My association with Sa'adat Hasan Manto began, unfortunately, only in a classroom. As an undergraduate student of literature, it was compulsory for me to study Partition literature and Manto was one of the prescribed writers. One lecture on, I was completely submerged into Manto’s world of thieves, madmen and prostitutes. His Toba Tek Singh was most tragic, his Thanda Ghosht most horrifying.
He is often set apart for his ‘objective’ characterisation. And what struck me most about him was his complete abstinence in delineating his characters in a particular manner solely on the basis of their religion/nationality. In class, the professor had passingly remarked about how ‘Manto stays with you forever’. She could not have been closer to the truth. Each side, in Manto’s work, mirrors the other, and questions the ‘reality’ of the Indo-Pak border.
Contrast this with what the children of this country are taught about the Partition at school. Notice how the history textbooks construct a story quite different. We, according to them, were “the good guys” and they (used on separate occasions to imply the British, Pakistanis, Muslims… ) were “the bad guys”. They were always responsible for all the 'bad, evil things' that happened to us. This difference between us and them is created at such a deep-rooted, intrinsic level and is accepted so passively that it becomes difficult, virtually impossible to unlearn this “truth”. Despite everything, there still remains a sense of mistrust of ‘the other’.
A few years back, among my list of internet friends included a Pakistani girl my age. We frequented the same discussion boards. We got talking and found we had much in common. We liked the same books, listened to the same music, cribbed about the same things. She, like me, had pre-occupations any teenage girl would be expected to: school, friends, television, movies, books, parties…
I was quite amazed how easy it was to talk to her. Inevitably, the Partition came up. We exchanged noted on how differently history was constructed on either side of the border. I toldher India’s Independence Day was on the 15 August, a day after theirs. She’d had no idea. It hadn’t been important. She told me about how they celebrate their Independence. (We discussed them as though they were different events.) I’d never before given it a thought.
All my life, I’d been conditioned into believing how all Pakistanis were ‘evil, twisted monsters’ whose sole purpose in life was to destroy our peace and ruin our happiness. And then I’d read her latest e-mail asking how school was, what movie I’d last watched, whether she’d be able to complete Anna Karenina within the next lifetime…
It was only this one-on-one interaction that initiated a change in my sensibility. I’m sure it was the same for her too. I’m aware that I can’t expect the same response from every Pakistani, just as it would be too idiotic to expect the same from every Indian. It did, however, teach me an important lesson. Instead of believing a ready made opinion, I discovered that I’d rather make up my own mind.
The fundamental point I’m trying to make (after a whole lot of digressions) is an old established one. It is the state machinery which relegates Pakistan(in this case) to the position of ‘the other’ in order to aid their self-definition, and thereby retain their authoritorial position. In other words, they are responsible for constructing Pakistan as ‘different’ from India - for if they both were ‘the same thing’, what point would it be for the state to exist?
[EDIT: I have managed to locate Manto's Toba Tek Singh online. It's a terrible translation though. But it was sadly the only one I could find.]