A Hundred Years of Manto
“Here lies buried Saadat Hasan Manto in whose bosom are enshrined all the secrets and art of short story writing. Buried under mounds of earth, even now he is contemplating whether he is a greater short story writer or God.”
May 2012 will mark the hundredth birth anniversary of the man who wrote that epitaph for himself, Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955). One cannot help but compare Manto’s centennial to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s last year, preparations for which had begun much in advance. There seems to be an odd silence about Manto.
Where would we be without Manto? He died in 1955 but lives on in the hearts of millions of people in both Pakistan in India because his work has by now helped generations understand, and if I may say so, come to terms with the Partition of 1947 whose ghosts haven’t left us yet. Manto’s centrality in understanding Partition remains despite a growing body of historical research on the subject. We must be grateful, also, to all those who have translated and transliterated his work into English, Hindi and other languages. Much of his English translation, though not the best, is by his nephew Khalid Hasan, who passed away a few years ago.
He wrote, amongst a lot of other material, 200 short stories. The most famous is Toba Tek Singh, about the India-Pakistan exchange of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, set in a mental asylum in Lahore. Gratitude is due to those who invented YouTube, thanks to which one can hear the great Pakistani actor Zia Mohyeddin recite Toba Tek Singh:
In a tribute to the story, the Bollywood lyricist Gulzar once wrote these lines:
mujhe wagah pe toba tek singh wale ‘bishan’ se ja ke milna ha
suna ha woh abhi tak suuje paeroon per khada ha
jis jagah ‘munto’ne choda tha use
woh aab tak boodbadata ha
‘uppar di gur gur di moong di daal di laalten’
pata lena ha us pagal ka
oonchi daal per chad kar jo kehta hai
khuda hai woh use faisla karna hai kis ka gaon kis ke hisse mein ayega
woh kab ootrega apni daal se us ko batana ha
abhi kuch aur bhi dil hain k jin ko baantne ka, kaatne ka kaam zari hai
woh batwara toh pehle tha abhi kuch aur batware baki hain
mujhe wagah pe toba tek singh wale bishan se milna hai
khabar deni ha us ke dost afzal ko
woh ‘lehna singh’,’wadawa singh’ woh ‘bhen amrit’
woh saare qatl ho kar is tarf aye the
un ki gardnein saman hi mein lutt gayeein peeche
zabah kar de woh’bhoori’ ab koi leene na ayega
woh ladki ik oongli jo badi hoti thi her barah mahine mein
woh ab har ik bars ik pota pota ghatti rehti ha
batana ha k sab pagal poohche nahin apne thikanoon per
bahut se is taraf bhi hain bahut se us taraf bhi hai
mujhe wagah pe toba tek singh wala bishan aksar yehi keh ke bolata hai
“uppar di gurr gurr di moong daal di laltein di hinustan te pakistan di durr fithe moonh”
A translation by Anisur Rahman (from Translating Partition, Ed. Ravikant and Tarun K. Saint).
I’ve to go and meet Toba Tek Singh’s Bishan at Wagah
I’m told he still stands on his swollen feet
Where Manto had left him,
He still mutters:
Opad di gud gud di moong di dal di laltain
I’ve to locate that mad fellow
Who used to speak up from a branch high above:
He alone has to decide – whose village to whose side.”
When will he move down that branch
He is to be told:
“There are some more – left still
Who are being divided, made into pieces -
There are some more Partitions to be done
That Partition was only the first one.”
I’ve to go and meet Toba Tek Singh’s Bishan at Wagah,
His friend Afzal has to be informed -
Lahna Singh, Wadhwa Singh, Bheen Amrit
Had arrived here butchered -
Their heads were looted with the luggage on the way behind.
Slay that “Bhuri”, none will come to claim her now.
That girl who grew one finger every twelve months,
Now shortens one phalanx each year.
It’s to be told that all the mad ones haven’t yet reached their destinations
There are many on that side
And many on this.
