The Reluctant Feudalist

in homistan| optical character recognition

An essay by Daisy Rockwell.

Har qatl di e jar
zan zamin zar

Three things for which we kill–
Land, women and gold.

Punjabi proverb (quoted at the beginning of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders)

I. Gold

They have not the foggiest idea that they cannot tame him. Such a man belongs to no one and cannot be enlisted for a cause other than that lives up to the expectation of literature, which breathes in an autonomous realm all its own.
Muhammad Umar Memon on Manto, in an email to Lapata

The first time I read anything in Urdu beyond a child’s primer, I read “Toba Tek Singh” by Saadat Hasan Manto. A friend was helping me read Urdu, a very different experience from learning to read Hindi, when I hadn’t known the language at all. This time I knew the language well and had read the story in English. I’d always found it amusing, but my friend was doubled over, despite the fact that he had read it numerous times. He was barely able to help me. As I slowly sounded out each word, tears came to his eyes and he clutched his stomach. He didn’t care that I was making mistakes– he didn’t even seem to notice them.

“Toba Tek Singh” had always been presented to me as ironic, yes, but still an artifact one was meant to read somberly while pondering the tragedy of Partition. It was, in fact, much funnier in Urdu than in English. Translation can make wit ponderous, and though the English translations I had read were good enough, they somehow lost the antic frivolity of the pagalkhana mise-en-scène. In subsequent years after this side-splitting reading, I assigned the story, and a whole collection of Manto stories, to Partition literature classes again and again (an experience I also discuss here and here).

In those contexts, the story again lost its wit. After reading disturbing oral narratives such as those in Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence, watching Earth and contemplating modern day communalism, the students were over-sensitized and worn out from the narratives of violence and trauma. Each time I told a class that the story was funny, was meant to be funny, that I had seen a grown man (whose own mother had migrated to Pakistan during the Partition) guffaw uncontrollably when it was read aloud to him, the students were disturbed, even offended. In reaction papers, I read that “Toba Tek Singh” was the sad story of the plight of the mentally ill after the Partition of India and Pakistan. And of course it was, in a way.

It is only now, years later, that I am willing to admit that I too was guilty of that misuse of Manto that Memon Sahib alludes to in the quote above. I have seen Manto discussed in the context of the Partition, analyzed for misogyny, and held up as an example of Muslim identity in South Asia. Manto has been mashed up with dollops of theory so heavy that his flavor has been all but obliterated. Most recently, Manto was the subject of this set-to (scroll down to ‘Review Articles’) between two scholars in the Annual of Urdu Studies (is it a coincidence that the puppet-master behind the debate was Memon Sahib himself? I think not.).

It was this last tussle over Manto that made me finally understand why we all keep appropriating him, analyzing him, translating him, using him as a lens, examining him through others’ lenses. Everyone wants to be Manto. He is the gold standard of South Asian fiction. Even those who claim to dislike his work or find him offensive write about him because they want to write like him. Or forget just writing like him: Manto is the kind of author his readers want to dive into, like a swimming pool, or wear every day, like a sweatshirt. Manto is a pair of prescription glasses. No, he’s more than that. He’s a habitus.

This realization has brought about in me recently a benevolent forgiveness for anything that I perceive as a crime against Manto. There was a time when one article about Manto offended me so much that I undertook to deliberately shred it in its entirety and use the paper to mold two papier mâché cats on which I inscribed two of Manto’s shortest short stories from Siyah Hashiye. But my days of Manto critic-clasm and asymmetrical warfare against the Manto-analyzing elite are now over. Now I realize that we are all on the same side, the side that is composed of people who yearn to be Manto, to merge with him, but will never attain that ecstatic union.

Or are we?

