The celebration of independence is always a complicated affair; are we celebrating independence from the British, the partition of the subcontinent, or both? Our sense of history tends to fuse partition and independence together, and while the two concepts are inextricably tied, they are not the same. This is simply because though we managed to gain independence (at least in terms of direct rule) from the British, can we truly partition the subcontinent beyond the drawing of a physical boundary? What then do we do with the rich heritage that fluidly existed beyond religious, ethnic, geographic and linguistic boundaries?

In his book Dozakhnama, Rabisankar Bal weaves a story that cuts across modern spatial and temporal boundaries by allowing the voices of two literary greats, Manto and Ghalib, to tell their own stories in a land that today is unrecognizable. The book is essentially a novel within a novel: a young author comes across a novel allegedly written by Manto, published on the day he died, in which Manto and Ghalib are telling their life stories to each other while in their graves. As one would expect with these two figures, the narrative is wonderfully poetic, studded with anecdotes of Sufi mystics and Hindu mythology, poetry of Mir Taqi Mir, and vivid descriptions of court culture. Underlying this, however, is the pervasive despair of shifting times and impending catastrophe, events that would change the nature of South Asian society permanently. For Ghalib, this was the 1857 Revolt and the subsequent solidification of British rule; for Manto, this was partition and its violence.

Sadat Hassan Manto 

Ghalib and Manto were both deeply impacted by the events that unfolded around them. Sensitive to the vibrations of tectonic shifts that had at that time only just begun, their work reflected, and even warned of, the permanent damage that was being done to South Asian society and culture, well beyond the conception of those that were only concerned with the political sphere. They saw a way of life crumble around them and be replaced with a world in which everything had to be compartmentalized and codified, suffocating self-expression by drawing ever-increasing lines. The humanity that both figures cherished, the free flowing of ideas and love, and the sense of community was replaced with a modern (Western) conception of society.

Scanned copy of Mirza Ghalib’s only picture Source: Chappati Mystery

Iss butkade mein mani ka kis se karen sawal
Adam nahin surat-e-adam bahur hai yan

(In this kingdom of puppets, whom can I ask about the mystery of the universe

There are no men here, though there are many with the appearance of men)

– Mir Taq Mir 

The lives of Ghalib and Manto, as represented in the novel, portrays this struggle against the creation of new identities that were based on binaries – to be someone meant you had to be the opposite of someone else. Although this is commonly thought off when referring to 1947, its roots can actually be traced back to 1857. In the book, Ghalib describes that what was once a thriving community in Dehli became rooted in fear and distrust because people were not sure whether their own neighbor would sell them out to the British. People suddenly began to identify themselves by their religion, ethnicity and language, based on the British policies of organizing communities based on these factors.

This divide and rule, commonly found in history books as a political stunt, is depicted as a lived reality in the book.

Within the context of this book, let’s return to initial question. To truly partition the subcontinent, its intellectual and cultural history must be sterilized because it poses a direct threat to the two-nation theory. Ideas cannot be made to fit arbitrarily imposed boundaries, and hence, cannot adhere to the modern conception of a nation-state. Therefore, what we seen in contemporary society is a deep mistrust of ideas, of asking questions, and of self-expression, because they tug at the flimsy seams that tie society together. While we remain unabashedly proud of our history and the works of people like Ghalib and Manto, we first sterilize them of their ideological contexts and keep them as trophies in our mental museums, rather than as living entities, so that their works do not unravel the false sense of security we have built around ourselves.

But as long as there is a literary memory of the works of Ghalib and Manto, amongst many others, the spirit of ideas that once cut across any imposed boundaries will survive and continue to provide a source of hope. The book, although dealing with history, narrates a society that is alive and vibrant, giving the impression that even today, amongst all the political muck, a society that is based on love for humanity and self-fulfillment is possible.


dil ke tain aatish-e-hijran se bachaya na gaya
ghar jala samane par hum se bujhaya na gaya

(I couldn’t save my heart from the heat of separation

I saw my home burn but I couldn’t put out the fire)

– Mir Taqi Mir


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