|Ayesha Jalal was born in Lahore in Pakistan to Hamid Jalal, a senior Pakistani civil servant, and is the grandniece of the renowned Urdu fiction writer Saadat Hasan Manto.She obtained her BA (1978), majoring in History and Political Science, from Wellesley College, USA, and her doctorate (1983) in history from Trinity College at University of Cambridge, where she wrote her Ph.D. dissertation: ‘Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan’.Ayesha Jalal has been Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge (1980–84), Leverhulme Fellow at the Center of South Asian Studies, Cambridge (1984–87), Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, DC (1985–86) and Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies(1988–90). She has taught at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Tufts University, Columbia University, Harvard University and Lahore University of Management Sciences.
At Colombia, Jalal opposed the establishment of a research institute that was to be funded by the Hindu nationalist Hinduja Group (this institute has since been closed). She accused the faculty of being uncomfortable with her, a Pakistani woman, teaching Indian history, and sued the university for religious and ethnic discrimination. A U.S. District Court called her allegations “thin but suggestive”.
At first glance, Ayesha Jalal seems like an unlikely agitator. She is a tiny, angular woman whose small frame is accentuated by her flowing beige shalwar kameez, a traditional Pakistani outfit consisting of a loose tunic and baggy trousers. Her scholarly credentials — Wellesley, Oxford, Harvard — are purebred establishment. But in recent years, Ms. Jalal has taken on the academic and political mainstream in her native Pakistan as well as the administration of Columbia University, where she taught history for seven years.
And while her historical work on South Asia has elicited anonymous threats, it also earned her a MacArthur Fellowship (commonly called the genius grant) this year, worth $265,000, no strings attached, and a reputation as one of the most innovative scholars in the history of the region.
She arrived in the US in 1970, when her father, a lifelong civil servant, was posted to the United Nations in Manhattan. When the family returned to Pakistan two years later, Ms. Jalal, then 16, finished her studies at the American high school in Islamabad, the capital city. She spent much of her senior year in Pakistan trying to persuade her mother to allow her to return to the United States for college.
“At that time, it was very unusual for Pakistani women to come to America to study,” she said. “The vast majority of women in Pakistan don’t take to reading.” But when Wellesley College offered her a full scholarship, she finally persuaded her mother to let her go.
From Wellesley, she went on to pursue a Ph.D. in South Asian history at Cambridge University, where she wrote the dissertation that would provide the foundation for “The Sole Spokesman.” That the individual who had set out to puncture the iconic grandeur of Jinnah was a woman played no small role in the book’s chilly reception in Pakistan.
Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) was an established Urdu short story writer and a rising screenwriter in Bombay at the time of India’s partition in 1947, and he is perhaps best known for the short stories he wrote following his migration to Lahore in newly formed Pakistan. Today Manto is an acknowledged master of twentieth-century Urdu literature, and his fiction serves as a lens through which the tragedy of partition is brought sharply into focus. In The Pity of Partition, Manto’s life and work serve as a prism to capture the human dimension of sectarian conflict in the final decades and immediate aftermath of the British raj.
Ayesha Jalal draws on Manto’s stories, sketches, and essays, as well as a trove of his private letters, to present an intimate history of partition and its devastating toll. Probing the creative tension between literature and history, she charts a new way of reconnecting the histories of individuals, families, and communities in the throes of cataclysmic change. Jalal brings to life the people, locales, and events that inspired Manto’s fiction, which is characterized by an eye for detail, a measure of wit and irreverence, and elements of suspense and surprise. In turn, she mines these writings for fresh insights into everyday cosmopolitanism in Bombay and Lahore, the experience and causes of partition, the postcolonial transition, and the advent of the Cold War in South Asia.
The first in-depth look in English at this influential literary figure, The Pity of Partition demonstrates the revelatory power of art in times of great historical rupture.
Associate Professor, Columbia University (1991-1999)
Fellow, Macarthur Foundation (1998-2003)
Member Editorial Board, Third World Quarterly
Member International Advisory Committee, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore School of Management Sciences (LUMS)