Stories about the Partition of India and Pakistan
On August 15, India has celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of its independence. On August 14, 1947, Mohammed Ali Jinnah called out independent Pakistan. Both days are still regarded as the prelude for the later wave of decolonization in Africa and Asia.
But they also launched the bloodiest massacres the subcontinent had ever seen. Muslims fled from India to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India.
At least one million people were killed, hundreds of thousands of women were raped, houses, villages, even entire city districts were burned to the ground.
While independence in the successor states is celebrated with a national holiday, there is not one memorial in India or in Pakistan for the victims, who – as usual – were predominantly the poor from the cities and the countryside, writes British author Tariq Ali in his foreword.
Only one person has set them a literary memorial in the form of short stories – writer and journalist Saadat Hassan Manto.
A scathing, desperate sense of humor
Manto, who lived in Bombay until 1948 and worked there as a successful screenplay writer for the film industry, finally had to flee to Pakistan. He had been accused of favoring Muslims.
In his volume of short stories, "Mottled Dawn," Manto not only depicts the horror, he also tries to process it, among other means, with a scathing, desperate sense of humor, which is always directed at the perpetrators and preserves the dignity of the victims. He keeps his distance, favoring neither the Muslims nor the Hindus.
In his often very brief stories, in which a situation is abruptly revealed, he makes use of concise and straightforward language.
He shoved the knife into the man's stomach. Ripping the belly cleanly, the knife moved in a straight line down the midriff, in the process slashing the cord which held the man's pyjamas. Suddenly the man with the knife cries out in horror: "Oh no, he's the wrong one!"
In his longer short stories, Manto's narrative art sweeps his readers along with the flow of events; he lets them suffer, fear, provides them with relief, and confronts them again in the end with the hopeless brutality of religious fanaticism, which repeatedly overtakes his characters.
For example, in the story "The Assignment," an old family friendship is ultimately sacrificed to the flames of hatred.
Exchanging the inmates of the "mad houses"
In many stories Manto takes a look at those who have been ostracized from society. "Toba Tek Singh" is about those who have been locked away as "mentally ill." Two, three years after the partition, the government of India and Pakistan resolved to exchange the inmates of their "mad houses" as well.
Among those released was Toba Tek Singh, a Sikh, who wanted to go to India. Arriving at the border, he climbs up a tree and yells that he does not want to go to Pakistan or India. In a world in which irrationality rules, Manto lets his "crazy" protagonists voice the only rational thoughts possible in such a brutal reality.
Manto himself finally was shattered by this reality. He drowned his pain in alcohol, and died at the age of 43 in Lahore, Pakistan.
The past continues to rot and fester
Tariq Ali, who wrote the foreword for the German edition of these short stories, was born in Lahore. When Manto died, he was eleven years old.
"I never met him," regrets Ali, who values Manto's literary work as well as its significance for the public: "People knew about the horrors of 1947, but few wanted to talk about it. A collective trauma apparently silences most people. Not Manto."
As an atheist Ali is adverse to every religious mania. He blames the British in particular for the fanaticism in India and Pakistan. Their head colonial officials learned as part of their education "how to divide native rulers and foment religious prejudices."
But he does not exonerate the Hindu and Muslim politicians who followed the British in this tactic – partly out of self-interest, partly out of stupidity, as Ali calls it. "Today this past continues to rot and fester, and it seems to be poisoning the future as well," fears Ali.
Recent events, unfortunately, show him to be right. Muslims from the Indian province of Gujarat, in 2002 the arena of pogroms against Muslims, now want to return to their villages. But the representatives of the resident Hindus are giving them conditions: They can return only if they renounce their faith and accept Hinduism, or withdraw their lawsuits against their persecutors.
Saadat Hassan Manto wrote his stories in Urdu, which is also a reason why they were translated so late into German. The large German publishing companies focus on the English-language literature from India and Pakistan.
Salman Rushdie: Manto's work is "world literature"
Yet Salman Rushdie identified Manto's work as world literature at the end of the 1990s. Linguists point out that the two Indian languages, Urdu and Hindi, have their roots in ancient Hindustani and only diverged with colonization in the nineteenth century.
Even today the two languages are so similar that Hindu and Urdu speakers can easily understand each other.
Manto's masterly narrated short stories draw attention to a part of the history of the subcontinent which marks the height of the estrangement between Hindus and Muslims and has not yet been processed. By so clearly depicting the horrors of religious fundamentalism in his stories, he has made an important contribution to our understanding of it.
© Qantara.de 2007
Saadat Hassan Manto. "Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition." Translated by Khalid Hassan. 216 pages. Penguin Books, India 2004.
Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce