Take him away, Lord, for he chases after filth : Manto@100

Vidyarthee Chatterjee

Saadat Hasan Manto: May 11, 1912 – January 18, 1955

If Saadat Hasan Manto had been living, he would have been a centenarian this year, thirty-five years older than the Indian nation he loved deeply and which he did not wish to leave for an unknown land called Pakistan, but had to under tragic circumstances. As Ahmed Rahi, a close friend, said in April 1990 at Lahore in course of a conversation with other friends of Manto: “In my opinion, Manto began to die the day he set foot in Pakistan.”

Manto who? That would have been the reaction of even a well-read person if you had mentioned the writer’s name two decades ago. But no longer. In fact, these days it is fashionable to drop his name at least once in course of an intense literary evening brought to life by alcohol and cigarette fumes.

Be that as it may, Penguin India deserve our thanks for bringing out more than one anthology of Manto’s short stories which should go some way in familiarizing the interested reader with the writer who, in a short and turbulent life of forty-three summers, established himself as one of the pillars of modern Urdu fiction along with the likes of Krishan Chander, Ishmat Chughtai and Rajinder Singh Bedi.

Saadat Hasan Manto was born in Sambrala in Punjab’s Ludhiana district on 11 May, 1912. He was of Kashmiri stock which once made him write a hilarious letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, calling him a ‘fellow-Kashmiri’ and calling himself a ‘Pandit’ like India’s first Prime Minister. In a literary career spanning no more than two decades, Manto wrote more than two hundred short stories. He also tried his hand at writing plays and essays, but it is chiefly on his short stories that his enormous reputation as a literary artist and the scarred conscience of his tragic times, rests.

In a country such as ours, where it is customary not to speak of one’s own in the highest of terms, however deserving he or she might be, it is saying quite a lot, as many knowledgeable literary people have been doing for some time now, that many of Manto’s short stories would easily walk into any anthology of the world’s best. Toba Tek Singhor Thanda Gosht (Colder thn Ice) or Khol Do (The Return) are just three of the many masterpieces he wrote about the partition, which may have helped some people on either side of the divide to further their political careers, but left millions in the cold in a psychological no-man’s-land.

Manto has been known in select circles in India and Pakistan for some time, but the day has now surely dawned for his reputation to spread to the four corners of the earth. Manto died a few months short of his forty-third birthday, on 18 January1955, in Lahore, broken in body but unhumbled in spirit and unfathomable in his love and understanding for the wretched of the earth, counting himself as the first and foremost among them.

Salman Rushdie thinks that Manto is ‘the undisputed master of the modern Indian short story’. (It is possible that Rushdie is not familiar with, say, Manik Bandopadhyay, or the Malayalam master, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer). It is worth noting that both Manto and Rushdie suffered persecution and social ostracism, albeit in different forms and in different conditions, for being true to themselves in matters of social and religious thought, as indeed in literary taste and manner of expression.

Manto wrote with cruel and heartrending accuracy about characters drawn from the lower depths of Bombay, where he was involved in the film industry writing stories and dialogues for Hindi films. Many of his characters owed their misfortunes to the partition, as also to the ways of so-called men of god who seemed to Manto to possess little or no godliness. Like Manik Bandopadhyay, Manto was seized with an obsessive compulsion to delineate the brutal and often bizarre relationship between sex, religion and violence.

In the process, Manto incurred the implacable wrath of both the State and the Church in newly-formed theocratic Pakistan. His writings were accused of being blasphemous, obscene and unpatriotic. The mullahs and their followers, as well as those who saw their political destiny in the Muslim League, read meanings into Manto’s short stories which suited them but which he had never intended. The artist was deliberately distorted and disfigured, his art vulgarized and vilified. But there was no way that Manto would be diminished in his own assessment or in that of his genuine readers. Till the very end of his short and poverty-racked life, Manto wrote only what he believed in, unafraid and unrelenting.

At this point, a brief digression is perhaps necessary. Those of us in this subcontinent who never cease to admire – and rightly so – the stories of Maupassant, Balzac, Gogol, Chekhov or Edgar Allan Poe, would do well to spare some time for this neglected genius of the short story as it grew and developed on our own soil. Verily has it been said: Seek the universal in the local. For, if one fails to appreciate Life and its creatures in all their diversities and complexities as they exist on one’s own doorstep, what sense would one be able to make of their varied manifestations in the vast world without?

Manto deserves our time and our energies for he is truly one of the originals of modern Urdu literature, now thankfully available to a pan-Indian audience as a result of some competent translations into English, preceded by equally able exertions in several Indian languages, notably Hindi and Bangla. In this regard, Manto’s perceptive translator, Khalid Hasan, has observed: “ Saadat Hasan Manto, little of whose work is known outside India and Pakistan, remains by any reckoning one of the world’s major short story writers.”