II. Land

manan: a Punjabi proverb that reads, “Three things for which we kill — / Land, women and gold.”
that is NOT the fucking proverb
6:59 PM jangan diyan tin wajahaian: zan, zar, zameen
there are three reasons for war: woman, gold, land.
–from an IM to the Lapata from Sepoy, after reading the opening quote in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

If anyone writing in English has begun to capture something of Manto in their own writing, it is Daniyal Mueenuddin in his recent collection of short stories. The spare and elegant prose, the gift of understatement and the unflinching gaze at the darker side of human nature in Pakistani society are all reminscent of Manto. Mueenuddin has cited Chekhov as an important influence (“I am constantly reading Chekov. I am never not reading Chekov”). But in a list of five important books on Pakistan (for the website Five Books), the first book Mueenuddin lists is Khalid Hasan’s translation of many of Manto’s Partition-related short stories, Mottled Dawn. In his description of the relevance of the book he observes:

For me, Saadat Hasan Manto is important as a writer because you see with stories like this there is nothing prettied up about his writing. One of the things that I object to about most of the people who write about Pakistan is “the scent of mangoes and jasmine school of writing”. I think that does a disservice to the country and plays into the stereotypes that most Westerners have about Pakistan, and he certainly doesn’t do that. He tells it like it is, with all the violence, madness and political turmoil that involves.

Mueenuddin’s characters are similarly rarely ‘prettied up’ (with some notable exceptions, see below). They use one another, calculate, cheat, manipulate and desert. But where Manto’s stories illustrate the principle that depravity is a natural human state that emerges even more in times of acute crisis, such as the Partition, when men (especially) rejoice and rush out to commit the acts towards which they are innately inclined, Mueenuddin’s humanity trends more to petty manipulation and callousness. In fact, almost none of them are willing to kill, for land, for gold or even for women, as promised so tantalizingly by the quote that opens the book. A bookkeeper systematically cheats his employer for decades, uses his housekeeper for sex, then callously abandons her on his deathbed, refusing to provide for her future; a maid habitually sleeps with the cooks of the houses where she works so she will get special treats from the kitchen and improve her standing among the other servants; an electrician has an ingenious method for cheating the electric company that brings him over time a significant quantity of wealth.

Unlike Manto’s mostly urban settings, however, the stories in In Other Rooms mostly take place in the countryside, on the margins and at the centers of the lands of zamindars, or when they take place in cities, they are mostly clustered about the crumbling city dwellings of the landowners. The depictions of country life at times remind me of translations of Tagore short stories, or of Bibhutibhushan Banerjee’s Pather Panchali (and Ray’s version of the latter). I am also reminded of Premchand’s stories in the simplicity of descriptions of the countryside. See, for example, this landscape in the story “Nawabdin Electrician”:

A long straight road ran from the canal headworks near Firoza all the way to the Indus, through the heart of the K.K. Harouni lands. The road ran on the bed of an old highway, built when these lands lay within a princely state. Some hundred and fifty years ago one of the princes had ridden that way, going to a wedding or a funeral in this remote district, felt hot, and ordered that rosewood trees be planted to shade the passersby. He forgot that he had given the order within a few hours, and in a few dozen years he in turn was forgotten, but these trees still stood, enormous now, some of them dead and looming without bark, white and leafless.

Mueenuddin consciously sets out to depict a zamindari milieu which is in its twilight. In the stories that portray the lives of lower and lower middle class characters, the homage to Manto, Premchand, Tagore, and even Chekhov is more than just stylistic. These stories lack many of the trappings of contemporary life and the pacing and descriptions could just as easily belong to the 1930’s as to a more recent time. This quality does not produce a sense of timelessness (there are cars and other motorized vehicles, for example) so much as it does an aura of nostalgia. Nostalgia for both the storytelling from the days of Manto, and Premchand and Tagore before him, as well as for the era of the zamindar.

It is particularly noticeable that in the stories associated with the upper middle and the upper upper classes, this nostalgia is more or less absent. The stories continue to touch upon the lives of various branches of the K.K. Harouni clan and their affiliates, but in the lives in the bright young things of the story “Lily,” or those of the characters in “Our Lady of Paris,” one feels a very different sensibility that is contemporary, international and current. It is true that these stories take place primarily in cities amongst the Western-educated set, but there are aspects of the differences between the two kinds of narratives that are troubling.

