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,
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.
As William Dalrymple in the New Yorker wrote in 2015, “The tragedy of Partition … was not that there were now two countries instead of one but the realization that “human beings in both countries were slaves, slaves of bigotry . . . slaves of religious passions, slaves of animal instincts and barbarity.” The madness he witnessed and the trauma he experienced in the process of leaving Bombay and emigrating to Lahore marked him for the rest of his life. Yet it also transformed him into the supreme master of the Urdu short story.” A master, he goes on, to compare with Chekhov, Zola, and Maupassant.
Of the fifty pieces in Mottled Dawn, thirty are less than one page in length, collected from a volume written shortly after Partition, titled “Black Fringe” (Siyah Hashye).
“Double Cross,” for example, goes like this
“Look, this is hardly fair. You sold me impure petrol at blackmarket price and not even one shop could be put to the torch. “
The remaining twenty, written in exile in Lahore, during enormous financial and emotional privations for Manto and his family, are short by contemporary standards — the two longest are fifteen pages– but rich in observation of events and human behavior.
In the sadly wonderful “The Dog of Titwal,” during fighting in Kashmir after Partition, a stray dog finds a home in the Pakistani trenches. It wanders off, and over to the Indian side where it is fed crackers and tagged, “This is an Indian dog. After a few days absence it reappears among the Pakistanis who, on reading the tag, re-tag it, ‘This is a Pakistani dog.’ As stray dogs will, he makes his way back, looking for his next meal. An Indian soldier sees him.
“Wait, that’s the Pakistani hill he’s coming from, the motherfucker.”
“He picked up his rifle, aimed and fired…
Hearing the shot the Pakistanis are alerted. They see the dog scuttling back towards them.
“…it soon became a game between the two soldiers, with the dog running around in circles in a state of great terror. Both Himmat Khan and Harnam Singh were laughing boisterously.”
Finally the dog is shot, dead.
“The poor bugger has been martyred,” says one, “He died a dog’s death, ” says the other.
In “The Dutiful Daughter,” a story told to the narrator by another, a poor Muslim mother wanders week after week, refusing to believe her daughter is dead. “She is too beautiful,.” she exclaims. Scarce paragraphs later, the mother, sure she has seen her, calls her name. The young woman, on the arm of a Sikh, turns away. The story teller tries to convince the mother, “Your daughter is dead,” The old woman falls in a heap on the road.
Many stories open with a flat, removed description of events.
“The religious killings had shown no sign of abating. India had been partitioned, but the bloodletting continued: Hindus killing Muslims, Muslims killing Hindus.” (“A Girl from Delhi”)
“This dates back to the time when both east and west Punjab were being ravaged by bloody communal riots between Hindus and Muslims. It had been raining hard for many days and the fire that men had been unable to put out had been extinguished by nature. However, there was no letup in the murderous attacks on the innocent, nor was the honour of young women safe.” (“The Woman in the Red Raincoat”)
Beginning with isolated incidents of stabbing, it had developed into full-scale communal violence, with no holds barred. Even home-made bombs were being used. (“The Assignment”)
“The Assignment” is one of the most chilling stories. A young Sikh comes to deliver a gift on Id, the end of Ramadan, to an older Muslim judge who had once acquitted his father, caught in a false legal suit. As the father died, he obliged his son to carry on his traditional once-a year thanks. Having carried out his promise, the young man leaves. Four men with torches, oil and explosives ask if he’s finished his assignment. “Yes,” he says. “Then we can begin with ours,” they say as he walks away.
The rightly celebrated “Toba Tek Singh” opens the volume with these laconic words:
A couple of years after the partition of the country, it occurred to the respective governments of India and Pakistan that inmates of lunatic asylums, like prisoners, should also be exchanged.”
In a rare story without terrible violence, Manto’s drollery shines.
“…both the mad and the partially mad were unable to decide whether they were now in India or Pakistan. If they were in India, where on earth was Pakistan? And if they were in Pakistan, then how come until only the other day they were in India?
Two Anglo-Indian lunatics, when told that the British were going home, become quite agitated over whether ‘breakfast would continue to be served or would they have to subsist on bloody Indian chapatti.”
Though these are war stories they are not what many readers might identify as such; they are not combat stories. Soldiers appear, and sometimes shoot, but the focus of the story is not on the tactics, strategy or emotions of fighting. One of the most poignant does involve soldiers. “The Last Salute” involves three men who fought together, with the British, in WW II, and are now fighting each other. A Sikh soldier is dying, shot by his friend, a Muslim. They had been teasing each other across the line.
“Rab Nawaz’s voice choked. “I swear upon God, I only fired out of fun. How could I know it was you? You were always an ass Ram Singha.”
He sends for his platoon commander, under whom both had fought in the earlier war. He comes and recognizes his former soldier.
“He bent over the dying soldier and called his name, ‘Ram Singh, Ram Singh.'”
Ram Singh opened his eyes and stiffened his body as if he was coming to attention. With one great effort, he raised his arm and saluted.
The translator Khalid Hasan serves Manto admirably. His British English is clear and accessible, set out in short, clipped sentences Subject-Verb-Object. “The year was 1937, The Muslim League was young–and so was I. I was at an age when you want to do something–anything.” Yet the feel of location and time is retained. We feel we are “listening” to ordinary folks speaking to each other and negotiating their lives in their own language, even though translated, not as natives dressed up in British garb.
There are, sometimes, what seem to me to be odd translating choices. An angry woman screaming to her lover “What sort of motherfucking answer is that?” might be right in attitude but is too particularly contemporary American to my ear.
Wonderful examples of images, vibrantly new to us, work effortlessly across cultures. In “Colder than Ice,” a love scene begins to take place, which the “strapping, manly” lover cannot finish, for reasons the story reveals. His lover Kalway Kaur,
“…a big woman with generous hips, fleshy thighs and unusually high breasts … began to boil with passion like a kettle on a high fire. … (She) was now like an overturned instrument. ‘Ishr Sian,” she whispered languidly. ‘you have shuffled me enough, it’s time to produce your trump.’
Ishwar Singh felt as if the entire deck of cards had slipped to the floor.”
An earlier volume of his work, by a different translator, shows the improvement of this one.
“Kulwant Kaur sat on the bed with folded legs and Ishwar Singh, who was probably unravelling his entangled thoughts, stood there in a corner with a dagger in his hand.
from Manto : Fifteen Stores (Selected by Nandita Das) . Rajkamal Prakashan.
“Kalwant Kaur returned to the bed, crossed her legs and sat down in the middle. Ishawr Singh sat quietly in a corner, holding his kirpan absent-mindedly.
from Mottled Dawn
It is probably a bit ungrateful to suggest that a small glossary would have been nice; Google is so near at hand these days. But duppata, chapatti, sawwaiyaan are not words English readers are likely to understand, even with context. Indian or Pakistani readers are likely to have another advantage over English language readers in the way names indicate belonging. As in many countries — Ireland, for example, names – Sean or Andrew– immediately place one: Protestant or Catholic. So, in India/Pakistan I suppose, Kalwant Kaur, Ustad Mangu or Nigar might immediately indicate Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. It does not to us. In a sense it doesn’t matter, though such details add to readers’ ability to follow threads. For Manto, the sorrow or the blame was not of one group or another. He cares about all the victims and as our witness helps us to care.
“I cannot stand human suffering,” he wrote. “I swear to God.”