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Understanding Manto

By Dr RK Tamiri

 I first read about Saadat Hasan Manto in 1973 when I was a college student. Probably, the occasion was his birth anniversary. KK Khullar's tribute published in 'Youth Times', that came straight from the heart, bowled me completely. I became  'unabashed' admirer of the great story-teller. Manto was a Kashmiri. His skills in the art of short story writing had few parallels. Lastly, Manto's sympathies lay with the marginalised- the people who lived on the fringes of the society. It was a routine for me to go through Khullar's write-up once or twice a year, uptil 1990, when the ravages of the time took toll of Khullar's article as well.

Having grown up without the knowledge of Urdu I had to wait another decade before I could read Manto through Manto. In the mid-eighties, translations of two of Manto's stories appeared in the now defunct The Illustrated Weekly of India. One was by Khushwant Singh, and the other by the flamboyant editor Pritish Nandy. The latter had translated Manto's masterpiece 'Boo' (The odour), for which the writer had been dubbed as 'the Prince of Pornographers'. Monsoons (the experience of which was denied to us in Kashmir) formed the background in which the story was written.

It was in 1987 that 'Kingdom and the other essays', an excellent translation of Manto's stories by Khalid Hassan hit the book stands in Srinagar. This was my real tryst with Manto. The essays kept me thinking on why was Manto so obsessed with sexuality? Simply to have more readership! Also, if he stood for social change then why did he take up cudgels with the progressive writers. The objective in putting up this short memoir on record is to convey how Saadat Hasan Manto reached my generation.

Ninetees could be called the decade of Manto. Though most of his contemporaries are slowly passing in to oblivion, Manto's relevance continues to grow. In May 1996, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla organised a seminar on the life and works of Manto. It was the first of its kind in the Indian sub-continent. Manto was approached from all dimensions—history, sociology, philosophy, and literature. With the emergence of partition as a new genre in literature, during the past couple of years, some really good stuff has appeared on him. This is bound to help us understand Manto better.

Manto and Literature:

Manto considered literature as something very serious. To him it was "the pulse of a nation, a community which gives news about the nation, the community to which it belongs, its health, its illness". Manto stressed that a writer should not read because that puts an end to his originality. What he should read is the book of life.

He was deeply influenced by Sigmund Freud even though he tries to deny it in his half-serious essay on himself written in third person. Manto said the writer's job was not to moralise or pass judgements. It was simply to examine the physical and moral divisions of society in a detached manner, free from any prejudice. He said, "....we diagnose diseases but do not run a clinic..."

Manto wrote what he saw. He would say, "I have no camera which could wash out the small pox marks from Aga Hashar Kashmiri's face or straighten his crooked eye or change the obscene invectives uttered by him in his flowery style". In 1939, he wrote to Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi, his friend and one of the founders of progressive writers' movement: "Whatever the situation I remain restless. I am not satisfied with anything around me. There is something lacking in everything..."

His social criticism was profound and censure of hypocritical attitudes devastating. Writer Krishan Chander once said of him, "He is a harsh surgeon who does not even give chloroform to his patients". Manto was totally disillusioned with the society he lived in and attacked its hypocrisy and unwillingness in lending a hand to the oppressed. He was a great believer in man's freedom in a world which had forgotten its own soul.

As a writer he could no longer be surprised by the things people do to each other. He held that all societies are designed to legitimise our worst impulses and rejects man as a creature who has any ethical sense. Nevertheless, he retains his humanity and compassion. Mohd. Khalid Akhter, the great humourist, in a tribute says,"....In prose that was pure as a pearl, he (Manto) continued to prick our dead conscience, shocking us out of our self-absorption, our complacency. He made us see ourselves in his shimmering mirror as we really were. He forced us to think that we could be better human beings..." Manto told his critics: "If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories I only exposed the truth". He never shirked from exploring the daring themes-Love, Incest, sex and prostitution, shocking Indian middle class out of its wits in the process.

Manto's sympathies lay with the marginalised, the people who lived on the fringes of the society. His work is marked by an overwhelming sense of disaster. His protagonists are either sexually ravaged, morally destroyed or intellectually paralysed.

He detested bourgeois values and the pretentiousness of the respectable. Manto found prostitutes more interesting and pious than the housewives, and pimps honest. He castigated the society which censured the description of a rape scene but not the rape itself. His greatest story 'Khol Do' is about a woman victim, who during the partition holocaust is raped even by her rescuers.

Yet Manto's writings are not reformist in character. His works neither prescribe nor proscribe anything. He makes man in his social setting the centre of all his stories and explores the complexities of human psychology.

He finds a 'whore' better and superior to those who profit from her. Manto said, "The whorehouse is itself a corpse which society carries on its shoulders. Until society buries it somewhere, there will be discussion about it..." When the prostitutes of Rawalpindi decided to form a union, Manto was thrilled. He remarked that the prostitutes of Rawalpindi would be in a position to project at least their viewpoint. Manto said, "this would be their own viewpoint, one which would emanate from their brains and be articulated through their mouths." Prostitutes of Lahore's red light areas used to visit his house to relate their woes. His funeral was attended by many victims of prostitution.

Manto and the Partition:

Manto is the only writer among his contemporaries, who turned the bloody events of 1947 into great literature. The stories depict unbearable anguish, trauma and savagery.

The emotional and political, impact of the partition unhinged him. He wrote: "The partition...and the changes that followed, left feelings of revolt in me. I still have them but in the end I have accepted the fearful reality of what happened and have not allowed hope to abandon me". Manto stood opposed to all labeling—whether based on religion, class, ideology, race or colour. He said : "A human being is just a human being first and last".