The stories in the book follow a kind of progression, starting with the lower classes and working their way up to the top, until the last story, in which we meet the most abject character of all (“A Spoiled Man”), who ends up in the employ of possibly the most prosperous family. In this progression we see the motivations and the inner lives of the characters grow more and more complex and subtle. While the motivations of the lower class characters, such as Saleema, or Nawabdin, the electrician, are simple (and timeless?), those of characters such as Lily, the society girl, and Sohail the young man with an American degree and girlfriend, are complex, nuanced and almost opaque. For example, Lily’s decision to get married, her partying proclivities, her life-changing car accident, all put her at war with herself and make her a rich and well-rounded character. On the other hand, Saleema, the maid who sleeps with cooks and later a valet, has simple motives. She wants respect in the household, and she wants goodies from the kitchen.

Saleema’s story takes a particularly surprising twist when she loses her job and then ends up a junky on the streets because there is no one to provide for her. This conclusion to the story is narrated hastily, after the character has been slowly developed in some depth for over thirty pages. While we understand and accept her motivations for the different actions she takes earlier in the story, her sudden turn to drug addiction comes out of nowhere. Her own husband, we have learned early on, is a drug addict whom she despises and avoids. How is that she ended up with his fate as well? Is that what happens to people when they have no hope?

I was reminded of the last episode of The Wire when [SPOILER ALERT] in the final moments, we see the brutal cycle of life on the streets set into motion once again. The child characters we met in Season 4 now step into the spots vacated by the death, incarceration, or rehabilitation of the adults we have followed through all five seasons of the show. The most upsetting of these was a scene in which Dukie, the child of junkies who had shown promise in school but had ended up living under the protection of his friend, a gangster, has been cast out on his own. He finds shelter with an aged junky arabber who lives on the streets. We last see him sitting in the dim yellow light of a fire, shooting up with his new protector. When I first saw this scene, and for a long time after, I was filled with sadness at this tragic surprise. But then I began to wonder. Had we seen any indications that Dukie would become interested in drugs? He had been disgusted by his family, and had lived with a dealer, never showing any inclination toward drug use, yet his conversion to heroin was almost instantaneous when he was left without shelter. I’m not arguing that it was not a possible outcome, or that such things don’t happen, but this turn of events was effected in an unaccustomed (for The Wire) shorthand. Ultimately I have come to think of Dukie’s fate as both a shoehorning of his character into Bubbles’ now vacated drug addict slot and a manipulative attempt at introducing a note of pathos to the conclusion of the series.

Similarly, in “Saleema,” we come to know the title character in depth. Suddenly, the household where she works is broken up by the death of their master and the man whose baby she has borne leaves to join another household in another city. The narrative is abruptly tied up in the following two paragraphs:

Within two years she was finished, began using rocket pills, which she once had so much despised, lost her job, went on to heroin, leaving her husband behind without a word. She knew all about that life from her husband and father.

The man who controlled the lucrative corner where she ended up begging took most of her earnings. This way she escaped prostitution. She cradled the little boy in her arms, holding him up to the windows of cars. Rafik sent money, a substantial amount, so long as she had an address. And then, soon enough, she died, and the boy begged in the streets, one of the sparrows of Lahore. (p. 60)

This brutish, nasty and short ending to the life of Saleema is entirely Mantoesque. Many of Manto’s stories end abruptly and brutally, often with a twist of irony thrown in. But what they don’t do is slowly develop a character over a lengthy span of pages and then snap the book shut on them. The example of Saleema would not have struck me so much if it weren’t for numerous other examples of a very different approach to the description and development of lower class characters. Let us take, for example, descriptions of female beauty. Here is Nawabdin the electrician’s wife:

The wife, despite bearing thirteen children, had a lithe strong body, her vertebrae visible beneath her tight tunic. Her long mannish face still glowed from beneath the skin, giving her a ripe ochre coloring. Even now that her hair had become thin and graying, she wore it in a single long pigtail down to her waist, like a young woman in the village. Although this style didn’t suit her, Nawab saw in her still the girl he married twenty years before.

