Poetics of storytelling

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Saadat Hasan Manto with his family. Photo courtesy Manto Family Archive.

Saadat Hasan Manto had little time in this world, and he made sure of it. Defiant and independent to the last, this is how he wrote out his life. He was in a hurry to experience it, to write about what he saw and understood, to become famous. And he was in a hurry to die. He was singularly successful in all these aims. His gravestone bears the inscription he had prepared for the purpose: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. All the secrets of the art of story writing are buried here in his breast. Weighed down by the earth, he is wondering still: Who is the greater writer, God, or himself?”

The arrogance and bravado of the statement may nettle a placid mind. But Manto was not placid. He was impatient of naive serenity, could not stand disagreement and always burned to be different. Of such contradictions is the life of the artist made.

But was there ever a person called Saadat Hasan Manto in flesh and blood? Or was there only a vital force embodied for a short duration, chameleon-like in its ability to change colours, protean in its ability to change form, to be perishable and distinguishable always? Where in his stories, in his characters, do we find Manto the man, or Manto the artist?

Nowhere, perhaps, in his best tales. This is just one of his achievements as a writer: to grind himself out of existence so that nothing stands between the characters and the readers. And, yet, he is everywhere, in the kindness and compassion that pervades the unfolding tale. The compassion is there even in his most violent, most sensational stories such as Khol Do and Toba Tek Singh, though often it is poisoned by a bitter irony. It makes us see the spirit of kindred suffering in unexpected places and urges us to peer under our own pious decencies, where we are shocked to discover our filthy prejudices, barely concealed rage and hatred, our illicit sexual yearnings. This rather brutal and, at times, crude exposure of our own psyche helps us to form a community of understanding with others, to sympathise with their overpowering impulses, and to appreciate the importance of tolerance and forgiveness. To be able to do this, Manto was obliged to wear various masks and tick like a heartbeat in other bodies. He became his characters.

“I do not know why there is not even a shadow of his own life in his stories,” writes Ismat Chughtai. But she should have known. She was well-acquainted with him and had observed his almost childlike ability to identify himself with the feelings and emotions of others. “I do not know if Manto had any experience,” she writes, “or not, or that what he wrote about common prostitutes was based on his own faith and principles, because, if he ever visited a brothel, he would have seen there, instead of the whore and the prostitute, a person with a woman’s heart that, though it resided like a worm in filth, appreciated and held dear the dignity and values of life.” Manto’s own words describing the process and the aims of negotiating the subject in fiction support this conjecture. In his essay “The Fiction Writer and Sexual Issues,” written to defend his position against the charge of obscenity in his stories, for which he was being tried in court, he writes on behalf of all writers:

“People who try to find ways of sexual pleasure or gratification in our stories will be disappointed. We are not masters sharing tricks and stratagems for the purpose. When we see someone fall in the arena, then, according to our own understanding, we try to find out the reason and cause for it.

“We [writers] are sovereign. Even in the deepest darkness of the world, we can discern streaks of light. We don’t look down with derision upon anyone. If a fallen woman from a brothel house spits out a stream of beetle juice on a passer-by in the street below, we don’t, like so many others, laugh at the passerby or abuse the fallen woman. We see this and stop in our way. Our eyes pierce the scanty clothing of this filthy professional woman and go through her unfortunate sinful body straight to her heart and interrogate it. And in interrogating it, we too for a while in our imagination become that abominable corrupt slut of a woman — just so that we present not only the description of this incident but the real incitement and motivation behind it.”

Once, when Manto was visiting him inPeshawar, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi brought up the subject of sexual explicitness in fiction. Quoting Tolstoy as authority, he criticised Maupassant for unnecessary openness in a short story where the leading character is shown having a bath. Maupassant describes her in minute detail down to the colour of the water drops as they cling to her body. For Qasmi, this was excessive. He felt the detailed description was quite irrelevant. Manto bristled at the comment, and his response reveals the testiness of a restlessly fluid and absorptive self, accommodative to the point of extinction under the impulse of identification, eagerly metamorphosing into the other:

What do you know of the secret longings of a woman’s body? You, who have not been as yet married! How can you understand why Maupassant found it right to describe the shifting gold and pink colors which the water drops took from the woman’s body? If he had not done this, how dull and plain the character would be. The glowing drops give life and freshness to her. If you can write stories about farmers, it does not follow that you understand the psychology of their women as well. To write about a woman, you must become a woman. And have you, in your moments of creativity, ever become a woman? Has someone ever teased you as a man does a woman? Has a stranger ever placed his hand on your body? Have you ever experienced a shudder of desire? Have your nerves ever resonated at the touch of this strange caressing? So, my dear, Tolstoy sometimes became Gandhi-like in his propensities, but, what do you think, did he not feel the same way writing about the bare feet of his Anna Karenina as Maupassant did on seeing the pink drops of water on the body of his bathing heroine?

