The historian of the individual

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Photo courtesy Manto Family Archives

Literary critics are a sad lot, not only is their work necessarily derivative and posterior to creation, it must also formulate its criteria of success and failure from within the components of the fictional work under consideration. Political and social events are not the measure of the success or failure of a work of fiction, but rather, whether the work has lived up to its own promise.

Mario Vargas Llosa, in his delightful little book, Letters to a Young Novelist, describes the writer as someone afflicted with a “tapeworm.” The writer’s own life is forfeit to this creature; whatever he does is for the sake of this grisly monster. As for his themes, the writer feeds off of himself, like the mythical “catoblepas.” So, a writer is someone who writes from an inexorable inner compulsion, unlike the “graphomaniacs” Kundera has lamented about. The compulsion — well, this arises from a desire to see a different world in place of the real, with its inherited values and mores and certainties that admit of no contradiction and, worse still, stifle questioning. Seen from this vantage, the fictional landscape of Urdu would appear hauntingly bleak, with only a few occasional lights shining palely in the gathering gloom, and out there, somewhere in the distance, suddenly a relentless, single spectacular starburst — Saadat Hasan Manto.

Yet this singular luminary has suffered all along from a reading of his stories as social documents and commentary. His fiction is held hostage to the most cynical purposes of politics, sociology, psychoanalysis and, lately, even history, by those who deny literature its inherent autonomy and consider it to be little more than an offshoot of their respective other-than-literary disciplines. (Imagine someone applying the rules of astrophysics to gilli-danda!)

In a humorous self-portrait, Manto himself says that he is a “know-nothing” who “never studied Marx nor ever set eyes on any of the works of Freud. He knows Hegel and Havelockonly by name. However, amazingly, people, I mean critics, say that all these thinkers have influenced him. As far as I know, Manto was never influenced by anyone’s ideas. He considers interpreters of the world stupid. One cannot explain the world to others; one has to understand it for oneself.”

Strangely, though, Manto’s stories do easily lend themselves to such distortions because of their striking proximity to workaday life. It is not asked, not even by the literary critic, why write stories if all you want to do is substantiate reality as it exists. Is that what stories are meant to do? Or are they supposed to explore the existential situation of the character (and discover, in Kundera’s words, what the novel – read fiction – alone can discover). Is fiction not expected to create parallel worlds?

It is relatively easy to interpret a story through reference to something outside of it (say, a political or social event), but far more difficult to analyse it through an exploration of its particular mode of being, its possibility and promise. Literary critics are a sad lot, not only is their work necessarily derivative and posterior to creation, it must also formulate its criteria of success and failure from within the components of the fictional work under consideration. Political and social events are not the measure of the success or failure of a work of fiction, but rather, whether the work has lived up to its own promise.

Manto may well have intended Toba Tek Singh to be read as “a scathing indictment” of Partition. (I rather think Manto was quite taken with the image of the character he had created, and his possibilities, and wanted to follow along with him on his existential odyssey). But should we read it as such? After all, paraphrasing Kundera, it is not the business of fiction to write the history of a society; it is very much its business to write the history of the individual. At day’s end, what remains looming on the horizon is the larger-than-life image of the protagonist, Partition having shrunk back into the distance. In a paradoxical way, it is Toba Tek Singh who retroactively makes history possible, even inevitable, and not the other way around. It is he who makes Partition authentic. That is, precisely, what fiction does.

If Saha’e, Mozel, Babu Gopinaath, or Saugandhi impinge upon our consciousness with indomitable force, it is precisely because, in the balance of his major works, Manto saw none of them as a typical representative of his/her social or religious group or as one shaped by its determinants. More often, he saw each one in deathly opposition to the certainty of inherited values. If his characters behave contrary to conventional logic, it is because they act in consonance with fictional logic. Only in the hospitality of fictional space can polarities coexist without one trying to eliminate the other. Manto’s genius lay in recognising these characters as discrete entities, and history, or social and religious determinants, as merely the backdrop against which each of them stumbled through his or her particular existential trek.

