Revisiting the sad, sombre tales by two masters of Urdu fiction in times brimming with hope and excitement
‘Everything popular is wrong.’ In our land, these words by Oscar Wilde haunt few ‘renegades’ who have been ‘led astray.’ Forgotten, condemned, relegated to the fringes. In this beloved, mad land of ours, the average lad and lass finds solace and much-needed distraction in singing to the tones of Milli Naghmas, celebrating Independence on top of their voices, and being merry in the patriotism-drenched atmosphere. Those who read, however, have lived in their heads, and have experience second hand the forgotten realities of partitions through the pithy observations of Manto’s short sketches. They have felt the silent agony of individuals amidst collective chaos in the long dream-like paragraphs of Quratulain Haider’s novels, and have lost all of their illusions when confronted by the gut-wrenching facts and figures of post- and pre-partition history as recorded by K.K Aziz. For these people, the reality of Pakistan is different from those blissfully unaware patriots clad in green and white, chanting slogans and zealously celebrating Independence Day.
Enter Pakistan, a land divided between those who ‘know’ that sacrifices of an entire generation in the name of the country they so passionately love, and those haunted by all the screams, rotten corpses, and bloodshed caused by the push and pull of men over a piece of land. A land that turned out ot be anything but Promised.
The journey, to the latter, looked like one from inferno to pandemonium. They are the ones who have abandoned a cozy life under a constant pall of comforting illusions, peppered with hopes of a better future just ‘around the corner’.
They, the renegades, hear the sounds of the partition of the subcontinent every time they hear ‘Independence Day.’ Their memories refuse to give in to newer, lush realities flooded by green and white. Their doubts, once sowed in the dark of night where they once read the partition literature and unlearned all they’ve been told in Pakistan Studies syllabus and by elders, can’t be snatched away from them. They, for better or worse, are scarred for life by the tales lived in vain, by stories that ended in blood and gore, by lives that were cut short because human savagery was allowed to rule and reign without check.
Three scores and a decade after the Independence of Pakistan/Partition of Subcontinent- have your pick – I decided to go down memory lane and fished out Bitter Fruit, an anthology of Saadat Hassan Manto’s writings ranging from short stories, sketches, letters, and jottings along with Akhir-e-shab kaey humsafr by Quratulain Haider, a novel depicting the turbulent Bengal during pre-partition era and during the era preceding turmoil in East Pakistan that ended in emergence of Bangladesh.
If one has to identify a linchpin that held the lives and works of Manto and Quratulain Haider together, that has to be the time before and after partition. The best prose written by these two masters of Urdu literature revolves around a time in the history of Subcontinent where everything-from individual’s identity to societal morals, from crumbling old power centres to emergence of new affluent classes, from dawn of new hopes to withering away of old chains-was in flux.
Both Manto and Quratulain Haider saw the doomed struggle of Britain to retain their power and perpetuate their rule, the momentous fight put up by Congress and Muslim League to bag emancipation from British rule, the horrid realities of WW-II that gripped the globe and lacerated the soul of humanity.
They saw through the charade. They had foreseen the endgame. They also witnessed the stage when a more desperate, more hopeful generation took the reins of time. Muslims of Subcontinent-a diverse group divided through and through along the lines of ethnicity, caste, clan-for the greater good decided and did put their differences aside and huddled under a single banner of Pakistan.
It was the time when Old Pakistan was Naya. And hardly anyone bothered wasting their good time reading Manto’s Naya Aien (New Constitution). The march continues.
This group of millions and millions of muslims under a single banner of freedom, a single leadership and led by a promise of a better land with abundance of opportunities and freedom from the rulers having a different skin color, speaking a different language, practising an alien culture and hailing from a land far far away achieved what they vied for.
And then they had the greatest of epiphanies: What you strive for and what you get are not always the same thing.
Manto and Quratulain Haider, however, saw beyond the feel-good facade that was reduced to smithereens within first few years of Independence and/or Partition. Manto died within a decade of Independence. Haider lived on to see how the partition unravelled and how the dreams and hopes of an entire generation dashed and reduced to ashes within a matter of decades.
In Akhir-e-Shab kaey Humsafar a group of young revolutionaries hailing from different socioeconomic backgrounds dream of freedom, emancipation and good riddance from their foreign rulers. In the lives of young and educated revolutionaries-Yasmin, Rehan, Rosie BannerJi, Oma Rai, Deepali Sarkar and thousand others- the sole hope for salvation lies in ridding themselves of colonial masters. Many of them strived, waged futile struggles, failed and weren’t heard anymore. Few of them were tamed, others became the part of regime that replaced their old masters. In a nutshell, they all became monsters they fought against. The Naya, for which they fought and defeated the Old, was hard to differentiate from the old.
In Bitter Fruit-The very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto a translation of his short stories, sketches portraits and other jottings edited and translated by Khalid Hasan one meets the immortal characters of Tooba Tek Singh who just wanted to know whether his city was in Pakistan or India, the Dog of Titwal who died in No man’s land for a simple reason that he was a dog and dogs don’t have nationality, Ustaad Mangu tongawala who fell victim to his understanding of Naya Constitution and was locked up, Karim Daad who knew that it is foolish to expect one’s enemy to be kind and named his son Yazid who’ll will make the waters flow.
Manto in his nine letters to Uncle Sam surfaces as a seer who knew what bleak future lies in the offing for Pakistan as its leaders, both civilian and military, decided to side with USA in return of dollars and patronage.
And our Sisyphean cycle continues to this day. Every decade since independence a Naya Pakistan pops up. In 50’s it was Ayub Khan’s Revolution, In late 60’s early 70’s it was Bhutto’s Inquilaab, In early 80’s Zia Ul Haq promised us a Pure, Islamic Land, a decade later Dear Mush’s ‘Enlightened Moderation’ found its allies in MMA and died a slow, painful death.
Enter latest Messiah in a land that is graveyard of dashed hopes.
If Manto and Quratulain Haider along with other ‘weavers of worlds’ through words are to be believed. Our fate won’t be any different. As per them we are Naeem, the main protagonist of Udaas Naslain (The Weary Generations) by Abdullah Hussain who came to Pakistan and was never heard of and seen again. We are Deepali Sarkar, Yasmeen, Rehan, Rozi Banner Ji and Charles Barlow of Akhir-e-Shab kaey Humsafar (Fellow wayfarers of the last night) by Qurat-Ul-Ain Haider who have been tamed by the time and circumstance, who were made to shed their revolutionary ideas in favor of a decent living and a steady career. We are Ustaad Mangoo of Manto’s Naya Ayain (New Constitution) who keep on paying dearly for his silliness to mistake ‘new’ (read Naya) for ‘better’. We are Teetawal kaey Kuttay who are fair game and good sport to boredom-struck, heartless powers-that-be whose only concern is to perpetuate the greater good of Fatherland.
We will live our forgotten realities, for a simple reason that we’ve forgotten them in the first place. And there is simply ‘No Exit’.