Harsh as Manto’s tone appears (it has a kind of urgency, as if he were wasting time explaining this matter to Qasmi), impatient with the cold, academic mechanics of appropriateness, he lays his finger on the pulse of the artist that beats fitfully to experience sensibilities that destroy the artist in order that another may live. The act of writing is an atonement for existence, for suffering. Through it, life is made bearable, even pleasurable, for those who are tied to the apron-strings of triviality and ordinariness. The moments of life that Manto speaks of are the metamorphic flashpoints of his creative experience that render his personal life separate and apart – always on the margin, observing as a bystander – while another, and this is the essential creative part, becomes one with the subject so that a kind of double consciousness comes into play where he is both the observer and the observed. And yet, in his own way, he was a romanticist and idealist. There was always this danger in the plasticity of his selves, in the drift and flow of his themes, and it finds its realisation in his work.

Is it always true that the despised are pure of heart? Or that only drifters or prostitutes are capable of shedding pretensions and acting, occasionally, without selfish motives? As we read Manto’s stories, a pattern begins to emerge. At first we see familiar taboos irreverently flouted, and it is delightful to witness this. But after a while it all becomes predictable. The disturbing glimpses of reality give way to contrived sensationalism. Melodrama and bloody deeds strangulate the story. In Mozel, one of his more popular tales, the protagonist is a Jewish street girl who seems more interested in adventure than settling down to a secure life. When Tirlochan Singh, who has fallen in love with her, proposes marriage, she accepts on the condition that he gets a shave and a haircut, a course of action that is bound to alienate him from the Sikh community to which he belongs. When he obliges, however, after much internal conflict, she runs away with someone else on the very day their marriage is set to take place. Tirlochan is stricken with grief. He succeeds in rationalising the affair and concludes that she is not worthy of his love. He begins to grow his beard again and becomes engaged to Kirpal Kaur, a simple Sikh village girl. Manto plots the ending in such a way that Mozel, without ever having met Kirpal, ends up giving her life in order to save the girl from the Partition-incited violence of Muslim fanatics. Until the very moment of her death, Mozel makes fun of the dress codes and customs to which the Sikhs are attached such as wearing short pants under trousers, never shaving, and never getting a haircut. As Mozel lies there naked, because she has transferred her loose gown to Kirpal in order to conceal the girl’s religious identity and thus secure her safety, Tirlochan takes off his turban and unwrapping it covers her body with it. Mozel tears the turban away from her body and throws it back in his face with the words, “Take it away, this religion of yours!,” as she breathes her last, hugging her naked breasts.

Manto seems to have loaded the story with all the spices at his command. The trouble is, some fine passages of psychological perception are compromised by this impulsive overdoing. Mozel is a warm, lively, independent-minded woman who habitually succumbs to her whims despite the desire to give in to love. Flawed, sensuous, and refreshingly real, she is a compelling character, until we get to the conclusion of the story. Then, suddenly, a romanticising and moralistic Manto seems to take over and contrives an ending that defies narrative logic or psychological realism. Mozel is made to satisfy, without apparent motive or implicit rationale, some abstract and hypocritical notion of goodness. The concluding remark about religion is gratuitous and irrelevant. It makes little sense, particularly when she has been at such pains to conceal or deflect attention from the religious identity of the two persons she is trying to save that she has ended up giving up her own life.