Why, then, has the fashioner of such memorable characters, the writer who gave his preferred fictional medium the burning intensity of a light refracted as through a magnifying lens, remained relatively unknown outside South Asia? Why could he and his writings not – I am asked – register as a global literary phenomenon both during his life and after his death?

Several reasons might be suggested. Let’s leave aside “global” for the moment and begin with the local. There is no dearth of appreciation for Manto’s work in the South Asian subcontinent. He has remained front and centre in the consciousness of Urdu and Hindi readers. Equally, reams of critical work of debatable quality have been produced on him in Urdu, but, in my estimation, except for a few pieces by Muhammad Hasan Askari, Manto has still not received the critical attention he deserves locally. And by critical I mean in-depth studies of his work on its own terms, as a possibility of human existence.

On the other hand, there has not been a total absence of Manto from the global scene, though admittedly it has not been as wide and profuse as implied in the question. Hamid Jalal and later Khalid Hasan translated his work into English. Jalal’s Black Milk had scarcely been released when it was withdrawn from circulation. Hasan’s Kingdom’s End was put out by the reputable British publisher Verso. There have been a number of other translations since, notably by M Asaduddin. Even Ralph Russell, to the best of my knowledge, translated at least one Manto story, The Black Shalwar. In 1997, a German collection of five Manto stories, with multiple translators, was published under the title Blinder Wahn. In 2008, Alain Désoulières brought out his French translations, by far the most exhaustive, and just this year Rocío Moriones Alonso published her Spanish translations. Most recently there is Tariq Ali’s short column in Counterpunch (issue 13-15, 2012). And to all of these may be added the now nearly 40-year-old research monograph of Leslie Flemming, Another Lonely Voice. However, to truly register as a global literary phenomenon obviously requires more than this paltry capital.

All the same, more of an attempt could have been made to bring Manto to global attention. Unfortunately, Pakistani society is divided along linguistic lines. Few among the Urdu writers control English well enough to render Urdu works in contemporary English idiom. On the opposite side, English-wallahs, even if some of them may be assumed to command Urdu well enough, are at best indifferent to Urdu and its literary culture. Had the latter group made the effort to translate and explain, exhaustively, the narrative architecture and the underlying poetics of Manto’s fictional world, quite possibly he would be better known across the world.

Then again, even in the West there is less appetite for the short story and the novel is considered the preferred fictional genre. Whether out of cultural hubris or not, indigenous literatures of South Asia do not, almost as a rule, engage the general public, and publishers are loath to gamble on financially risky ventures. Whatever interest there may be in such literatures scarcely goes beyond the university campus, where, too, they are yoked into the service of non-literary identities such as “Third World,” “Colonial,” “Post-Colonial,” you name it, or where there are federally-funded centres of South Asian studies.

That said, let’s be realistic. Manto, certainly, stands head-and-shoulders above any other Urdu short-story writer. But he was writing in a borrowed form, still in its infancy. He accomplished a lot for his times, indeed he went farther than any other of his contemporaries, and even today one would scarcely find anyone with his masterly control over the short story form. What we need above all is a concerted effort to situate him properly in the context of Urdu fiction.

Quite aside from his place in that context, Manto at least made sure of one thing: that he would not be turned into a “rahmatullah alaihi” after he was gone. So, like Bashir (in Anour Benmalek’s short story The Penalty), just before blowing up his suicide vest in the neighbourhood mosque instead of in the soccer stadium where he was supposed to, Manto tried to “score one goal against infinity … ” — a fate which Iqbal did not suffer and, if the present hullabaloo is any indication, Faiz will not suffer either, though this is the tragic but enviable fate of a writer true to his calling, the one with a wriggly tapeworm in his guts.

Dr Muhammad Umar Memon is Professor Emeritus of Urdu Literature and Islamic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the editor of The Annual of Urdu Studies and has translated several books.

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