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‘The Pity of Partition’

In response to:

A Brilliant, Displaced Indian Writer from the October 23, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

A supercilious review by Mr. Ian Jack of my book The Pity of Partition [NYR, October 23, 2014] has been brought to my attention. Its tone and substance will come as no surprise to those who have come across Mr. Jack’s superficial reporting on India or his ill-informed opinions on the great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore (The Guardian, May 7, 2011). The publication of his review does some disservice to another important South Asian author, Saadat Hasan Manto, who is the subject of my book.

Mr. Jack begins with a hackneyed retelling of Manto’s short story “Toba Tek Singh,” the one story that is familiar to those with dangerously little learning about Manto and the partition of India. What follows is a summary of Manto’s life drawing on my book, often paraphrasing entire passages from it, while denuding it of its evocative quality. The review closes with highly selective quotations from the book designed to show that Manto is “embarrassingly overpraised and overblown.” For example, I am quoted as saying that Manto’s work is “a constant challenge and reminder to people…that it is never too late to search for and speak nothing but the truth.” Your readers will not know from the review that here I am alluding to Manto’s classic, a chilling short story titled “Nothing but the Truth.”

Mr. Jack has literary pretensions. Yet he completely misses the nuances of my argument about history and memory based on a study of a life in literature. What a terrible book, he pontificates, in which “inflation gallops, bounds follow leaps, trials have tribulations.” He believes that a South Asian author with her careless American editors at Princeton University Press could not possibly know how to write English. Such is the hubris of a British journalist who knows precious little about South Asian history or literature, not to mention its rich languages. I hope The New York Review of Books will do better in future in choosing its reviewers of serious historical and literary works on South Asia.

Ayesha Jalal
Mary Richardson Professor of History
Tufts University
Medford, Massachusettes

Ian Jack replies:

Like her book, Professor Jalal’s letter asserts rather than demonstrates. I’m not sure why my reporting from India is “superficial,” an earlier piece on Tagore “ill-informed,” and my review “supercilious.” Lacking any evidence to quarrel with, I must let others be the judge of these things. But one among her several ad hominem remarks does call for reply. “He believes,” she writes, “that a South Asian author with her careless American editors at Princeton University Press could not possibly know how to write English.” Nothing in the review supports this statement, and I resent its clumsy implication of racism.