Manto’s confidence in himself as a literary artist capable of conjuring apocalyptic visions through the stories of lacerated loners in times quiet or confused, was Himalayan. Even though he received from the general run of society little that was encouraging, Manto seems to have felt secure in the knowledge that he was leaving behind him a body of work that would stand the test of time and competition of the highest order. As much is conveyed by his epitaph, written by him a year before his untimely and painful death, which can and has been interpreted differently by different people. His parting words were as follows: “Here lies Saadat 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 better short story writer than God.” Khalid Hasan informs us that the epitaph does not appear on his gravestone in Lahore because of his family’s fears that it would enrage the orthodox and the clergy.

Again, we do not know whether a tongue-in-cheek prayer that Manto wrote was ever uttered in public by the writer or anyone else. As anyone with the rare ability to fool around or flirt with the Divine Being will appreciate, the prayer was composed more in jest than in earnest. Joking with God or his self-appointed representatives on earth can be serious business as Manto discovered to his amusement more than once. Manto’s prayer is short, funny and memorable: “Dear God, Master of the Universe, Compassionate and Merciful: we who are steeped in sin kneel in supplication before your throne and beseech you to recall from this world Saadat Hasan Manto, son of Ghulam Hasan Manto, who was a man of great piety.” The prayer continues: “Take him away, Lord, for he runs away from fragrance and chases after filth. He hates the bright sun, preferring dark labyrinths. He has nothing but contempt for modesty, but is fascinated by the naked and the shameless. He hates sweetness, but will give his life to taste bitter fruit. He will not so much as look at housewives, but is in seventh heaven in the company of whores. He will not go near running waters, but loves to wade through dirt. Where others weep, he laughs; and where others laugh, he weeps. Faces blackened by evil, he loves to wash with tender care to make visible their real features.” The prayer ends as only Manto can end: “He never thinks about you but follows Satan everywhere, the same fallen angel who once disobeyed you.”

Obviously, all the slings and arrows of life in Pakistan and in India before he forced himself to cross over to the other side, were not enough to rob the great artist of his irrepressible sense of humour; his cockiness and his capacity for self-mockery in a language that is not always easy to penetrate, tether as it does between horseplay and word-play; and his love of the absurd as a vehicle to express his unflinching commitment to lasting human values. Neither the clerics nor the political conmen of the newly-fashioned ‘land of the pure’ could take away from him his deep confidence in his own worth as a chronicler of, and commentator on, his times and his fellow-beings.

But there were moments when even Manto was compelled to feel lonely, such as when court cases kept piling up against him for allegedly scurrilous writing. Manto was tried for writing ‘obscene’ stories three times before Independence and three times after Pakistan came into being. In all the six cases, he was ultimately acquitted but not before he had been made to face hell on earth in each case. It is almost certain that the writer’s loneliness would have been even more if a section of the liberal intellectuals of the time had not come to his defence.

However, there is more to be said on this count. The isolation in which Manto found himself at times, was due to several factors. One was his addiction to the bottle, which ate into not just the vitals of his frail frame but also the little he earned from his writings which were well ahead of his times; the second was the virulent opposition to his stories and other writings by powerful sections of conservative society; and finally, his refusal to be drawn into any formal body of artists and intellectuals.

Here, it may not be out of context to quote Manto’s wife, Safia, ‘who stayed by his side through good times and bad’. On 6 April 1968, she wrote to one of Manto’s Indian biographers: “(Manto) was always treated unjustly by everyone. The truth is that he had no intention of leaving India, but a few months before Partition, Filmistan (the Bombay production company where he was employed) handed him a notice of termination and that, believe me, broke his heart. For a long time, he kept it hidden from me because he was proud of his friendship with Mr. Mukherjee (owner of the company) and Ashok Kumar (the actor). So how could he tell me that he had been served with a notice? That was when he started drinking heavily, which in the end claimed his life. I had come over earlier; he came in January 1948. While he was alone in Bombay, his drinking got completely out of hand. Here his life was full of worries. You can yourself imagine the state he was in and if it was conducive in any sense. His health had also become poor. But one thing he did. He wrote prodigiously, almost a story a day, until the day he died. That is all I know.”

True, alcoholism added to Manto’s physical and financial worries, and hastened his end, but ironically it provided him with flesh-and-blood characters and situations credible to the extent of being unbearable. These he effortlessly wove into his stories with the mastery that is given to very few. Drinking is often used as a metaphor in his stories, indicating release from the chains of a suffocating social order that frowned at anyone who failed to or refused to conform to standards set down by it. Manto’s opponents were able to make impressionable people believe that he was a characterless heathen and the opposite of a nationalist and a patriot, all the while harping on his drinking and his allegedly obscene writings. Even after the law courts had acquitted him, there remained the intractable problem of how to get his worst critics to abstain from their favourite pastime of Manto-baiting. Quite conveniently, the critics made no mention of the writer’s scrupulous honesty in his dealings with people, his generosity of spirit, and his belief that if humanity is to triumph, human beings must defeat superstition and abuse of the poor and the unlettered.