And here is Zainab, the housemaid and mistress in “Provide, Provide”:

She had a hard pale face, angular, with high cheekbones, almost beautiful, but too forceful, reminding him of a woman who had been caught years ago on the banks of the Indus a cattle thief.

Contrast this with the non-specific and complimentary adjectives for Helen, the American love interest in “Our Lady of Paris”:

She paused at the door, a pretty girl, unmistakably American, her shot hair held back with a tortoiseshell barrete.


As mother and son went into the kitchen, Helen heard Rafia whisper to Sohail, “but she’s so pretty.”

Or descriptions of Lily such as this one:

She dressed carefully but very plainly, no makeup, jeans, a gypsy top with long sleeves, white—wanting to appear pretty but wholesome, as she felt. Examining herself frankly in the mirror, she acknowledged wanting to meet his image of her, not just to be pretty, but to show him a cleaner better side of herself.

While the motivations of the upper class characters are complex, their looks are simply…pretty. By contrast, the lower class women have simple motivations, but their appearances are decidedly not pretty, and maybe just a bit grotesque. Similarly, while the lower classes, and even more so, the middle classes, are constantly cheating those above them through elaborate means, the same is not evidently the case with the upper class, nor is their status as feudal masters viewed more critically than with indulgent swipes such as this, when Nawabdin the electrician is petitioning K. K. Harouni to buy him a motorcycle:

“And what’s the solution?” asked Harouni, seeing that they had come to the crux. He didn’t particularly care one way or the other, except that it touched on his comfort—a matter of great interest to him.
“Well sir, if I had a motorcycle, then I could somehow limp along, at least until I train up some younger man.”
The crops that year had been good, Harouni felt expansive in front of the fire, and so, much to the disgust of the farm managers, Nawab received a brand-new motorcycle, a Honda 70. He even managed to extract an allowance for gasoline.

Mueenuddin was asked in one interview if he could describe traits of Pakistanis that are “universal.” He responded with a few remarks about society and language and ended with this observation:

…there is a very slippery sense of morality and integrity. Pakistanis are willing to cut corners in a way my very Lutheran American grandfather wouldn’t understand. Ghulam Rasool, the man who brought me up and was a substitute father to me, was the major-domo of the house. But I know for a fact that he was crooked. He, however, wouldn’t have thought that this compromised him.

This observation is reflected in the behavior of numerous characters in In Other Rooms, but never on the part of the land-owning Harounis themselves. Mueenuddin, who manages his own ancestral estate in Pakistan, “bristles at the word ‘zamindar’. ’A zamindar,’ he says, ‘has negative connotations. You can call me a manager.’”

Well, that’s fine: we can call him a ‘manager,’ but this is not the tack taken in William Dalrymple’s king-making review of In Other Rooms in the Financial Times, in which he declares the collection to be a masterpiece; the Pakistani Midnight’s Children (wait, wasn’t that Shame?). Rather than avoiding the notion of the zamindar, Dalrymple, in his review, seems to embrace it with open arms:

If Other Rooms is unlike anything recently published in India, this is partly because of the very different trajectories the two countries have taken since 1947. Almost immediately after Independence, the Congress party broke the power of the Indian landowners, emasculating them with income tax and land ceiling acts that instantly shredded their estates. This legislation was never passed in Pakistan, which continued to be dominated by its old feudal elite, just as Tsarist Russia once was.

So while most successful Indian writers in English are the product of urban middle-class backgrounds and now tend to live in London or New York, there are no Indian Daniyal Mueenuddins who live like Tolstoy or Turgenev on their estates. Mueenuddin has lived on his own as a farmer for 20 years, hundreds of miles from the nearest urban centre, and can describe with real authenticity the rural world he daily inhabits.

