Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Posted by lapata on June 03, 2013 · 4 mins read

Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition: Manto's Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013). Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition: Manto's Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

Since my review of Ayesha Jalal's new biography of her great uncle Saadat Hasan Manto came out in Caravan Magazine, I've received loads of praise for my courage. But the fact of the matter is it doesn't take a lot of courage to write a critical review of a senior scholar if you've got nothing left to lose academically. I didn't tremble with fear at the prospect of having to write a critical review when I realized that was going to be necessary, and I'm not anxious now about whether or not Jalal will read it. Really the sad thing of it is that it should be considered a matter of courage to simply write a review with due diligence. Is truthful critique possible in an academia so defined by rigid hierarchy?

From the sloppy editing to the grandiose claims within the book and on its dust jacket, The Pity of Partition spoke to me more than anything of the condescending attitude of US academic publishing toward 'third world' 'vernacular' literature, and who knows, maybe just all things relating to the lesser places. There was no need to bother with getting Urdu words and names spell-checked, there was no apparent solicitation of feedback from scholars of Urdu literature (and if feedback was sought it was obviously ignored). I strongly doubt Princeton University Press (PUP!) would handle a publication on American or European literature with the same disdain (or perhaps I'm wrong? Maybe this is part of the destruction of the academic publishing industry? If so, may such publications hasten its demise).

Here's an excerpt of my (oddly named) review (and no, I didn't make the art):

In her new biography of her great uncle (The Pity of Partition: Manto's Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, HarperCollins India, 265 pages, Rs. 599), historian Ayesha Jalal does little to dispel the notion that Manto should be lionised as a unique writer who need not be considered in the context of a literary milieu. Though she does nod at his many contemporaries, this is only to showcase Manto's place as a combative genius among lesser figures. This tendency is particularly noticeable when she discusses his relationship with the Progressive Writers' Association, which blacklisted him in 1948 for being a 'reactionary' writer. Relying mainly on Manto's own narrative of events, she depicts a scenario in which Manto the iconoclast stands apart from the lockstep of the PWA, ignoring the fact that there were many writers who fought and made up with the organisation in those days and that Manto was one of them. It is not clear whether Jalal's portrayal of Manto is owing to the fact that she is not familiar enough with the literary history of the time (she states repeatedly that she has not set out to write about Manto from a literary standpoint) or because she has relied too heavily on Manto's own recounting of his life. In either case, the end result is a biography that seems curiously thin and borders on the hagiographical.

Read the rest here. For a previous discussion of Manto by me that includes some papier mâché cats I made of another reductive discussion of Manto that I disliked (an attempt at constructive criticism!) go here. Interestingly, the gentleman who wrote the essay I repurposed into papier mâché cats has a blurb on the back of Jalal's biography. Hmmmm.


vimalakirti | June 03, 2013

Whether "courageous" or not, an excellent review. And the problem with proofreading of S. Asian languages, diacritics, etc. in major university presses doesn't just apply to Urdu. The most egregious example of this I've seen was Arvind-Pal Mandair's celebrated book on Columbia University Press, which repeatedly turns the great Sanskrit grammarian Pāṇini into "Paṇīni," an Italian flatbread sandwich.

lapata | June 03, 2013

Hah! I always have the opposite problem when ordering said sandwich type, accidentally asking for the grammarian instead.

winterapples | June 03, 2013

After a stint in a popular culture magazine, I can tell you that it is not always easy to find independent reviewers in India, who know enough about the material yet are not too close to the author or too much a part of - and a beneficiary of being a part of - those intellectual or literary circles, especially in Delhi. The problem is worse with books about cities where the circles are even smaller, and few want to rock anyone else's boat. (One of the most pointed reviews I've seen in recent years was by an academic of a nonfiction book in a niche magazine. I'm assuming the circles of the reviewer and the journalist-author didn't overlap.)

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Jyotsna Singh | June 05, 2013

You make an excellent point about sloppy editing and the need to get more local Feedback from scholars outside the US. US presses just don't have the time these days to do all the necessary hard work, so it is good you are holding them to high standards!!