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Friday, November 08, 2013

Sadat Hasan Manto & Ayesha Jalal

Ayesha Jalal
Wednesday November 6, I attended Ayesha Jalal's reading from her latest book on Sadat Hasan Manto The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life andWork Across the Indo-Pakistan Divide, organized by Committee of Progressive Pakistani-Canadians in collaboration with Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq Toronto, Progressive Writers Association Canada & South Asian Peoples’ Forum.

Jalal lived up to her reputation of being one of the liveliest scholars and a public intellectual on all subjects South Asia, and especially the Partition. Manto is the voice of the subcontinent’s Partition. His stark and brutal portrayal of the mindless carnage that swept the region during that era is unparalleled.

I’m no expert on Manto. I’ve read him only in translation, and only in anthologies on Partition literature. I’ve cherished the little I have read. Manto has attained unbelievable fame posthumously, and every little detail of his life has been written and commented upon especially during his centenary year in 2012. Jalal’s biography has been acknowledged as one of the finest tributes to a writer who continues to fascinate people across the world.

Jalal holds a special place for anyone with rudimentary familiarity of the subcontinent’s history and historiography. Her epochal work on Mohammed Ali Jinnah (The Sole Spokesman) has altered perceptions about arguably one of the most tragic figures of Indian history; the biography makes one question deep-seated prejudices about his role in Partition.

The unbeatable combination of Jalal, Manto and Bombay turned the evening memorable. At the reading, Jalal's selections of passages from her book that pertained to Manto's life in Bombay were heartwarming. Jalal's captures the angst and the sense of loss Manto experienced (forever) after leaving Bombay.

She narrated an anecdote about the paranoia that had gripped him during those dark days. Once Manto accompanied Ashok Kumar in a car and passed through a Muslim mohalla in Bombay. The car had to navigate its way through a baraat (wedding procession), and Manto, wearing khadi, and only vaguely familiar with his religion, was afraid that the members of the procession would recognize Ashok Kumar and lynch them both, mistaking him also for a Hindu. Ashok Kumar remained unperturbed and told Manto to relax. The crowd did recognize the matinee idol and instead of lynching him, actually guided him out of the mohalla. After they passed the procession, Ashok Kumar gently said, “They don’t bother artists.”

Jalal narrated many other incidents from Manto’s life in Bombay – his friendship with Shyam, Ismat Chugtai; his work as a script writer; his success, his anxiety. During the Q&A that followed, I asked her about the influence Bombay had on Manto. Jalal’s answer captured the quintessence of Bombay: “He couldn’t forget Bombay. It lived within him. Lahore couldn’t give him what Bombay did.” One of Manto’s finest stories set in Bombay during the Partition riots is of a young, voluptuous Jewish woman’s (Mozel) sacrifice to save a Sikh Tirlochen and his love Kirpal Kaur.

Munir Pervaiz’s introduction of Jalal touched upon some unknown facets of both Jalal and Manto. 

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