When India and Pakistan Split Apart

Historian Ayesha Jalal illustrates the tragedy of the subcontinent's partition through the life of her great-uncle, a well-known short story writer
Saadat Manto
Saadat Hasan Manto later in his life in Lahore, Pakistan. “He wanted society to see its face, and people didn’t like that,” says Ayesha Jalal. Photo: Courtesy of Ayesha Jalal
September 17, 2013

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Americans often regard Pakistan with suspicion and trepidation, as part of a Muslim world that appears hostile to them. The Pakistani perspective is quite different: they are mostly looking south and east, at their borders with India, and often with fear and animosity. Their nuclear weapons are pointed in that direction, after all.

That historical enmity between Pakistan and India didn’t have to be so, argues Ayesha Jalal, the Mary Robinson Professor of History in the School of Arts and Sciences. Jalal has spent much of her career examining the causes and lasting legacy of India’s partition, trying to understand how the past informs the present. She has written widely about the high-level politics that led to the creation of Pakistan—her native country—in the 1940s and the accompanying issues of identity and power.

In her new book, The Pity of Partition (Princeton University Press, 2013), Jalal examines the human tragedy that accompanied Pakistan’s birth through a much more personal lens: her great-uncle, Saadat Hasan Manto. He was a Muslim writer, born in 1912, who lived through the last decades of British rule over India and the subsequent division of the subcontinent, when Pakistan broke from India and gained independence, too. His stories about partition are his most famous; they are tales of suffering on both sides.

“What India and Pakistan need more than anything else is a measure of empathy to understand each other,” says Ayesha Jalal. Photo: Amber SamiJalal recounts Manto’s life with great compassion, painting a portrait of British India in the 1930s and 1940s that’s far more complex and nuanced than is usually remembered today. It was an India in which Hindus and Muslims easily mingled in cosmopolitan neighborhoods that were a patchwork of religious faiths. “People had friends cutting across communities, as they do now as well,” she says.

Manto struggled to make a living as a writer—first for newspapers, then literary journals and film studios—often scrounging for cash. He had talent and knew it, and could write with ferocious speed. His literary strength was his short stories, gritty accounts of urban life, mostly about people he had met.

“He was interested in grappling with reality,” Jalal says. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that he was charged with obscenity by the British colonial government (and, ironically, by the Pakistani government in turn) for writing about such issues as prostitution. “He thought it was hypocritical of society to pass judgment on prostitution. He wanted society to see its face, and people didn’t like that.”

Politics, Not Religion

Partition came in August 1947, as the British pulled up stakes and left. The massive forced migration of millions of people—Hindus from what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, Muslims from what is now India—led quickly to violence. Hundreds of thousands died.

Jalal doesn’t believe that partition was inevitable, or really about religion, and she uses Manto’s life and literature to drive home those points. He set what are considered to be his best stories during that time.

“The partition stories are the ones that really caught people’s attention,” she says. “His main point really is that you can’t blame people; that it’s the circumstances that lead people to this kind of human bestiality.”

Manto never passed judgment on the characters in his stories, says Jalal. In his famous short story “Yezid”—written in Urdu, the literary language of Muslim India—Manto’s point is that “we have to understand that what we condemn in the enemy is also within us, and given an opportunity we too would do the same thing,” says Jalal. “The question of empathy is very important. What India and Pakistan need more than anything else is a measure of empathy to understand each other.”

The consequences of partition are still being played out—consider the 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistani militants. “The atrocities of partition led to scars that have yet to heal,” says Jalal. “The partition of hearts and minds that has taken place is an ongoing process.”

As Jalal writes in her book, “The pity of partition was not that instead of one country there were now two—independent India and independent Pakistan—but the fact that [as Manto wrote], ‘human beings in both countries were slaves, slaves of bigotry … slaves of religious passions, slaves of animal instincts and barbarity.’”

In the end, there was no refuge in Pakistan for Manto. He couldn’t find enough work and became despondent. Long a heavy drinker, he slid into alcoholism and died in 1955 at age 42. It was a sad coda for an immensely talented man. Jalal writes with clear affection for Manto—his widow was her favorite aunt. She doesn’t portray his life as a tragedy, though—at least no more than was experienced by his homeland.

The best way to honor Manto, who is revered in both countries, she says, “is for India and Pakistan to bury the hatchet and move on, to understand each other. They are interconnected. There is no solution to this rivalry in the long run.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu. 

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