Critique On “The Seer of Pakistan” By Ali Sethi

The article “The Seer of Pakistan” is written by Ali Sethi and talks about the famous Urdu short story writer, Saadat Hasan Manto. Ali Sethi, who is a Pakistani writer and literary critic, witnessed the growth of public interest in Saadat Hasan Manto and his literary works while growing up. After staying in obscurity for a long time, Manto’s literary canon came to limelight during the late 1980’s. In “The Seer of Pakistan,” Ali Sethi tries to establish Manto as a seer and mainly uses Manto’s analysis of the events occurring during the partition of the sub-continent and briefly his commentary on the relations between US and Pakistan to prove his point. Manto’s work became a subject of interest because of his profound critique of the attitudes and thought processes of the people of the sub-continent. Together with gaining attention Manto’s writings also generated controversy, with some literary critics labeling his work as being reactionary and obscene. Ali Sethi, who has written extensively on the political history of Pakistan, critically analyses Manto’s short stories and deciphers the sociopolitical commentary that is contained in his highly allusive stories. This article was written amidst growing social and religious tensions in Pakistan; similar circumstances were prevalent during the time of writing of Manto’s works mentioned in the article. The article also talks about Manto’s take on the violence fueled by religious intolerance and how his analysis of the impetus behind this radical behavior is pertinent even today. As the article was written in The New Yorker, most of the audience is unaware of Manto’s works and significance. For this reason, Sethi gives brief summaries and analyses of Manto’s works he quotes. Sethi’s audiences are the literary critics and those interested in learning about Pakistan and sub-continent. In “The Seer of Pakistan,” Ali Sethi puts emphasis on proving Manto’s literary work as still being relevant in present day’s circumstances. The text fails to mention the critical analyses, by other literary experts, which support writer’s interpretation of Manto’s work. However, detailed analysis of literary devices such as irony, the brief analysis of numerous texts and the use of Manto’s biographical information enables the text to persuade the audience of Manto’s foresightedness effectively.

In “The Seer of Pakistan,” Ali Sethi talks about the social tensions and violence prevailing in Pakistan due to religious intolerance. He then goes on and talks about the stories written by Manto at the time of partition of the subcontinent and how they seem to have predicted the socio-political scenario prevailing in Pakistan. Sethi briefly discusses Manto’s “Dekh Kabira Roya” to reinforce his point (1). He uses Manto’s early biographical information and his story “Bu” to make sense of his writing style and how it was not well understood by the critics of that time (3). He then discusses Manto’s treatment of the massacres and manslaughter that occurred during the partition in his literary works. Lastly, Sethi uses Manto’s analysis of the Pakistan-US relations to consolidate Manto’s reputation as a writer with special anticipatory powers.

Sethi masterfully does the analysis of the literary devices employed by Manto and uses it to compare Manto’s writing style with the present state of affairs of the country. Sethi begins the article by mentioning the current news events relating to the religious bigotry in the country leading to inhumane treatment of the religious and sectarian minorities in some parts of the country and compares it with how “In the rest of country, the end of Ramadan was celebrated with the usual fanfare, show of color, and generosity of spirit” (1). Sethi talks about how the ironic situation of Pakistan, depicted by the events he narrates in the first two paragraphs is similar to the irony present in Manto’s works. The author uses the term “Manto-esque” to describe this present ironic state of Pakistan (1). Sethi’s frequent use of irony in the article is also evident. He uses the adjective “hysterical” to describe the overlapping of celebratory and gloomy ambiance in Pakistan (1). Sethi, in a Manto inspired style, satirizes a melancholic situation. Sethi then talks about Manto’s  story “Dekh Kabira Roya” and it’s ironic story line, which precisely reflects the condition of Pakistan today. He adds the audience’ responses to the story as well, which adds credibility to his argument. The story presents the dark side of blind patriotism, which Sethi implies, still, manifests itself on both sides of the border. Another story he analyzes is the “Modesty” in which the methodical slaughter by the rioters and rioters’ apology for only serving them with modest hospitality shows the readers a glimpse of Manto’s technique of satirizing even the most gruesome situations (4). Sethi’s statements that “Manto’s eye for irony here is sharp as ever” and that “Siyah Hasiye,” “expose the partition” are also worth noting (5; 4). Sethi places special emphasis on the metaphor of “pearls” originally used by Manto for his stories on the partition (6). In the last part of the article, Sethi mentions Manto’s superlative use of irony in his “Letters to Uncle Sam” and quotes relevant and important excerpts from the letters to consolidate his point (6). The use of irony in “Letters to Uncle Sam” is analogous to his use of ironic writing style in his “Letter to Nehru.” Sethi states that “the resulting letter has a curiously menacing feel” (6). The selection of words and tone enhance the persuasive quality of the article. The use of words such as “amazement” to describe the emotional response to Manto’s works affect readers’ perception as well (2). The extensive use of irony, which is typical of Manto, is very effectively presented by Sethi to strengthen his argument that Manto not only through his content but also with his writing style, was successfully able to predict and analyze the frame of mind of the people of sub-continent.

