Art & Culture

Why Saadat Hasan Manto should not be read

Jairaj Singh
Jairaj SinghSep 05, 2015 | 18:57

Why Saadat Hasan Manto should not be read

True to his word, 60 years after Saadat Hasan's death, Manto continues to haunt us with a strange and morbid relish. As hard as we might try to forget him, newer collections of his short stories, essays and musings keep returning to bookshelves, in fancier covers and able translations, and we readily submit ourselves to wallow in the curls of smoke of his smouldering tales.

Perhaps, the biggest irony of it all is, had the great, controversial and self-deprecating Urdu writer been alive, or was suddenly brought back to life, he would've looked at both India and Pakistan, which now hold him in much awe and respect, and hung his head in utter horror and dismay. What became of his Bombay, he would ask, the city which inspired him to write films, lives of stars and disrobed itself to reveal its filth and scars, with such flourish and brio? Why the hell do we call it Mumbai?

Where would he even begin?

Manto, perhaps, would be found slobbering drunk at hallowed literature festivals. Or shouting the choicest of Punjabi obscenities and shaking an angry fist at news anchors on 9pm debates. Jostling for column space to write "misogynistic" pieces along with a Mrs Funny Bones, or being browbeaten by publishers, waxing eloquent on the difference between "best writer" and "bestselling writer".

In all likelihood, I imagine, he would fall sick after being heckled on social media, tagged as a #libturd or #sickular, and chased all over the countryside by Hindu fundamentalists, threatening to send him back to Pakistan, to go and lie in his rotting grave again. The mullahs would, no doubt, be only too happy to see him tossed back in Lahore. It is, after all, easier today to gun down schoolchildren than to ban books. If only we were to let him be, we would be better off. But we are as much to blame for having bitten this bitter fruit. There's no one better to remind us of this "fraud" than Manto himself.

For someone who only lived 43 years, Manto left a tome of work behind: 22 collections of short stories, one novel, five collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches, and many film scripts. His fierce candour - something we see so little of in contemporary writers - subjected him to much ridicule, hardship and persecution. He was tried six times for obscenity, thrice during the British Raj and thrice post Independence.

Despite the intrigue his name lends, it is tragic that Manto broadly falls under the tag of being a writer of stories on Partition and prostitutes today - a point translator Muhammad Umar Memon raises in the introduction of his newly released My Name is Radha. He writes, "The present selection seeks to correct this reductionist impression of a writer who is concerned more with the unique substance of his characters than with social problems and political events as the mainstay of his creative work."

His stories, for me though, are of a mottled hue; of unflinching honesty and iridescent vigour; a broken mirror or a muddy puddle that couldn't help cast a reflection on not only a violent, brutal and turbulent chapter of India, but bare the very nakedness of human nature. In them you not only find themes of killing, slaughter and rape, but also of lust, squalor, depravity and perversion. His essays delve into facing persecution, self ridicule, depression, being broke, helplessness, drinking, Hindi cinema, satire, irony, hypocrisy, sadness, strife and moral decay. These are not some stories of a detached and inscrutable past, they are tales of madness and rage that lurk under a garb that we put on, as we present our smiles in this "normal" world of ours, threatened only by chaos and exposed only rarely by an omniscient media. These stories are about us, about who we are, and who we cannot hide from.

My own introduction to Manto was, like most people, through his short story "Toba Tek Singh", which was a part of my first year Delhi University English Honours course. Said to be inspired by Manto's own experience in a mental asylum, it is about the toll the news of Partition has on the inmates of an institution and the concern it raises about their own ambivalent fates. It tells the story of Bishen Singh, who hasn't slept for years, fraught with madness and melancholy, wondering whether his hometown is in Pakistan or India. I have read the story over many times since and the end still sends a chill down my spine. His other stories are no less chilling. In "Khol Do", an anguished father is overjoyed to find his daughter alive on a hospital bed at a refugee camp, unaware of what she has had to endure. In "Thanda Gosht" a Sikh man returns home from a round of killing, only to be stabbed by his suspecting wife during sex, when he confesses to raping a beautiful corpse. In "Siraj", Dhondo, a pimp, has a mental breakdown of sorts when a difficult prostitute he attends to, opens the door for him, nude.

"If you find these stories intolerable," Manto once famously said, "it must mean that we live in an intolerable age."

At his truest, Manto is an anomaly, a cipher. For someone who is hailed as one of Urdu's finest writers, he would be the first to admit that he flunked the subject in school. His battle for supremacy as a short story writer was with none less than God, yet he was deeply broken to face rejection by the same Progressive Writers' Association that hailed him as one of its own. Though Bombay was his city, he died, bitter, broke and hurt, in Lahore.

In an essay, "Manto on Manto", shortly before he succumbed to cirrhosis of liver, he wrote: "Manto's short-story writing is a result of the clash between two factors. His father (may he rest in heaven) was extremely harsh and his mother had a very tender heart... Although it is said of Manto that he speaks the truth, I am not prepared to buy that. He is a thief, a liar, a cheat and a man who likes to hold forth before others..."

If one must read Manto to truly appreciate him, I feel, one must read him in Hindi. (The Urdu Manto wrote in is not dissimilar to the Hindi we read today.) It is only then that the visceral imagery of tales will sear our consciousness.

Perhaps it is good that Manto is dead. Even better that he is not read. What good does it serve that even though the world has moved on, we are still stuck in the quagmire of ignorance, fear, communalism and hate. Neither Pakistan nor India deserves him. There, in the tiny strip between the two countries marred by cross-border firing, let it be known, lies Saadat Hasan Manto.

Last updated: May 11, 2016 | 11:57
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