Toba Tek Singhís Bishan beckons me often to say:
“Opad di gud gud di moong di dal di laltain di Hindustan te Pakistan di dur fitey munh.“
Marking the centennial, Tariq Ali pays tribute to the master:
Manto was amongst the few who observed the bloodbaths of Partition with a detached eye. He had remained in Bombay in 1947, where he worked for the film industry, but was accused of favoring Muslims and was subjected to endless communal taunts, even from those who had hitherto imagined to be like him, but the secular core in many people did not survive the fire. Manto came to Lahore in 1948, but was never happy. He turned the tragedies he had witnessed or heard into great literature. He wrote of the common people, regardless of ethnic, religious or caste identities and he discovered contradictions and passions and irrationality in each of them. In his work we see how normally decent people can, in extreme conditions, commit the most appalling atrocities. ‘Cold Meat’ is one such story.
In 1952 he wrote: “My heart is heavy with grief today. A strange listlessness has enveloped me. More than four years ago when I said farewell to my other home, Bombay, I experienced the same kind of sadness…” [Counterpunch]
Manto is a celebrated figure in Pakistan today – and if you do a YouTube search for his name the number of Pakistani news TV reports on his death anniversary will tell you that he is probably given more due in Pakistan than in India. Like this one in GEO news:
However, he also remains “unpalatable”. The Karachi-based scholar Ajmal Kamal has written a series of articles on the unpalatable Manto:
The Safety Act had well-known literary people on both sides. On the one hand, literary critics such as Muhammad Hasan Askari found the law perfectly justifiable — indeed, he went so far as to praise it in his column which appeared under the running title “Jhalkian” in the (obviously and openly anti-progressive) literary periodical Saqi — published from Delhi until June 1947, and subsequently from Karachi. On the other hand, there were writers and editors who were prosecuted under this law, Manto perhaps being the most prominent among them. Manto wrote a scathing piece against the Safety Act and the actions taken under it. [Link]
In the second piece, Kamal looks up the Urdu textbook for school students in Sindh to find that thy have included Manto’s story Naya Qanoon but have deleted some portions within:
I reproduce below — in italics — the portions of ‘Naya Qanoon’ that the great, respectable (and, no doubt, highly educated) minds manning the editorial committees dutifully serving the Sindh Textbook Board thought it necessary to delete from it texts, followed by my own comments as an attempt to understand the above-mentioned minds.
“One day he [Mangu] overheard a couple of his fares discussing yet another outbreak of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims.
“That evening when he returned to the adda, he looked perturbed. He sat down with his friends, took a long drag on the hookah, removed his khaki turban and said in a worried voice: “It is no doubt the result of a holy man’s curse that Hindus and Muslims keep slashing each other up every other day. I have heard it said by one of my elders that Akbar Badshah once showed disrespect to a saint, who cursed him in these words: ‘Get out of my sight! And, yes, your Hindustan will always be plagued by riots and disorder.’ And you can see for yourselves. Ever since the end of Akbar’s raj, what else has India known but riots!”
The entire second paragraph has been expunged. This is in line with the official policy to present the Hindu-Muslim riots in the erstwhile united India as a one-way affair and the Muslims as innocent victims and never as equal, or equally enthusiastic, partners in the game of riots. [The Express Tribune]
Kamal goes to to quote and analyse more expunged words from that story in his third column.
