There are wars known, and wars unknown –except to those who lost loved ones, homes and futures.  The two world wars are known to all.  Revolutionary beginnings are known to many – perhaps because some measure of glory can be extracted and told in stirring stories.  The many many wars of decolonization likely have their local stories but interest in them has not pushed out to the colonizing powers.  The US war in Vietnam has had many writers, many writing with much broader strokes of empathy and doubt than war writers of earlier decades.  Vietnamese writers have contributed too, novels and short stories which, although about the “winners,” have an understanding that there are no winners and losers in such wars. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, Paradise of the Blind and No Man’s Land by Duong Thu Huong are all must read novels from “the other side.” 

Of all the terrible wars in the 20th century, perhaps one of the least known, or least remembered, are the vast communal massacres the followed the British Partition of India, into India and Pakistan in 1947 — to be followed later by the wrenching separation of Pakistan into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Depending on who is counting, for who’s benefit, the number of dead vary between several hundred thousand and two million  Between 10–12 million people were displaced, sent, or fled across borders that had never before existed; people who had lived together for a thousand years,

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I came across the writer Saadat Hasan Manto in one of my periodic forays to de-westernize my reading.  While it’s natural that we should be more curious about, read more and know more about where we call home, home, it turns out, is a much larger place than we might have thought.  Events in Syria effect events in Hungary and England; pandemics in one part of the world, disrupt life in another.  Our obligation to try to see and understand, to draw threads of meaning from every skein, are increasing. And so, I read, always amazed at the variations in our similarity.

Manto is primarily a writer of the underclass.  Many of his characters are “dancers,” prostitutes, mothers of prostitutes, pimps, chauffeurs, mango vendors, toy sellers.  In Mottled Dawn, one of half-a-dozen volumes available in English translation, the stories run from ten pages, to two lines. All take place during the months before and after independence from England, and the Partition of August 15, 1947, in refugee camps, on trains, in border cities like Amritsar (India) and Lahore (Pakistan) and of course Bombay (now Mumbai,) then the most polyglot city in India. This was a war not of government against government, or government against rebels, but of people against people, not with heavy weapons and tactical maneuvers but with knives, axes, torches, oil and a contagious will to murder others.  Not all the stories involve murders and burning but most of them do.  The victims and assailants are often not identified by religion – Muslim, Hindu or Sikh – though usually it can be puzzled out.  To the extent they are so identifiable, no collectivity wins the culpability prize.  Manto, a Muslim from Bombay, had no interest in  “what religion people were, what rituals they followed or which gods they worshiped, but where they stood as human beings.”  He wrote of what he saw with a kind of pained artlessness.  Mostly written in third person direct narrative the stories are almost purely descriptive. Though a character might “feel” something on occasion, there is no psychological probing of guilt or horror or murderous exultation.  The narrator’s is Manto, himself.  He appears from time to time in one of the stories.  And of himself, he said  “In the end, I came to accept this nightmarish reality without self-pity or despair.”  That is how the stories read.

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