In a small city in the municipal limits of Ludhiana district in India May 11 was a big occasion. People including intellectuals gathered to remember perhaps the most outstanding son of the soil—Sa’adat Hasan Manto and indeed the greatest Urdu/Hindustani short story writer of all times.
The event was organized by Lekhak Manch Samrala which was attended by various literary groups and villagers of Paproudi — the birth place of the celebrated writer. While Samralains celebrated Manto Sahib’s 107th birth anniversary, there was not much of news of any significant literary gathering on his life and works in Lahore where he died in poverty in 1955.
Much like the phrase curiosity kills the cat, in our youth we all went for Manto Sahib’s writings, keeping his books in the closet like ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ only to be reprimanded severally when caught by elders for hiding and reading ‘obscene literature’. As youngsters we used to regularly follow Manto’s trial for obscenity. He was charged with obscenity for writing and publishing ‘Upar, Neeche aur Darmiyan’. His trial court was presided by District & Sessions Judge Mehdi Ali Siddiqui—a very learned individual with grace and great understanding of social bearings that were present in the society at the time of partition. Most of Manto’s life in Pakistan was spent in courts and controversy for ‘obscenity and what was considered as pornographic content’ in his writings.
His trial before Mehdi Ali Siddiqui sahib was much like Lord Byron’s, too much reference to sex in it. His short stories were almost prohibited to be read by people less than 18 years of ago. In his observation Judge Siddiqui was of the view that the intention of law was not to obstruct literature from fulfilling its objectives and expectations; it only required that these objectives be beneficial for human beings. If the sole purpose of writing is not to benefit humankind but only to titillate and sexually excite, and the vocabulary and content are such that they will entangle the weak-willed in the mesh of sexual gratification and degeneration, the law will brand such writing as obscene.
Indeed, Manto Sahib was gifted with a pen that had the bearing of a surgeon’s knife. His short stories were really short, razor like in their bite, loaded with sarcasm that could shake one’s conscience out of coma truly reflecting in one of the self-chosen epitaphs: “Here lies Sa’adat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and mysteries of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, wondering if he is a greater short story writer than God.” He had the infinite capacity in using the creative power of the mind in capturing various aspects of socio-moral ethos in a society like ours now hitting the rock bottom of degeneration.
Manto understood the moral and ethical vicissitudes of a society like a mother does of her child. Nudity was there all the way, he would like to mirror it but not cover it up. He believed that truth must be told as it is and not dressed up with niceties to sound decent. Perhaps that was his crime of obscenity in his writings that made Mehdi Ali Siddiqui impose a fine of Rs 25 on him for being that in his short story ‘‘Upar, Neeche aur Darmiyan’.’
Being himself born with a disturbed childhood, Manto Sahib understood better than most social, moral and ethical moorings of the aftermath of partition as manifested in the psychoanalytical fallout that continues to devastate the lives of our people. “Whether he was writing about prostitutes, pimps, or criminals, Manto wanted to impress on his readers that these disreputable people were also human, much more so than those who cloaked their failings in a thick veil of hypocrisy,” says Ayesha Jalal –niece of Manto– in The Pity of Partition — Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India–Pakistan Divide. “Manto was fiercely individualistic and self-confident. If these traits can be credited to the indulgence of a doting mother and sister, the steely discipline of an authoritarian father served as a catalyst for Saadat’s rebellious nature,” observed Jalal.
Manto had a versatile pen and an imagination that regularly pricked human conscience where the flesh was most sensitive. He was one of the top progressive writers of the age who revolted against obscurantism and bigotry. After brief stay in Aligarh Muslim University he moved to Bombay in 1936 as the editor of a weekly film magazine Musawwir (Artist) and was known to have made an early ingress in Bollywood as a script writer for movies.
His salary as editor was just Rs 40 a month barely leaving him enough to run house and buy his large quantity of alcoholic consumption, his frugal but faithful wife Safia did wonder of a household management without seeking help for any one. Professor Ayeshsa Jalal remembers he was fond of expensive fountain pens and had a fetish for good shoes. He collected them and was also generous in giving them away to his friends, relieves and the shoeless. As a practising proletariat he believed in sharing whatever he had. To him sharing was caring.
