ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Manto's Open It

In the absence of any social history of the Partition, literary texts tend to be treated as surrogate documentation of the period, helping us also to construct a certain understanding of the place of women in the Partition event. A reading of Sa'adat Hasan Manto's short story, Open It, brutally overturns several assumptions about the kind of violence most women became victims of.

Manto’s Open It

Engendering Partition Narratives

In the absence of any social history of the Partition, literary texts tend to be treated as surrogate documentation of the period, helping us also to construct a certain understanding of the place of women in the Partition event. A reading of Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s short story, Open It, brutally overturns several assumptions about the kind of violence most women became victims of.


n Borders and Boundaries (2004), Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin remark, “the abundance of political histories on Partition is almost equalled by the paucity of social histories of it”. Literature, they add, has “stepped in, at least partly, to record the full horror of Partition…In one sense, it can be considered a kind of social history not only because it so approximates reality (what Alok Rai calls “a hypnotic, fascinated but also slavish imitation of reality”) but because it is the only nonofficial contemporary record we have of the time, apart from reportage” (pp 6-7). The human experience of Partition, we are told, “went unrecorded, unverbalised; historical fiction, thus, ‘validates historical truth precisely in its power to represent’” (p 7). Literary texts on the subject of Partition, therefore, have been written and are read emphatically within artistic conventions of realism and tend to be usually treated as surrogate documentation.

The aim of this article is to focus on one such literary work on Partition, Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s short story Open It and to see what happens if the reader questions it standing outside the realistic frame. By extension, we question the kinds of truth claims implicitly made by a work within the realistic tradition and the effect these claims have as they construct the Partition event for later generations.

However, this is not meant to be an exercise in art-for-art’s-sake hair splitting, nor does it wish to impugn the bona fides of the very real “truths” the story does communicate or the very real critique of political jingoism and man’s inhumanity which it does make. The attempt here is merely to spell out the limits of that critique. These limits result from a taking for granted as “natural” and “normal” the realistic paradigm in art and the patriarchal status quo in life.

One may look at the story “commonsensically” and ask what this story is about. The answer would be: it is about the agony and the frantic search of a father who has been separated from his daughter in the turmoil, violence and rioting during a border crossing. He finds himself in a dazed condition in a refugee camp, with no clear memory of when and how he lost her. The story is about how he is comforted by a group of young men from his own community who regularly rescue people from Amritsar. They will find her, they say. They do. They pick her up, reassure her and are kind to her. When the father asks after her, however, they tell him to be patient – they will find her. One day, out of the blue, the father sees her inert body on a stretcher in the doctor’s room. The story is, finally about how this inert body moves only to open her shalwar when she hears the doctor say “open it” – telling the father to open a window.

The story is extremely powerful and works as much through what it deliberately leaves unsaid as through what it actually says. There are three huge silences at crucial moments in the story. The first may be located between the description of the girl’s “rescue” – the “kindness” of the man who lends her his jacket to replace her lost dupatta – and the next couple of paragraphs in which they indicate to the father that they have still no news. The “happily ever after” resolution, almost in the reader’s grasp, slips through her fingers, leaving unease and reluctant suspicion – after all, aren’t the men members of the girl’s own community? Haven’t we seen them smiling reassurance and being kind? (During the discussion of a seminar presentation of this paper there was strenuous effort to fill in this silence, in refusal to see the “rescuers” as culpable – who knows, she might have been abducted from the “rescuers” by the enemy, etc. This was some indication of even academics’ discomfort with ambiguity.) Then there is the silence of the inert form on the stretcher, the silence of the girl herself emblematic of all the historical silences imposed on/around women and their experience of Partition, on/around women and their experience of sexual violence anywhere, at any time – the silence which results from a universal patriarchal taboo, especially in traditional societies where human beings are social roles rather than human persons. The silent, brutalised girl merely makes an automatic, “lifeless” movement, in response to a rapped out command (which must have been directed at her over several days) but which, in this instance, is not directed at, does not refer to her. The masterly control of this story is evident in the chilling unspoken resonances around the mundane instruction to open a window and let in some air, coupled with the old father’s Lear-like frenzy at the sight of the girl’s hands moving. This leads to the third silence around the figure of the doctor (the representative of sane humane concern and reason) who breaks into a cold sweat. What was it that he thought or felt or understood?

The story preaches nothing. It shows – making no capital out of its potential for gory detail. The one such detail that we have is Sirajuddin remembering “his wife’s corpse with all her entrails spilled out” which overlaps with the moment “when Sakina got separated from him” (p 20) – the two women

Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

belonging to the old man, “dead” in different ways.

Violence and Its Manifestations

Menon and Bhasin’s chapter on violence against women during Partition remarks on the commonplace and symbolic nature of the most horrific kinds of brutality – “disfigurement, mutilation, disembowelment… branding” – perpetrated on women by the opposing group. They devote their chapter, however, to the violence exercised upon Hindu women by their own families “to prevent the Muslims from touching them” (p 32). They quote a narrative: “We saw many who had been raped and disfigured, their faces and breasts scarred, and then abandoned. They had tooth marks all over them. Their families said, ‘How can we keep them now? Better that they are dead.’ Many of them were so young – 18, 15, 14 years old – what remained of them now? Their ‘character’ was now spoilt. One had been raped by ten or more men

– her father burnt her…” (p 32) Sirajuddin does not do this – at least insofar as we see him in the story. Manto’s focus is on a third direction from which the violence comes.