In “The Seer of Pakistan,” Ali Sethi briefly analyzes numerous Manto texts to bolster his argument. He starts off by analyzing “Dekh Kabira Roya” and how it predicts the behavior of the commanding class of the country (1). It also talks about the social stature of the prostitutes in the country and their fear of being treated in a humiliating manner in the newly formed country. Concerns regarding the treatment of sex workers were also raised by Manto in his another short story called “Kali Shalwar.” The concerns raised by Manto proved to be true in early 1980’s when General Zia-ul-Haq, then president of the country ordered a crackdown against the sex workers active in the country. Sethi then talks about the use of sexual innuendos by Manto in his allusive stories and the blatant misinterpretation of these allusions by literary critics. Manto was permanently and most virulently attacked for the use of obscenity in his writings throughout his life. Sethi gives the example of Manto’s famous story “Bu” and through elaborate deconstruction justifies the use of sexual innuendos (3). Sethi’s mention of how “Bu’s subtleties fell on many deaf ears” concisely sums up his opinion regarding the literary critics of the time (3). Manto’s glaring description of the partition is exhibited by the mention of “Thanda Gosht” (5). “Thanda Gosht” gives an unclouded account of the woes faced by women during partition, similar accounts by Manto can be found in short stories “Khol do” and “Khuda Ki Qasam.” The misinterpretation and the lack understanding of the profound analysis offered in Manto’s works are again pointed out by Sethi. Another important point raised by Sethi is the deliberate misconstruction of Manto’s writings by quoting the example of Chaudhry Muhammad Hussain’s charge against Manto (5). Sethi is evidently critical of Manto’s disparagers, and the use of words such as “tormentors” and a condescending tone makes this clear (5). This inconsistency of tone presents Sethi as being biased, which weakens the persuasive effect. The judicious selection of texts which cover almost all of the various aspects of Manto’s writing enhances the effect of the article and adds more credibility to the claims made by Sethi.

“The Seer of Pakistan” contains a lot of Manto’s biographical information. This information is used by Sethi to make sense of the writing style and themes adopted by Manto. Sethi claims that Manto’s father’s stern behavior and authoritative personality sowed the seeds of hatred for authority and status quo in Manto’s mind. The hate for status quo is expressed by Manto in his story “Naya Qanoon.” In this story, he reiterates the story of a horse carriage owner and his plight. Critique of the vision of change presented by political leaders, in “Naya Qanoon” is even more relevant today than it was at the time of writing. In the third part of the text, Sethi talks about the social crisis that partition brought upon Manto. “The Seer of Pakistan” provides an insight into the reasons behind Manto’s belief of the lack of need for a partition on religious grounds. Sethi writes about Manto “To a man like Manto…this religious designation of a landmass must have seemed unreal” (3). Manto’s short story “Toba Tek Singh” perfectly sums up his poignant response to the partition of sub-continent. However, Sethi is unable to quote any short story which may reflect these effects of partition on Manto’s personality. Sethi writes about Manto parting ways with Progressive Writer’s Association due to his “unromantic ironies and surprises endings and his identification with the condemned” (2). This, according to Sethi gives Manto the ability to write in a unique manner and unlike other writers, he isn’t bound to conform to rules which can inhibit his individuality. However, Sethi doesn’t mention progressive writers, such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who simultaneously was a part of the movement and also had a profound vision. Sethi also makes an indirect claim that Manto’s alienation from the mainstream nationalist discourse frees him from a factor which sabotages the honesty in other writers’ works, propagandistic elements. Sethi’s mention of Manto’s refusal to work as a tool of the US embassy clearly indicates Manto’s strong character and his resistance to conformity. This gives Manto the ability to put his thoughts to paper courageously. Sethi uses words such as “brashly” while describing Manto’s writing style (6). Sethi’s brief yet effective commentary on Manto’s personal life details paint a better and well-informed picture in the reader’s mind and consequently helps the reader in enhancing his/her understanding of Manto and his literary works.

Ali Sethi does not provide any other literary critics’ opinion on Manto’s published works. Sethi basis his argument on his understanding of Manto’s works. Mentioning other experts’ opinion on Manto would have enhanced the credibility of the article. Although Sethi quotes Leslie Flemming and Ismat Chugtai, he only cites them while talking about Manto’s biography and doesn’t cite any scholar’s views on Manto’s literary work (2; 4). Sethi doesn’t mention any literary criticism from Manto’s disparagers either. Consequently, Sethi isn’t able to directly answer some reasonable criticism on Manto. Although this deprives the article of some reliability, it gives a more original perspective to the readers. Sethi’s analysis is well founded, and as he is a renowned literary critic, his opinion carries significant credibility.

In “The Seer of Pakistan,” Ali Sethi effectively comments on Manto’s prowess as a writer and his foresightedness. Although Sethi doesn’t cite any literary scholars to support his analysis of Manto’s’ works, he is still able to effectively persuade the audience of Manto’s status of a seer. Sethi calls Manto “a compulsive ironic” and talks about his writing style and how it is strikingly similar to Pakistan’s current situation (7). He briefly discusses Manto’s selected works to support his claim. Sethi also discusses Manto’s biographical information and uses it to show the reason behind Manto’s distinctiveness. A question that arises after reading the text is whether there is a way of effectively dealing with sociopolitical woes pointed out by Manto? Sethi does not propose a solution in the light of Manto’s writings.

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