What India lacks is an elite that is genuinely feudal, one that would give her literature that authenticity of the great Russian authors. He hastens to add:

It is true that the quality of a writer’s fiction should never be judged by his home address – Joyce after all wrote the Dublin of Ulysses from Trieste. Yet here the difference is striking. Compared to the thwarted, tragic grandeur of Mueenuddin’s women, Deeti, the opium farmer’s wife who is the heroine of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, seems paper-thin: Bihar as imagined from Brooklyn.

But then he doubles down on his thesis, dismissing not just the English literature of Indians, but that of diasporic Indians as well:

The critic Pankaj Mishra has attacked the “slickly exilic version of India” manufactured by diasporic English-language writers from India, describing them as a “cosmopolitan third world elite”, their fictions “suffused with nostalgia”. No one could make this charge of Mueenuddin. His stories have not just a fluency and perfection of shape; above all they have an authenticity of observation and dialogue rooted from long experience living among the people he is writing about. The result is a unique book, probably the best fiction ever written in English about Pakistan, and one of the best to come out of south Asia in a very long time.

We could write off this review as mere Dalrympian rantings, but the fact is that he is right. In Other Rooms is a collection of stories authentically rooted in the soil of feudalism, and whether or not the author prefers to be called a ‘manager’ over the more pejorative ‘zamindar,’ the stories are full of nostalgia for the old order and sympathy for the owners of ancestral lands.

III. Women

“All is fair in love and war.”
–English proverb

“Anye impietie may lawfully be committed in loue, which is lawlesse.”
–1578 Lyly Euphues I. 236 (origin of the above quote, according to

“Can you please explain to me what this saying means? I’ve heard it many times and I just don’t get it! It just doesn’t seem to make sense to me… thanks in advance.”
–user on an forum, in reference to the first quote

A man got to war over his Corner, his Product, but never his Ho.
–adaptation by Sepoy of Punjabi proverb using the lexicon and ethos of The Wire

What better way to kill the joy of a work of art than to critique its treatment of women? Last week I had the unwanted experience of reading not one, but two critiques of the role of women in The Wire (thanks for nothing, Zunguzungu), one on the abuse of prostitutes by policeman, the other on the dearth of women characters in the show. As much as I disliked admitting it, the complaints were relevant. In a show with such nuanced and long-term character development, the women characters tend to follow stereotype, and more importantly, they are few and far between. It’s as though there weren’t that many women living in Baltimore. I’d like to think that the androgynous hitwoman Snoop is a kind of stereotype-busting paradigm, but the truth is that I had no idea she wasn’t male until she was arrested and referred to by a female pronoun. Yes, the streets of Baltimore are a man’s world, but is that really enough of a reason to present the audience with a small and stereotyped set of characters?

Pakistan is also a man’s world. In Mueenuddin’s stories, the only way for women to move up in the world, or to find shelter, is by sleeping with men who are higher up in the food chain than they. In this way, they gain food and shelter, and maybe some nice stuff. The problem with this method of self-preservation is that often the man dies or moves away, and then the woman is left out in the cold (and might have to start shooting up). This scenario appears in virtually every story. “Nawabdin Electrician” is an exception—in this story the protagonist is attacked on the road and fights for his life, out of a fear that his wife and many daughters will be left without a provider. Another exception is “About a Burning Girl”—in that story a wife is burned alive for fear that she will tell the police about a robbery. A third exception is “A Spoiled Man,” in which the main character, the most wretched of human beings one could imagine, saves up enough money to purchase a young bride who is not quite right in the head. She is then stolen from him and perhaps sold into prostitution. In “Lily,” the man does not abandon her, but he disapproves of her, and she feels trapped in a gilded (zamindar’s) cage.

