Saturday, December 13, 2003

Manto’s description of the mayhem of 1947

Khushwant Singh

Innumerable novels, short stories and poems have been written on the unbelievable violence that took place with the Partition of the country in 1947. Upwards of a million innocent men, women and children: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were massacred in cold blood. To describe these killings as bestial would be doing in justice to the world of beasts: animals never behave in as brutal a manner as humans. Of the spate of literature produced on the subject, without doubt, the most powerful were the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto in Urdu. His one short story Toba Tek Singh encapsules the beginnings of the tragedy, the lunatic heights of depravity it reached (Manto was for a while a patient in the Lahore mental asylum) and the utter futility of it all. There were times when a man’s life depended on whether or not the foreskin of his penis was circumcised: If it was, Hindus and Sikhs killed him along with his women, and children. If it was not, the Muslim killed him along with members of his family. It was as simple as that.

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) was born in Amritsar, educated at Aligarh, worked for AIR in Delhi and made films in Bombay. He was hounded out of Bombay and rejoined his family in Lahore, where he died and is buried. He was often in trouble with the police for writing obscene stories but had a large number of admirers who stood by him in times of trouble.

Besides Toba Tek Singh, Manto penned short vignettes loaded with sardonic wit and irony to highlight the total lack of sense behind the religious divide. They were published separately at the time of Partition under the title Siyah Hashiye. Rakhshanda Jalil, freelance writer and translator of many Urdu works into English (she taught English in the universities of Delhi and Aligarh), has translated 32 of Manto’s cameos into English: Black Borders (Rupa). It is slender booklet worth everyone of its 50 pages. I quote two items from it:

Leading by Example: "The entire neighbourhood perished in the fire — only one shop remained intact. On its shop — front hung a board that announced: All types of building material sold here."

There is also a gem entitled Shoe: "The tide turned and the crowd chose to vent its anger on the statue of Gangaram. They rained sticks and rods, threw stones and bricks. Someone climbed up with a pail of tar and blackened its face. Another collected an armload of old shoes, strung them into a garland and was about to put it around the statue’s neck, when the police showed up and began firing. The man who was about to put the garland of shoes around the statue’s neck was injured in the police firing. He was sent to the Sir Gangaram Hospital for treatment.

Wedding songs

In all Indian weddings there is more festivity in the bride’s home than in the bridegroom’s. In Punjab, it starts with dyeing palms of the bride and her friends with mehndi, an evening is devoted to sangeet by girls to the beat of the dholak and tick-tock produced by a coin struck on an empty gharaa (pitcher). The actual ceremony of going round the sacred fire or the Granth Sahib (laavaan pherey) is too solemn a ritual to be sung about. The last rite is a tearful affair of the bride taking leave of her family and getting into a palanquin (doli) to be carried off to her new home. Of all these events, the most popular is, and was, the sangeet. Though a ladies’ affair, men are allowed on sufferance to sit around.

The songs are pretty meaningless but lines of he Japanese haiku are evocative of memories of past love affairs. In my Lahore days, the chief attraction at ladies’ sangeet was Shan, wife of the lawyer Gurdev Singh who later became a judge of the high court. She was pretty, petite, gorie-chitti (fair as fair could be) and very animated. She spoke only Punjabi in Pothohari (Rawalpindi Campbellpur) dialect and it is assumed she knew no English. Iwas wrong. Ayear ago she came to see me with her US-based daughter Tito and showed me some translations she had done of Punjabi folk songs in English. Icould not fault her on any word. She has put together 30 of the most popular songs in their originals in Gurmukhi with translations in English in Songs Remembered: Folk Songs of Punjab (Flying Fig-two Lions), illustrated by her daughter.

As I said before, there is more emotion than poetry in these songs. Shan's collections are entirely feminine creations addressed to their lovers. The first one is to a village Romeo, named Paras Ram. She invites him over to her garden where mangoes and bananas grow and the koel sings on the bough. He is asked to hurry up as today her hands will be smeared with henna, next day will be ladies' sangeet and the day after she will be carted off in her doli to her husband's home. An all-time favourite Soohey vey cheeray valia main kalnee aam (my love in a red turban, listen to what I say):

Itell you open up your umbrella

Will sit under its shade

The keekar tree is in flower

Friends gathered under a bower and so on.

Most songs use archaic words like mahia or dhola for lover.

Shan Gurdev Singh's compilation is strictly for women only. There is an equally rich male corpus of folk songs, mostly bawdy in character. The most pupular was about a randy old man (Baba) which began with a meaningless jingle:

Toomba Vajdai na

Taar Binaa

Rahndi na

Yaar binaa

(Without a string no lute can play

Without her lover she will not live a day).

The Baba of this once popular folk song was as mean as he was lecherous. After spending a whole night with a whore, he gave her a counterfeit four-ana piece and not a paise more.

Super boss

There were eight women in the office and one man, the boss. They soon learnt that his favourite topic was his many and varied illnesses. Whenever one of the women mentioned having a friend or relative who was ill in the hospital, he wanted to know in which ward they were. Invariably it turned out that he had once been in the same ward.

One of the senior staff members, dying to outsmart him, said to him one day, "By the way, sir, my niece is in the hospital." His face lit up. "Really? Which ward is she in?" Enjoying her moment of triumph, she replied, "Maternity — you mustn’t have ever been in that ward."

"Of course, I have, "he answered. "Even men are born in maternity ward you know."

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)