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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary biography / history


The Pity of Partition

Ayesha Jalal

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To purchase The Pity of Partition

Title: The Pity of Partition
Author: Ayesha Jalal
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2013
Length: 234 pages
Availability: The Pity of Partition - US
The Pity of Partition - UK
The Pity of Partition - Canada
The Pity of Partition - India
  • Manto's Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide
  • Based on Jalal's Lawrence Stone Lectures, 2011
  • With 26 photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : fine introduction to Manto and his work, and his depiction of partition

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Caravan . 6/2013 Daisy Rockwell
India Today . 1/7/2013 Gillian Wright
Publishers Weekly . 10/12/2012 .
The Telgraph . 12/7/2013 Anusua Mukherjee

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) biography that seems curiously thin and borders on the hagiographical. (...) The best parts of The Pity of Partition give us insights into Mantoís private life via the family archive, which includes some wonderful, rarely seen photographs and letters. (...) Jalalís book is the result of a lecture series she gave at Princeton University in 2011 and, unfortunately, retains the choppy quality of a series of talks that have been strung together. Thus, while some of the early biographical sections are lovely, elsewhere there are many repetitions." - Daisy Rockwell, Caravan

  • "Ayesha Jalal has succeeded wonderfully in weaving together the three elements she has chosen-Manto's life, his works and the momentous times he lived through. Hers is an honest portrayal of a brilliant man whose own honesty, independent-mindedness and insight were outstanding, and whose stories are still unparalleled." - Gillian Wright, India Today

  • "(A)n intimate, passionate, and insightful portrait of this brilliant but tragic man as he navigated and interpreted the repression, chaos, and violence of the final years of British colonialism and the upheaval of Indiaís 1947 partition." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Jalal places Manto in the context of his times, provides biographical details, analyses his stories, but cannot better him in dissecting the peculiar political, social and individual psychology that led to Partition. (...) However, there are interesting bits of information on Manto to be gleaned from Jalalís book if one decides to look beyond its central theme." - Anusua Mukherjee, The Telgraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Pity of Partition -- originally delivered as the Lawrence Stone Lectures in 2011 -- Ayesha Jalal uses the life and work of Saadat Hasan Manto to illuminate the catastrophe that was partition -- the 1947 division of British-ruled India into the states of India and Pakistan (the latter eventually further divided with the secession of Bangladesh).
       Manto, "the leading Urdu short story writer of the twentieth century", was born in 1912 and drank himself to death when he was only in his early forties, in 1955. Though much of his work has been translated into English it remains fairly difficult to find in the US and UK, and far too little known. In summarily re-telling so many of his stories in The Pity of Partition, Jalal gives a suggestion of what's being missed -- her condensed versions aren't nearly as impressive as the full stories themselves, but even just in their outlines and from the selective lines she quotes it's clear that he was a very talented writer.
       Jalal has written about the history of partition before, and describes some of her work on the topic (summarizing how she sees what led to it). Manto -- her father's uncle, and thus someone whose life and work she has always been intimately familiar with, even though he died before she was born -- and specifically his many short stories that dealt with partition and its after-effects allow for another way of considering the event, as she suggests:

     Creative writers have captured the human dimension of partition far more effectively than have historians.
       Describing many of his works at considerable length, and quoting extensively from them, she makes a good case for this idea -- and at the same time paints (through both Manto's work but also his life-experiences) a vivid picture of the turmoil of partition. As much biography as commentary, The Pity of Partition offers a good, quick overview of Manto's fascinating life: prolific, writing for screen and radio as well as, constantly, stories, he was a driven creative man. Generous, too, and living for the moment, he also lost himself in cheap booze, driven to drink himself to death, despite attempts at intervention from his family. His life, especially after he moved to Lahore after partition, also gives some insight into the failures of post-colonial India and Pakistan -- including his own troubles with the law, which included several charges of obscenity that he had to fight in the courts.
       Among the works that Jalal discusses (and summarizes) in greatest detail are Manto's Letters to Uncle Sam (see, for example, his First Letter and Third Letter), which she argues: "are today more salient than ever". These satirical pieces do offer a sharp take on the difficulties and dangers posed by growing American influence in Pakistan in the 1950s, and given the current complex relationship between the two countries much of this is, indeed, striking relevant; it's amazing no American publisher has published a small little edition of this book.
       The Pity of Partition is a good introduction to partition, in reminding of the senseless violence and huge human toll capricious and misguided leadership and ill-conceived -making on high led to, and in showing the human cost (through Manto's fiction). It is also a fine and welcome introduction to Manto, especially given how little information about him -- and how little of his work -- is readily available outside the subcontinent. Jajal veers into hagiography a bit too readily and often, with claims such as: "his name spread among the reading population like a flash of light" and similar grand but essentially meaningless statements cropping up rather too often; indeed, it remains hard to gauge from the information on offer exactly how influential and widely read (or known) Manto might have been in his time (and beyond), as there is not even any sense of what, for example, "the reading population" in Pakistan (and India) was at any given point.
       In just over two hundred pages Jalal does provide a great deal of information about Manto's life, and looks at much of his writing. Parts receive short shrift, but for an introductory biography there's a lot here, making it a good entry point for anyone unfamiliar with the author. The summarized stories should also make readers eager to seek out Manto's work itself, as Jalal makes a strong case, by argument and example, of just how talented and important a writer Manto was.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 May 2013

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The Pity of Partition: Reviews: Ayesha Jalal: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ayesha Jalal teaches at Tufts.

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© 2013 the complete review

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