Manto could be pesky in his relationships with others, particularly with friends, and especially when they disagreed with him. He got into arguments with them all the time, for he loved to argue, to thrash matters out. So it was with Ismat Chughtai, the one fiction writer who, like Manto, investigated the forbidden subject of female sexuality in her stories. In a perceptive essay, “My Friend, My Enemy!,” that she wrote for the special Manto Number of Nuqoosh, she charts out the teasing, testy nature of their interactions on which they came to base their trust and friendship. Manto claimed her as his sister and, outspoken as he was known to be, was able to share quite a bit that was personal and intimate openly with her, yet he seemed frustrated with her contrariness, at times deliberately put on to rile him or get him to reveal more of who and what he really was. She was fascinated by his varying moods and empathies, his contradictions, his childish bragging and childlike innocence, his impetuous intelligence and psychological insight. Thus, in this revealing interchange about love, she can be seen pushing him, goading him to confess, to share, something of himself that he had kept carefully guarded and hidden:

“What is love? I love my gold-embroidered pumps. Rafiq [Ghaznavi] loves his five wives.”

“I mean the kind of love that happens between a girl and a boy, between a young man and a young woman.”

“Ah, I understand,” said Manto, thoughtfully, to himself, as he sought far into the mists of the past for some forgotten memory, “there was a girl who tended sheep in Kashmir.”

“Then?” I nudged him on as an audience wholly engaged in a recounted story would.

“Then, nothing,” he said defensively.

“You talk to me about so many dirty things, and yet you are shy about this?!”

“What an ass who would be shy!” exclaimed Manto, blushing furiously.

Then he confessed with some difficulty, “When she would lift her arm to drive the sheep, I could see the fairest of elbows. I was a little sick in those days and would daily come up with my blanket and lie down on the mountainside waiting all the while with bated breath for her to lift her arm so that the sleeve of her shirt would slip and I could see that lovely elbow.”

“Elbow!” I said in astonishment.

This is all he sees of her, though one day she comes and sits close by appearing to conceal something from him in the neck of her shirt. It turns out it is a piece of sugar crystal, and Manto is struck dumb, with no idea of what to do or say. She rises and, all aflutter, runs away, but then comes back and shyly offers him the piece of sugar crystal. “For a while,” says Manto, “this piece of crystal lay in my shirt pocket. Then it was deposited in a drawer.” He continues, in his own typical way, “and a few days later ants finished it off.”

“And the girl,” Ismat persists. Manto never saw her again. “What should I have done? Slept with her? Left a bastard child in her lap and bragged about the triumph of my manhood in her memory today?” he asks peevishly. “This is the Manto,” writes Ismat, “accused of being a writer of obscenities, a person with a dirty mind — the one who wrote Bu and Thanda Gosht”!

But Manto will always be remembered for broaching subjects which the writers of the subcontinent were unwilling to tackle. He tore off the mask of sexual reticence and portrayed real human beings whose actions were motivated by physical longings or impelled by greed, deprivation, burning rage or sexual frustration. He shifted the interest of readers of Urdu fiction from suave, sophisticated, respectable characters to intolerable drunks, spirited gamblers, conniving, impecunious, and yet not heartless prostitutes, hypocritical mullahs, pimps, demure seductresses, sexually frustrated, impotent, and cruel older men, characters with complex motivations and perverse inclinations. The vast tribe of forgotten inhabitants of society, psychological patients, criminals so much like ordinary men and women in their daily pursuits, in their successes and failures, perverts, women as individuals in their own right, whether thwarted in their pursuit of self-realisation or battling adversity to find agency and selfhood, the mad and crazy who speak with wisdom and sense, and those who go about among the sane but live a deranged life all trooped into the world of Manto’s fiction and, through it, into the larger canvas of Urdu fiction.

No label or type satisfied Manto. The human interest was paramount and spoke, ultimately, with greater authenticity about the unbearable social conditions than the formulaic fiction of line-and-rule progressives. Manto’s cynicism and satire should have been enough to dispel the oppressive romanticism that had infected Urdu writers so widely in the subcontinent. Ironically, it re-emerged in his own work in a different form. It became associated as a rule with the despised, the impaired, and the socially rejected. This marked a bias in the other direction, but, importantly, new ground had been broken. Manto’s is a world of black humour, or dark, vaguely decipherable, awakening. Seldom is it lighted with a sense of fun. His sketches of people he knew are rarely genial. Often they are barbed, bitter, and corrosively critical. All this pulls away from the lure of romanticism. It, in fact, de-romanticises the subject and brings it more in the domain of realism. Yet, the tendency to romanticise the marginalised is also very much a part of Manto’s work. Upinder Nath Ashk, for instance, is quite pertinent in his criticism of Manto’s Khushya when he says that if the title character Khushya had been a pimp or a hustler in real life, and Kaanta had disrobed before him, he would certainly have taken advantage of the situation. “What you have written,” he told Manto, “is what an educated and cultured poet would think, not an illiterate and ignorant pimp.” Manto was so upset with Ashk that he never quite got over this.