Come 1948, cold war swung in and Pakistan became its first victim. Instead of finding roots for democracy and putting into action founder’s vision of establishing an egalitarian society where every one of its citizen was to be equal irrespective of caste, creed or gender and where religion had nothing to do with the business of the state, Manto Sahib was the first one to foresee threat of Mulla, America and military alliance replacing Quaid’s dream of a welfare being with that of a security state. At this juncture when to be progressive was anathema to American imperialistic geo-strategic interests, he took up his biting pen to write his Shikwa in his iconic Letters to Uncle Sam. “My name is Sa’adat Hasan Manto and I was born in a place that is now in India. My mother is buried there. My father is buried there. My first-born is also resting in that bit of earth. “However, that place is no longer my country. My country now is Pakistan which I had only seen five or six times before as a British subject,” he wrote. Here he has no place to call his home. Imagine how badly our security agencies must have treated this diminutive but handsome man with long hair.
Mehdi Ali Siddiqui recalled his first day presence in his court and seeing him look distressed and sick offered him a seat. For Manto Sahib this was an act of kindness until than rare, he could not reconcile with this gesture and asked Siddiqui Sahib—“Are you a Muhjair?— You must be learned too?’’. In his letters to Uncle Sam he forecast for the country an existence of servitude. How true! Our current rulers and the Establishment have sold us out to IMF or yet another name for neo-East India Company– for less than ten million dollars.
Manto did not surrender his rebellious nature to speak truth under legal, social or state coercion. His true spirit echoes in his short stories Toba Tek Singh, where the protagonist finds himself without a place to call home, and Tetwal ka Kutta. Social subjects that he was drawn to stirred the hornets nest , dragged him scandals for writing about prostitutes in Kali Shalvar and in Boo andThanda Ghosht, he unveils sexual perversions like necrophilia.
Indeed, Manto was right to assert in his writing that Partition had brought out the worst evil in the people—irrespective of their caste, creed or colour. Manto was tried for obscenity in his short stories Kali Shalvar, Dhooan, Boo, Thanda Ghosht and Upar, Niche Aur Darmiyan. Judge fined him Rs 25, and said to him, “Manto sahib, I consider you a great short-story writer of our time. The reason I wanted to get together with you was that I didn’t wish you to go back thinking that I am not an admirer.”
In his A Tale of 1947, Manto was severely critical about the reality of Partition. “…the Hindus who murdered one hundred thousand Muslims may rejoice at the death of Islam when actually Islam has not been affected in the least bit. Those who think religion can be hunted down with guns are stupid. Religion, faith, belief, devotion are matters of the spirit, not of the body. Knives, daggers, and bullets cannot destroy religion,” he wrote. His writings captured the sub-continental ethos of love and hate. As Prof Ishtiaq Ahmed says Manto’s indictment of the senseless partition violence is proverbial as satired in ‘Toba Tek Singh’.
As I was trying to wind up my piece on Manto Sahib whose contribution to Urdu literature was as vast as seven seas I came across an article by my Guru—I.A. Rehman (Jan 24, 2019) raising the question of ban in Pakistan on the film Manto made in Bollywood by outstanding Nandita Das, actress-turned-director. Instead of conveying our cultural gratitude to her for making an excellent movie on the immortal writer, Imran Khan’s government banned its screening. As IAR said the decision was as bad and as indefensible as it could be. I think it is truly reflective of his own retarded mental capacity and that of his team who would prefer to vulgar dance on the tankers but not allow Manto’s truth.
Nandita in her movie underscores Manto’s religious commitment to telling the society the truth that it does not want to face. Must give her credit for drawing out in its totality the human being in Manto sahib, his love and treatment of his faithful wife, their suffering daughters and as well the hungry, dirty street urchins who pick up morsels of discarded food from the waste dumps to live to another day. It is right to say that Nandita Das has captured the might of Manto’s pen on celluloid. Indeed, that should be a threat to the status quo.