Ultimately, the exceptions prove the rule, and as one reads through the stories, one begins to wonder what draws the author to these narratives of unequal and paternalistic relationships between women and men. Luckily, the author has explained his intention– verisimilitude:

OA: Well not that many writers actively talk about the subject [sex]. How it affects politics, how affairs allow maidservants to move up. The last person I can think of, who put it so bluntly, would be Manto.
DM: It was very difficult to talk about sex because it often descends into snickering. But a lot of people have objected and said, ‘your women only seem to achieve anything by sleeping with somebody’. I think that is unfortunate but true in Pakistan because women don’t really have a place in the public sphere. Therefore one of the main ways in which they exercise power is through men.
OA: Why do you take such a negative view of Pakistani women in society?
DM: Oh I am so depressing! But yeah, it’s true. You know perhaps it’s just a tick of mine but I do believe that the lot of Pakistani women is a harsh one. When I look around the women who are in power, you know the ones who come from the upper classes; there are all sorts of powers and freedoms. But you know poor women and women from the lower middle class have sort of lost their safety net. They don’t have a lot of options compared to men.

Setting aside the peculiarity of referring to concern over Pakistani women lacking a societal safety net as “just a tick of mine,” let us examine the idea that this tick only pertains to lower middle class women. Indeed, though the more upper class the female characters become in the collection, the more options they do have, they are all still in noticeably asymmetrical relationships with men. The most notable of these is Helen, the American girlfriend of Sohail, a young scion of the Harouni family whose mother is attempting to separate him from his lady friend and lure him back to Pakistan. Throughout the story Helen’s lack of funds relative to Sohail is highlighted, particularly through repeated descriptions of her attire, which has invariably been loaned to her by friends for the trip to France. This financial inequality is illustrated most clearly by this passage involving Helen’s desire to purchase some candy at an open air market in the countryside in France:

Helen stopped at a booth selling candy, sour balls and gummi bears, jelly worms, striped green and yellow, chocolate almonds, peanut brittle, each type in a little glass cookie jar, each to be weighed separately.
“Can we get some?” Helen would sometimes eat a whole bag of candy, then become sad and childish, with a headache.
Sohail pulled at her leather-gloved hand. “Let’s get it at the grocery store, we need water anyway. It costs four times more here.”
“But I want this.”
“Why? It’s the same thing.”
She walked away, angry for a moment, and then her cheeks burned at the thought that she was spending his money. She had hardly any of her own for this trip, no savings; at school she lived on nothing, always had a job, even after she met Sohail.
They passed through a little alley to reach the car, and when they were in the shadows he turned to her and buried his face in her hair. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
She comforted him, his face wet.
“I can’t believe I didn’t buy you that fucking candy. I know I’ll remember it, that I didn’t.”

The infantilizing of Helen is explicit here when she is described as becoming “sad and childish” after eating too much candy (with the bonus implication that she, a recent graduate of Yale, is too immature to understand that one should not eat an entire bag of candy). Tell me, how many recent graduates of US institutions of higher learning do you know that would spend their time begging for candy on a trip to France?

Let us turn briefly to Lily, another woman in control of her own destiny. No one appears to be bothering to arrange her marriage and she is living life with an enormous amount of freedom (she even has her own house on her parents’ property). But she chooses suddenly to marry a man who is richer and from a slightly more prestigious family than hers. He is also extremely paternalistic and controlling, but in the modern way, through guilt. Lily’s husband is the new kind of zamindar farm manager, who works hard and doesn’t just live off the fat of the land. In the end she feels trapped by her marriage, but does not imagine any way out for herself that will bring happiness:

Among the possible futures, Lily now recognized the likely one, the one she must avoid. Murad would be rich and powerful, she knew that, having seen him at work here on the farm. He would be shrewd, trusted by men, sometimes warm to her in comradeship, but finally cold, irreproachable. And in the very act of drowning she would be left to bear the blame, to injure him, blindly or by neglect, becoming one of those thin sharp women from the cities who can hold their liquor but are desiccated by it, who are well dressed and without taking pleasure in it, living much in London, bored—and ultimately, she hoped, she would depend on this, becoming old and wise, old and self-forgiving.

In considering this trope of women attempting to advance their standing in society through sleeping with the men who might offer them patronage, let us return to Manto for comparison. It is fitting that Manto is invoked in the interview with Mueenuddin above in which he discusses the ‘harsh lot’ of women in Pakistan. The interviewer observes:

Well not that many writers actively talk about the subject [sex]. How it affects politics, how affairs allow maidservants to move up. The last person I can think of, who put it so bluntly, would be Manto.

