If there is a rare breed of people who increasingly gain in stature the more they get away from us, Sa’adat Hasan Manto can undeniably be a claimant for this select club. Though he was not even 43 by the time he left this world (18 January 1955), he is so far the best chronicler we have of the Great Tragedy the world witnessed in the mid- 1940s — preceding and following the Partition this country was subjected to.
Take the case of one of his later creations, Toba Teksingh, which many consider to be the best creative writing on the theme of Partition. As a matter of fact, the Partition affected four linguistic groups — those speaking Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi and Bengali. Yet in all these four languages so far, there seems to be no other writing that could match Toba Teksingh in the depth or intensity of feelings, and it is generally said that here Manto is reaping the crop below the ground. Therefore, when the late Bhisham Sahni of Tamas fame edited in Hindi a collection of short stories on the theme of Partition and titled it Kitne Toba Teksingh!, certainly there was nothing surprising in it.
Yet, Manto’s status as the chronicler of Partition does not rest on Toba Teksingh alone. Even before the country was divided, at a time when the demand of Pakistan was being stridently raised and when the atmosphere in the country was getting increasingly vitiated, Manto wrote Mutari (which was what a public urinal was called in Mumbai in those days), showing his disgust with the communal groups on both sides of the divide. Though the scene of action in this one-page story is quite an unusual one, and even though the style of narration is not palatable to the bhadralok’s taste, Mutari showed Manto at his elemental best. Thus did he embark on the art of writing exceedingly small stories that enabled him subsequently to create a series of no less piercing mini and micro stories; these we see in his collection titled Syah Hashiye (Dark Margins).
No less importantly, Mutari also showed how Manto was moving to have in his grip the literary technique that we would prefer to call the Chekhovian Paradox. What does the great Anton Chekhov do in his stories like Uncle Vanya, Death of a Clerk or Chameleon? He narrates the story in a very jovial mood, makes it as funny as possible, but what is the result in the end? The reader feels a surge of pain. Let’s put it this way — Chekhov’s intention is to create tragedy precisely when his pretension is to create comedy. We live a similar experience in Mutari and also some other stories, for instance, the post-Partition Titwal ka Kutta (Titwal’s Dog).
The story Akhiri Saloot (Last Salute) shows Manto’s grip on the technique called stream of consciousness, subjecting Rab Nawaz, a soldier, to great perplexity as to where he stands — if he belongs to the army of Pakistan and is fighting against the Indian Army, how come he was part of the same Indian Army not very long ago? However, while Manto finally brings Nawaz to the conclusion that a soldier must not think about such finer points, rather he should be thick-headed as “only a thick-headed can make a good soldier”; the tragic death of his childhood friend, Ram Singh, brings out in full glare the horrors of Partition for soldiers of the two sides. No less ruthlessly than Nangi Awazen (Naked Sounds) does in case of the refugees.
That all these stories were written when Manto was living his last days in Lahore, in a state of misery, as the establishment of the newly created country was either avoiding him like the plague or harassing him at other times, shows how he had all along refused to change his views on the country’s vivisection.
Here comes to mind a sequence in Toba Teksingh, in which the asylum inmates are worried whether they are in India or Pakistan. It is in this situation that one of the inmates asks another: “What thing, after all, this Pakistan is?” And then the other one solemnly replies, after an amount of serious thinking: “It is a place in India where usture (old-style razors with wooden handles) are made.”
But, was it just a joke cracked by a known maverick? In fact, this was Manto’s own way of underscoring the existential meaninglessness of the very two-nation theory that led to the creation of Pakistan, and Manto wrote these lines in the very city where the Muslim League had adopted its Pakistan resolution in 1940.
Deserving special mention among Manto’s creations are his nine Letters to Uncle Sam, and one is amazed to see what kind of foresight he had. Manto lived only seven years, five months and three days after the country’s independence and vivisection, but in this very small time period he very clearly saw whither the newly created Pakistan was going under the Yankee tutelage.
