Manto: The rebel in Urdu literature
Urdu literature owes a huge debt of gratitude to Saadat Hasan Manto. He was one writer who did not believe in skirting around the issues or putting his expressions into symbolisms or arcane formulations. That much was evident in his short stories. You need to recall Khol Do (Open) or Bu (Odour) or Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat) to comprehend the social picture Manto was determined to sketch, especially against the background of the calamity that was 1947. Partition, for Manto as well as for millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in the subcontinent, was a monstrosity. Could it have been prevented? You do not come by easy answers to this loaded question. There is that certain feeling in you that had Chittaranjan Das or Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose been alive in 1947, history would be different, indeed that India would stay in one piece. Well, the fact is that Das and Bose were not there; and those who were proved incapable of rolling back the coming deluge, indeed caused it to happen. Nehru messed up things through his own interpretation of the Cabinet Mission Plan in July 1946. And Jinnah, who Tariq Ali thinks, with good reason, was a second-rate politician, simply did not have any clue about what he would do with Pakistan once it came to pass.
A million people died in the riots of 1946. Tens of thousands more lost their lives when the process of actual partition set in a year later. To Nehru it might have been a tryst with destiny. To those who died --- Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs --- as they passed one another on their way to their new homelands, on trains and in ancient villages, it was anything but. For Manto, partition was a deep wrenching of the heart. His heart was not in the thought of moving to Pakistan, but then there were the realities which suddenly leapt up before him, to convince him that he could not stay back. His friends, non-Muslims, urged him to stay back in India. And yet there is the story of another friend, again a non-Muslim, whose flippant remark that he could have killed Manto in the frenzy let loose by communalism worried the writer. Manto moved off to Pakistan in January 1948, a good many months after the vivisection had actually occurred. It was to Lahore that he relocated with his family. With so many other Muslims inclined to matters of an intellectual sort having already left their homes in India to be part of the Pakistan experiment, Manto initially believed that he could stamp his presence in the new country. His, after all, had been an assertive voice as a journalist, film scriptwriter and storyteller in undivided India. He worked for All India Radio. And movies such as Mirza Ghalib carried his imprint.
But none of that experience was to be of any consequence in Lahore. The state of Pakistan soon began to look upon Manto with concern, which concern turned to plain disdain as his fiction began to make the rounds. Toba Tek Singh was his high water mark, but it certainly did not endear him to Pakistanis, people who only till the other day were Indians, albeit under British colonial rule. His short stories were condemned as obscene, which only meant that he was compelled to move from one court to another defending his narratives. His run-ins with the Pakistani authorities had other ramifications. Those who in January 1948 had welcomed him to Pakistan with open arms now went out of their way to shun him. The kind of unquestioning patriotism he was expected to demonstrate toward Pakistan was simply not there in Manto. If the partition of India had been emblematic of darkness for him, a disturbing demonstration of collective madness, Pakistan was turning out to be no better. His works were swatted down as filth, to which he had a ready response: if his stories were filthy, it was because the society in which he and his countrymen lived was filthy. That kind of retort did not exactly open new doors of friendship for him. The extent to which his self-esteem had come under assault was to be noted when an individual presiding over a literary conference in Lahore asked Manto to leave the stage because what he was reading had become unpalatable to the man. Manto refused to leave and simply sat down defiantly on the stage, until his wife convinced him to come down.
And that was the supreme irony. A writer who had begun his literary journey through translating into Urdu the works of such masters as Victor Hugo, Chekhov, Wilde and Pushkin was slowly, painfully being buried alive by the state of Pakistan. You might raise that significant question here: why did Manto not turn his back on Pakistan and return to India? Perhaps he was asked this question a good number of times. And perhaps he had stayed silent. Perhaps he did not have the boldness in him, for reasons of family and society, to return to the old homestead. Qurratulain Hyder had gone back, after having made the mistake of moving to Pakistan at partition. Ismat Chughtai did not even think, not once, of relocating to Pakistan. Manto stayed on in Lahore, despite the intellectual poverty he saw strewn all over the place and despite the careful way in which Pakistani society shunned him. Ostracism led to that other difficulty, near penury in the face of his inability to have his works published. The man who had been initiated into soulful writing by the scholar Abdul Bari Alig, back in Amritsar long before the tragedy of partition, was now at the mercy of people for whom he wrote an essay or two or a story or two for a pittance. Manto's hair began to turn grey. His old humour, which once kept his admirers and friends enthralled, gave way to bitterness and plain argumentativeness on his part. Cheap alcohol consumed him, ever so slowly, and finally forced the life out of him in 1955 when he was less than forty three years of age.
In this bicentennial year of Manto's birth, it is proper to suppose that his contributions to Urdu literature gave it a vibrancy it had never had before. Manto did not romanticise life but saw it as an area with all its beauty and all its warts. He spotted sanity in the deranged; he found basic human decency in women forced into prostitution. Human nature, as his stories show all too well, is hardly anything to celebrate. Good neighbours suddenly pounce murderously on one another, as 1947 proved so conclusively. A state based on idealism could swiftly mutate into a bad symbol of cultural and religious intolerance, as his experience of Pakistan would attest to. His angry despair led him into writing a series of Open Letters to Uncle Sam. Even in those early days, Manto understood the leverage America would in time exercise over his adopted country. In one of the Letters, he makes his views clear:
'One more thing. We can't seem able to draft a constitution. Do kindly ship us some experts because while a nation can manage without a national anthem, it cannot do without a constitution, unless such is your wish.'
Manto succumbed to liver cirrhosis in 1955. A constitution would elude Pakistan for fourteen more months and then it would be subverted through the first of the military coups that would destroy the country.
Did Manto have a sense of how history would look upon him? A hundred years after his birth and fifty-seven years after his death, it is instructive to go back to the epitaph he wrote for himself:
Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried the arts of short-story telling. Here he lies underneath tons of mud still wondering if he was a better short-story writer than God.
(Saadat Hasan Manto was born on 11 May 1912 and died on 18 January 1955).