One would have thought that a man of Manto’s egalitarian temperament and unshakeable commitment to the oppressed would have automatically opted for life membership of one or more of the organisations of Leftist writers and intellectuals which held sway in Bombay of the 1940s. But no such thing happened, for Manto was nothing if not his own boss. His inherent distrust of labels, dogmas and political ideologies prevented him from coming too close to so-called progressive writers and artists. In their turn, those bodies which counted in its ranks intellectuals with a marked Moscow tilt, maintained a safe distance from freethinkers like Manto. Many of Manto’s contemporaries have written about how he chose to be his own lord and master and, even as he had cordial terms with many a Leftist, he consciously and deliberately distanced himself from marked political creatures. However, on hindsight, it seems that perhaps the active comradeship of the progressives might have lessened the isolation which Manto was gradually forced into. In the end, only by an extraordinary performance of will, combined with the magical strength of his genius, was he able to transcend that gnawing isolation.

Writing on this aspect of Manto, the Delhi writer and scholar Tarannum Riyaz has observed: “Manto’s writings have certain features which accord them a distinct identity and a different complexion. Sometimes his writings seem to be full of contradictions. However, a careful reading of his works reveals that there is a philosophical continuity to his writings. Manto appears to be quite impressed by socialism, but he does not recognize it as the prescription for the political and economic problems of India. He refuses to endorse any particular political ideology. Nevertheless, he has a sharp political and social consciousness which helps him to develop his ‘liberal’ attitudes… Manto does not raise slogans, nor does he trade politics in the name of literature… It is a sad commentary on the history of Urdu literature in India that Manto did not receive the recognition that was due to him merely because some prominent progressive writers dismissed him as a reactionary.”

The single most important feature of Manto’s life and legacy is his opposition to the concept of overlordship, regardless of the source from which it emanated – whether it was the State, the socio-religious establishment, political ideologies and political parties, or the intellectual fraternity. He possessed an open mind on every subject under the sun; an open heart whose principal enemy was meanness and backbiting; and a tongue that freely, if not always judiciously, articulated, often in public, what went on in the sacred space between his ears. Manto’s reaction to being called a reactionary was characteristically Mantoesque – unapologetic, unsparing: “I greatly detested the so-called communists. I could not appreciate people who talked about ‘the sickle and the hammer’ while sitting in comfortable armchairs. In this connection, comrade Sajjad Zaheer, who sipped his milk in a silver cup, always remained a clown in my eyes. The true psychology of working labourers is manifested in their sweat. Maybe, the people who used this sweat to earn wealth, and used it as ink to write detailed manifestoes, are sincere people. However, you will pardon me, if I consider them to be imposters.”

If Manto had no use for “these charlatans (who) were using the prescription proposed by Kremlin and were busy preparing a mixture of literature and politics”, the deep-seated humanist in him was also alarmed with the creeping American influences on the society and polity of infant Pakistan. In one of his nine letters addressed to Chacha Sam (Uncle Sam), written in a satirical vein and full of insight, Manto predicted: “We will have buses fitted with American tools. We will have Islamic pajamas stitched by American machines. We will have clods of earth ‘untouched by hands’ from the American soil. We will have American folding stands for the Holy Quran and American prayer mats. Keep watching Uncle, you will find everyone singing your praises.”

For someone who was thought to be politically naïve by the progressives, Manto saw through the games of both Moscow and Washington very early on. It was the era of the Cold War and the two newly-independent countries were thought to be fertile ground for ‘political picking’. Manto may not have been involved in politics at any stage of his life, but it was the height of absurdity on the part of his all-knowing critics to claim that the writer was innocent of political ground realities. In a sense, it was the awareness which saved him from being predictable and uncreative after a while – a fate that was in store for many of his contemporaries.

In conclusion, it is argued by Manto aficionados that he turned out to be the kind of person he was largely due to his association with the Bombay film industry. The wantonness, the search for refinement of style and other expressions of creativity, the urge for absurd flights of fancy, and the nerve-racking insecurity commonly associated with the film industry, combined slowly but surely to sharpen his intellect and shape his social awareness. So, when many years after his death, Mrinal Sen chose to film a story by Manto, he was in fact paying his homage to an undeservedly maligned genius who was as much at home in the world of letters as he was in that of the moving image. That Antareen, that Sen film, was a hopeless flop, is a different story altogether.

If Manto was allowed to have his way, he would never have left Bombay. And had he lived a little longer, he would have wholeheartedly endorsed the words and sentiments in the hit song in the film CID: Aye dil haye mushqil jeena yahan / zara hatkey zara bachkey / yeh haye Bombai meri jaan.

(This article will appear in the next issue of little magazine Samayantar

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