The prose style that Manto inherited was complicated and contrived. It was based on a literary idiom and removed from colloquial speech. He, however, was drawn to the language that the people used in everyday life and developed a style of writing that could carry the energy, immediacy, and spontaneity of ordinary speech. His language sounds neither dishonest nor learned, and yet it is able to express complex ideas and themes. The almost careless simplicity of his prose seems eminently suited to his purposes. Being closer to the language of the characters he writes about, it sounds natural, unpretentious, entirely appropriate. This style represents Manto’s greatest achievement — even greater, perhaps, than the opening up of new and unconventional themes, but in truth the two may be interdependent, for this style and language were instrumental in probing and opening up unexplored areas of creativity. The importance and urgency of the themes was probably a historical imperative, but it would not have been possible to address them without the idiom and style appropriate to their nature and context. Manto failed his matriculation examinations twice because of weakness in Urdu. Just as well! Life and literature play upon each other with nice irony. His singular courage lies in his daring to use the ordinary language he knew, and which was spoken generally among people, as a vehicle for his writing.

Despite this, Ismat Chughtai calls him a coward. Not without reason. She and Manto were both inBombayin 1947 when the subcontinent was divided. He had hoped to write a film script jointly with her. This did not work out. Ismat was, however, able to get her script accepted, and it was turned into a pretty successful movie that was released under the title of Ziddi. Manto was depressed that his script was going nowhere. Throughout his life, he had never liked to play second fiddle to anyone. His wife and children were already inPakistanand pressing him to join them there. He decided to leave and asked Ismat and her husband, Shahid, to come with him too. “We have a splendid future inPakistan,” he said. “We will get the houses left behind by those who have fled the country. We will be all in all. We should advance very quickly there.” Had someone else expressed this sentiment, Manto the story writer would have savaged him in his writing. Ismat rejected the idea, of course, and Manto was quite put out at this.

It was not a happy transition for Manto. Going toPakistan, he faced want and indifference as, perhaps, he never had before. He took to drinking heavily and dashed off scores of stories, but they brought him none of the riches that he had imagined. Editors and hangers-on took advantage of him and his weakness for drink. Manto the man disintegrated. He became an alcoholic. In 1952, he spent several months in a mental institution. The search for a cure was useless. He couldn’t control his impulse to drink, to destroy himself, and his friends aided and abetted him despite the protests of the family. He began selling stories for whatever anyone would pay him, 10 rupees or 15, so he could get his bottle of drink. His family suffered horribly in these years. Once he took the only money that was available in the house to get some milk for his newborn daughter, but instead found himself spending it on his uncontrollable need for alcohol. It seemed he was bent on destroying himself completely and quickly. Another mental breakdown brought yet another confinement in a mental institution. There was no reprieve for Manto. His strength as a writer of stories had become his weakness as a person. “Who is Manto?” he may have asked. “Where does he belong?” People with strong nerves and coarse skins will not understand this. But then they wouldn’t be writing stories either, perhaps.

In the final analysis, Manto was, to use his favourite expression, a fraud. He never let out in his stories what he was himself, and in the end he became a character created out of his own imagination. The impatient, impetuous, iconoclast was brought into existence as a measure of self-defence. It was an act of rebellion against an obsessive fear of anonymity and obliteration. Here lies another of the ironies of life: this transformation that turned him into an artist who retailed bitter truths and tore down the masks of pretension and false respectability, robbed him of a secure and stable self. One metamorphosis after another, he took the shape and form, the colour and temper of hundreds of characters, experiencing their conflicts and contradictions, their pains and deprivations, their frustrations and burning rages, until Manto the man was no more. He too had become a character in the story of his life he had written.

The body that held him captive completed its term on January 18, 1955. Diagnosis: Cirrhosis of the liver. Manto the artist was released at last, after 42 years of captivity, to become a part of myth and legend, oral lore and the written story.

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