision of hope and secular, democratic progress.
In what ways can a work of fiction successfully perform an ‘alternative historiography’ of the ‘fragment’? What would such a work be like, and in what ways could fiction specifically achieve this, as a unique mode of historiography?
And then, how could such a text avoid being just a response to mainstream nationalist discourse and be a work of literary and artistic merit in itself? That is, how can it avoid becoming just an alternative discourse of counter-nationalism, serving to simply record traumatic events?
Manto’s text is, one could say, an example of an alternative, ‘fragmentary’ representation of partition.
But at the same time, that it resists any definite political position, and its detached, abstract quality in exploring the losses of partition, without attempting to give causes and reasons – could be called problematic.