Manto described independence as 'nationalism of mourning'. About the cultural Chasm, created by the partition, Manto recalls his dilemma:

'When I actually sat down to write, I found my mind divided. Inspite of trying hard, I could not separate India from Pakistan and Pakistan from India. The same puzzling questions rang repeatedly in my mind: Will the literature of Pakistan be different? If so, how? Who has claims to whatever was written in undivided India. Will that be divided too?...Will literature also be partitioned?"

'Toba Tek Singh', written after Manto came out of the lunatic asylum, is not only a great story on the theme, but also the best ever written. It is the most scathing indictment of the senselessness that prevailed in the subcontinent during partition. Had Manto been given the chance, he could have well chosen the fate of Bashan Singh, his protagonist, for himself. The story has one parallel in the mordern European history where philosopher Walter Benjamin, a German Jew, committs suicide (in 1940) on the border between Spain and France. Like Benjamin, Bashan Singh achieves ultimate marginality by dying on the border between two states, thus opting for neither.

The theme of duality of colonial discourse and despair over fixing identities, as explored in 'Toba Tek Singh', has fascinated writers, play wrights and historians alike. Dr. Brij Premi has translated this story into Kashmiri. It is included in his collection 'Varasat'. A few years back there was a move to change the name of the village Toba Tek Singh. The villagers held a protest, and argued: "how can we change the name of the person who gave water to the village".

Susana Devalle, a Spanish historian has compared Fanon's criticism of colonial discourse with that of Manto.

Manto intervened in spaces, where historians, social scientists failed to reach. The horror of the partition made Manto to write about violence in a critical and graphic way. He did not resort to pious posturing and observed violence without ideological blinkers or any communal prejudice. Unlike other writers who looked at the violence of the partition as an aberration and turned to the past for hope, Manto said partition was not an unfortunate rupture in historical time but a continuation of it.

He hated communalism and communal violence. Memories of Madness, his celebrated novel is based on his experience of riots in Rawalpindi. He was pained to see how ordinary, even sane people succumbed to insanity in frenzied times. He displays his ironic wit in his description of a communal riot in The Garland:

The mob suddenly veered to the left, its wrath now directed at the statue of Sir Ganga Ram, the great philonthropist of Lahore. One man smeared the statue's face with coal tar. Another strung together a garland of shoes and was about to place it around the great man's neck when the police moved in, guns blazing. The man with the garland of shoes was shot, and taken to the nearby Sir Ganga Ram Hospital".

Manto's narrative strategy in describing communal violence in 1947 did not depend on doing a all too familiar 'balancing act'. He wrote what he saw. 'Thanda Gosht' has been rated as the best piece of imaginative prose written about the communal violence of 1947.

Manto's World View :

Manto did not involve himself in politics, yet he was well-informed about international affairs. He was critical of US policy towards the subcontinent. In his 3rd letter to Uncle Sam, he displays his cutting wit both in chastising US and in taking a  Jab at the mullahs.

Manto was anti-war and in favour of liberty. He wrote, 'this atom bomb has shocked me out of my wits. Every activity appears to be meaningless! Soon after US dropped atom bomb in Hiroshima, Manto began appreciating spirituality. Previously, he had said that he was unconvinced about the existence of God.

Manto's migration :

Why did Manto migrate to Pakistan? This continues to baffle scholars. Partition destroyed him both emotionally and personally. Had he continued to stay on in Bombay, Manto would have lived longer. In Lahore he remained jobless all the time and passed his days in persecution, poverty and extreme frustration.

Manto has dropped hints about his migration in 'Saha'e', 'Murli Ki Dhun', 'Ashok Kumar' etc. No single cause could be attributed to the decision, which ruined him completely. He began ruing the decision the day he landed in Lahore. He longed for Bombay: 'That is the city I loved. That is the city I still love". Ahmed Rahi, his friend and Amritsar link said, 'Manto began to die the day he left Bombay'.

Manto's many relatives, including his family had left for Lahore, even before the partition. Secondly, he felt Urdu would have a better future in Pakistan and he would have a larger following there. Manto boasted : "If one Manto is born in Bombay, another will be in Lahore". He had also tried to prevail upon Ismat Chugatai, but she spurned his suggestion. Ironically, when Manto wanted to return to Bombay, he sought her help. She did not reply.

Lastly, Manto was an egoist and quarrelsome by nature, a subject that is being dealt with subsequently. When his film scripts were put aside for those of Nazir Ajmeri, Kamal Amrohi, Shahid Latif and Ismat Chugtai, Manto's ego was hurt. He himself accepts: "When I literally cut Nazir Ajmeri's story-which was filmed as Majbur-and tried to make some changes in it, Nazir Ajmeri admonished both Ashok and Vacha, "Don't involve Manto in such discussions. He is a story writer himself so he can't remain impartial. I thought about that a lot but couldn't understand it at all. In the end...I took a side street and came to Pakistan where my short story Thanda Gosht was put on trial."

It could not be denied that there was palpable communal tension in Bombay, as  elsewhere. The management of Bombay Talkies had been receiving threatening mail. But Upender Nath Ashk rightly asks: "Why these had no effect on Shahid Latif, Savak Vacha and Nazir Ajmeri...Manto used this as an excuse to leave. The fact, however, was that Manto could not stand lack of recogntiion..."During his last days in Bombay Manto felt quite lonely.

Manto's Hindu friends-top actors and directors tried to dissuade him from migrating because they felt film industry of Lahore stood in shambles and had no prospect of revival. Manto concedes that Ashok Kumar sought to convince him that threatening letters were just madness. It will pass".

Source: Kashmir Sentinel

  

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