Speaking of how nations and communities represent and refigure themselves in the aftermath of an exemplary moment of violence, Gyanendra Pandey (2001) remarks, “Nations and communities that would be nations seem to deal with the moment of violence…by the relatively simple stratagem of drawing a neat boundary around themselves, distinguishing sharply between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and pronouncing the act of violence an act of the other or an act necessitated by a threat to the self” (p 177). Virtually all of Manto’s Partition stories expose and question this stratagem, but none so powerfully as this one where – in community terms – “them” is “us”. There is no sanctification of one’s own while demonising the other. Sakina’s worst aggressors turn out to be her “rescuers”. This moment of unflinching confrontation comes as a slap in the face of readerly expectations and recognises sexual violence against women as neither Hindu nor Muslim, neither restricted to moments of frenzy nor unheard of in peace time. The violation of Sakina is the everyday, ordinary violation – from members of her own community – to which all women usually “surrender” in speechless fear. Conditions of communal genocide merely aggravate possibilities and provide opportunities.

It has been necessary to highlight the truly remarkable achievement of the story at some length so that the outlining of its limits does not come over as mindless Manto bashing. The achievement and the limits both need to be kept in mind if we are to see the story as representation in terms of how it functions as a document, to construct a certain understanding of especially the place of women in the Partition event, since literary works on the subject have acted as a species of historiography.

We now need to ask how the story is told – in terms of its overall structuring, point of view and gaze. The dominant deep structure is (however outrageous this may sound) the pattern of the chivalric romance which the narrative also subverts. A damsel (belonging to aged father) is in distress

– lost in a wilderness, under threat from dragons and predators of the human kind. Some “knights” set off to the rescue. Popular literature and entertainment have conditioned us into a set of expectations that the story brutally overturns exposing the inherent violence in the pattern itself. As Priyamvada Gopal (2005) puts it in a recent chapter on Manto’s stories, “Open It inverts the paternalism of ‘rescue’ narratives to suggest that a very thin line separates patriarchal violence from patriarchal protectionism” (p 109). This does not, however, go far enough in what it shows about human agency.

The Woman’s Agency

Representations of human agency generally take the form of doing, speaking, seeing, knowing or understanding. The text frequently works through a manipulation of the seeing/knowing/understanding reader into identification with the dominant consciousness in the text. The omniscient third person narrative consciousness also, implicitly, coheres with this dominant consciousness. In this story, the central point of view is the old father, Sirajuddin, desperately searching for his daughter. It is his experience and perspective that guides the reader – his experience of the chaos around him, his memory of his dead wife, his acute sense of having lost his daughter although he manages to pick up the lost dupatta, his anxiety as he waits, his tragedy as he prays for the success of the “rescuers”, finally his frenzy at the sight of his daughter inert and “joy” at the movement of her hands – at least she is alive.

Within this dominant consciousness there is a swarm of other actors – doers or lookers and searchers like himself. “While some were looking for their missing

Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

children, others looked for their missing mothers, wives and daughters” (pp 201-02). Implicit is more than a hint that the lookers and seekers are men (fathers, sons, husbands) – with women and children as usual lumped together in a passive, vulnerable mass. Then there are the rescuers/rapists; there are four anonymous men “carrying a girl on a stretcher”; there is the doctor

– a neutral, humane, knowledgeable consciousness – whose request, ironically, replicates the brutal and repeated command of the rapists.

Where and who, then are the women in this story? Anonymous “missing mothers, wives and daughters”, Sirajuddin’s equally anonymous massacred wife, finally Sakina. We see her running, fleeing. Her single expression of consciousness is fear. Other than this, Sakina emerges only as a body even in the words of her father: the repeated epithet is “beautiful” with “a big mole on her right cheek”. At the end she is “a lifeless body” with “lifeless hands”.

The overall shape of the story, then, willy-nilly replicates and so reinforces the very patriarchal violence which the content consciously attacks. The seekers, doers, gazers, knowers – protectors, “owners” as well as violators – are men. Protectiveness and ownership are merely the obverse of the overtly violating, the despoiling side of the patriarchal coin. These men who act, act upon women who are passive bodies

– sometimes literally lifeless. To put it in somewhat extreme fashion: the structure of the story, in some sort, re-enacts the rape of the passive female body, the female body as what the title of another story calls “cold meat”.

By extension, if literary output of this kind is seen as part of the archive, it is responsible of shaping the “reality” of this violence for later generations in a way that subconsciously replicates it by presenting women as perennially passive, victimised or rescued bodies incapable of any agency or thought on their own count while “their” men think, act and speak for them. The silenced woman continues to be silenced. In this respect, unfortunately, the story functions like the reports and policy documents that Menon and Bhasin speak of: “no account of Partition violence for instance, is complete without the numbing details of violence against women. Yet they are invisible” (p 11) – and, we may add, inaudible.

Or, perhaps, we may say that the structure of the story mimics patriarchy in microcosm and enables this critique precisely because it holds up a neat picture for us to look at. Is the doctor, then, the reader’s alter ego? Does he, we hope, understand what the reader begins to understand?




Gopal, Priyamvada (2005): ‘Dangerous Bodies: Masculinity, Morality and Social Transformation in Manto’ in Literary Radicalism

in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence, Oxford, Routledge (Indian Reprint), Chapter 4, pp 89-122,

Manto, Sa’adat Hasan (2003): Black Margins, M Umar Memon (ed), Katha, New Delhi.

Menon, Ritu and Kamla Bhasin (2004): Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, Women Unlimited, New Delhi.

Pandey, Gyanendra (2001): Remembering Partition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top