These letters are not only high art but eye-opening, as they deal with the imperialist politics in Iran (the overthrow and arrest of President Mohd Mossadiq was then a recent episode), Africa and other parts of the world. As for the style of his letter writing, we would quote just one instance: In the fourth letter to Uncle Sam, he advises the latter, “Uncle, hold the Mullah (Muslim cleric) tight in your loving embrace as he is the best antidote to Russia’s communism” in Pakistan. And we are constrained to say that Uncle Sam did hold the Mullah tight in his loving embrace; it is another thing that this very embrace has now brought Pakistan to the brink of a precipice.
To be true to facts, however, Manto was a chronicler not only of the great tragedy called Partition. He was no less seriously concerned with the tragedy that permeated the very life of common people in the streets of Delhi, Mumbai and Lahore. Whether it is the pimp Khushia or third-grade prostitutes like Sugandhi or Rukhsana, be it a tonga driver Mangu or an ordinary worker like Keso Lal, all of them — and many others like them — find a voice for their travails in Manto’s writings. In Na’ra (Slogan/Loud Cry), which has Keso Lal as its central character, Manto underlined, as sharply as one could, the excruciating class inequalities of our society, and here he is far above those who always decried him as a pornographer but who themselves never offered us anything better than trash propaganda in the name of art.
As far as the charge of pornography is concerned, hindsight tells us that, in vision and values, Manto was far ahead of his contemporaries who could not stomach his style of description; in reality, otherwise, today’s films and TV operas are far more open than Manto ever was. Take the case of Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat) that was at the centre of one of the five court cases that Manto suffered in about one-and-a-half decades of his literary career. While the style of description here too reminds us of his grip on Chekhovian Paradox, it is only the description that his detractors concentrated upon; none of them took the trouble to think of what fate befell Issar Singh, a rioter, and that too precisely because of his own action. If we go by the original Greek definition of tragedy, that you do something with an aim in mind but the opposite happens or that you strive to avoid a particular situation but your own action brings that very situation nearer, didn’t Issar Singh suffer a tragedy par excellence? He kidnaps a girl, wants to get his lust satisfied, but this very action leaves him… what? An impotent. Which serious reader of Manto would ever dare to commit such a crime? Is this pornography?
But if Manto was among the first-rank chroniclers of human tragedy, his own life was no less tragic, and more so in the last part of his life, after he moved from Mumbai to Lahore. While the establishment of Pakistan made his life miserable, the purveyors of progressive thought used the most retrograde standards while judging him. Nay more, non-literary ways were also adopted; for example, none of his books was ever included in the consignments of books that were exported to the socialist bloc countries. However, by Joe, Manto was not the only one to receive this kind of treatment; the great Hindi poet Muktibodh received the same kind of treatment at the hands of literary minnows.
One of those who intensely diagnosed Manto’s tragedy was Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was in jail when Manto died. In a letter to his wife Alys, written from Montgomery (Sahiwal) Jail on 18 January 1955, Faiz says the gentry of our age, who do not know the heartbreak of our artists and do not have any sympathy with them, would say that it was Manto’s own fault, that he boozed heavily, lived a bohemian life and had ruined his health. It was in the same way that Keats, Mozart and some others killed themselves. But no one would think why they did so. The fact is that when art and life are face to face with each other because of societal conditions, someone sacrifices one of these two things and someone sacrifices a part of each, while some others bring the two together to create a situation of struggle, which only great artists are able to do. Manto was no great, Faiz says, but he was undeniably honest, powerful as an artist and outspoken.
Despite all this tragedy, partly inflicted by detractors, Manto made a rebound, just like a suppressed ball, within two decades of his demise, and there is no gainsaying that his relevance for us continues to date. If he used to say that those wishing to know the contemporary society must read his stories, this is no less true today as it was in his own days.
Naresh ‘Nadeem’ is the editor of an ongoing project to translate all of Manto’s writings into English