Manto was a problem for the best of people even during his lifetime, but amongst his defenders was Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz’. Ali Madeeh Hashmi writes in the Pakistani journal Viewpoint:
Soon though, his voice veered towards his chosen themes, relationships, the ‘mysterious working of the human psyche, the hidden (and often denied) motives behind human actions’ and the reactions of men and women to societal and established taboos. In this, he had more in common with the arch-opponents of the Progressives, the ‘Halqa-e Arbab-e Zauq’ (‘Circle of the friends of taste’) spearheaded by two other free spirits, the poets NM Rashed and Sana-Ullah Dar ‘Mira-ji’. Very soon, he was declared a ‘reactionary’ and a ‘modernist’, the terms used in opposition to ‘Progressive’ in those days. Manto himself defended himself against these charges ‘the biggest complication is about this Progressive literature although it shouldn’t be. Literature is either literature or not, Man is either Man or not, he cannot be a donkey or a house or a table. People say Manto is a Progressive, what rubbish. Saadat Hasan Manto is a human being and every human should be progressive….I am in favor of progress in all walks of life. I want this for everyone; you are students, I want you to progress till you reach your ideal’
Faiz defended Manto against the charges leveled against him by the Progressives, not necessarily because he admired Manto’s art and his convictions (which he did, to some extent) but because he believed that freedom of speech and expression was a basic human right and should be defended at all costs. He wrote ‘…some people (members of the Progressive movement) moved towards emotional extremism and because of this…we restricted our circle. On principle, we should have focused on the ideas of writers and artists, we should not have tried to interfere with their creativity. By doing this, we lost writers like Manto, Ismat (Chughtai) and Qurrat-ul-Ain Hyder to which I was opposed’. Ironically, Faiz, a maverick himself also later separated himself from the Progressive movement because of this same ‘meaningless extremism’ and what another Progressive historian and Faiz’ lifelong friend Sibte-Hasan, referred to as ‘literary terrorism’ on the part of the Progressives. [Full text]
It is not only Manto’s work but even his life that has become contentious for Pakistan:
When historian Ayesha Jalal said Manto became an alcoholic after migrating to Lahore from Bombay, some in the audience perhaps saw an anti-Pakistan narrative in the making. “That is stupid,” a middle-aged woman whispered to a much younger man sitting next to her. “That doesn’t make any sense. Manto was always an alcoholic,” the young man replied without looking at the woman. “That has nothing to do with Pakistan.” [Sajid Hussain]
To get some insight directly from Ayesha Jalal, listen to this interview of his niece Ayesha Jalal, who is also writing a biography of Manto. Jalal says in that interview how Manto’s non-fiction is equally important, and not just his letters to Uncle Sam that amazingly predicted the future of Pakistan-US relations.
In his third Letter to Uncle Sam, he wrote:
Uncle, I am surprised that I am still alive, although it is five years since I have been drinking the poison distilled here. If you ever come here, I will offer you this vile stuff and hope that like me you will also remain alive, along with your five freedoms. [Full text]
Manto did make peace with Partition even if he drank himself to death in Lahore. If there are any fellow-Indians who think of Manto as a Pakistani anti-hero, please read this letter of his to Nehru some months before he died, published as a preface to one of his books:
Between us Pundit brothers, do this: call me back to India. First I’ll help myself to shaljam shabdeg at your place and then take over the responsibility for Kashmiri affairs. The Bakhshis and the rest of them deserve to be sacked right away. Cheats of the first order. For no reason you’ve given them such high status. Is that because this suits you? But why at all…? I know you are a politician, which I am not. But that does not mean I don’t understand anything.
The country was partitioned. Radcliffe put Patel to do the dirty work. You’ve illegally occupied Junagarh, which a Kashmiri could do only under the influence of a Maratha. I mean Patel. (God forgive him!) [Full text]
While you’re at it, also read his take on the Hindi-Urdu debate. There can’t be a more succinct, scathing summary of the volumes that have been written on the subject.
Manto’s sister thought, perhaps wisely, that some in God’s own country may not have the sense of humour stomach a writer compare himself to God. She had the tombstone replaced with another that has these words: “Yahan Manto dafan hay jo aaj bhi ye samajhta hay kay wo loh-e-Jahan per harf-e-muqarar nahi tha (Here lies buried Manto who still believes that he was not the final word on the face of the earth).”
That revelation comes from Naila Inayat’s interview of Manto’s daughter Nighat, who speaks of life after his passing away:
For Safiyah [Manto’s wife] what the government of Pakistan did was more painful than his death. None of his published stories was rewarded. When my mother used to stop her from drinking Aba would say, “Safu gee tanu gadi wi koi masla nai huey ga” (you will never face any financial issues). He thought he was leaving so much behind that the family would never ever face any trouble but he was always banned. And interestingly, that’s still the case.
…today’s TV plays are showing everything, from physical intimacy to bold storylines. But none of his plays is adapted on TV. Ptv has done a few but none was a quality production. I don’t understand why anybody doesn’t want to do a Manto play – is it because of the ban that people are afraid to work on him. His story ‘Bu’ is so powerful, you get involved in its script, and I don’t see any vulgarity in it. [Viewpoint]