As we may recall, Manto has from time to time been accused of everything from not being that great about women to misogyny. Manto’s women are often raped, killed, cut into pieces even, and as if that’s not enough, Manto has many women characters who are if not prostitutes then at least women of loose morals. Compared to Manto, Mueenuddin’s women characters are all Sunday school teachers. So why am I always happy to give Manto a pass on women’s issues, but balking at In Other Rooms?

For all I know, Manto may have been a depraved misogynist. But the brilliance of Manto’s stories lies in what he doesn’t tell us. The fact of the matter is that more often than not, these terrible things we see in his stories are not technically there. It is we who have put them there. Manto’s gift is his ability to hold up a mirror to his readers, and when we recoil at the depravity of human nature we see therein, we must also confront the disturbing contents of our own imagination. The most well known example of this technique is the famous Partition story “Khol Do” (“Open it”—full text in English here; in Urdu here).

An old man and his daughter are fleeing to Pakistan during the Partition migration. On the way, they are separated. The father asks a convoy of men searching for refugees to look for his daughter. They find her and make her feel less frightened when they explain they have spoken with her father. But she does not reappear at the refugee camp. Some days later, the same four men dump the battered body of a young girl at the camp. The father sees them and asks if they have found his daughter, to which they respond that they have not but they will find her. The father follows the young woman they have left at the camp as she is carried on a stretcher into a doctor’s office. There, the following scene takes place:

A light was switched on. It was a young woman with a mole on her left cheek. “Sakina,” Sirajuddin screamed.
The doctor, who had switched on the light, stared at Sirajuddin.
“I am her father,” he stammered. The doctor looked at the prostrate body and felt for the pulse. Gesturing to the window, he said to the old man: “Open it.”
The young woman on the stretcher moved slightly. Her hands groped for the cord which kept her salwar tied around her waist. With painful slowness, she unfastened it, pulled the garment down and opened her thighs.
“She is alive. My daughter is alive,” Sirajuddin shouted with joy.
The doctor broke into a cold sweat.

[I’ve modified the Khalid Hasan translation linked above, because its literalness ruins the point of the story, but it’s still not quite right. Part of the problem with translating this story into English is that the linchpin is the command “khol do,” which means “open.” In Urdu the verb does not require a direct object, but it does in English. “Khol do” is in Urdu interchangeable as a command for someone to open a window or for a woman to open her legs, whereas in English the latter would more likely take the verb “to spread.”]

The character of the doctor, as an observer of the reunion between father and daughter, plays the role of the reader’s proxy. His horror directs our horror, causing us to look back at the whole story and retrace our steps over the path we have traversed to get to this point. The reader brings to the story a knowledge of the pervasive rape during the Partition, but our expectations of rape being committed ‘by the other side’ are turned on their head, as it dawns on us that this woman was raped by refugee aid workers. At the same time, none of these details are stated. It is only our ability to imagine the depths to which humanity can sink that takes us to the conclusion that Sakina has been repeatedly gang-raped by men from her own community. For Manto, this bestiality defines humanity: humans will use the screen of war and chaos to commit the atrocities that come naturally to us.

For both Manto and Mueenuddin, the mistreatment of women is a major preoccupation. But Manto’s preoccupation serves to illustrate the inhumanity of humanity, whereas Mueenuddin’s focuses on the structures of patriarchy and patronage. Some of the stories show unfortunate and even tragic outcomes from this system, but they are still surprisingly forgiving toward the men who abandon the women under their protection. Circumstances intervene, they have existing families to care for, they die. In the interim, they are often kind, even loving, and provide well for their women. This paradigm mirrors the treatment of the benevolent if fallible zamindars in the stories. As metaphors for the feudal order, the sexual relationships serve to underscore Mueenuddin’s claustrophobic taxonomy of human relations.

Also of interest: See these previous review essays by Daisy/Lapata:

  • The Stay At Home Man
    , March 5, 2010.

  • Flyover Country, Feb 26, 2010.
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