Tossing the empty bottle he shouts,
‘Oh world! Your beauty is your ugliness.’
The world stares back at him
Their bloodshot eyes rattle with the question
‘Who nabs the pillar of time
By the noose of his drunken breath?
Who dares to break into dim corridors
Of twisted conscience?
Who intrudes upon poisonous dens
Of demonised souls?
Through icy glasses his rude glance
Chases us like a footfall
Bang! Bang! -Majeed Amjad, Poem for Manto
Saadat Hasan Manto, a red rag to both conservative and progressive writers, was feared by the reactionary press, the state and the literary mafias of his times. All his life he fought the bigoted social reformers, ideologues and religious fanatics, facing various court trials with a heroic smile. His characters were not the mouthpieces of ready-made truths who would sermonise from a pulpit as saviours; neither Noori na Naari, neither angelic nor satanic, Manto’s Adam was born out of mud.
Manto spent the prime of his youth in Bombay and Delhi where he celebrated his poverty and prosperity, his successes and failures with the same zest for life. In 1948, betrayed by his friends, Manto decided to leave Bombay and move to Pakistan in the hope of a better life in the new country. He was disturbed by the communal riots and the gruesome scenes he had witnessed during the migration.
With his failing health and two dependent daughters, he couldn’t figure out his whereabouts: “All day long I would sit on the chair lost in my thoughts not knowing what to do.” Lahore was far from welcoming. The doors of Radio Pakistan were closed to him and the reactionary press was hounding him for his bold writings. After a few months he wrote Thanda Gosht for which another trial was ready for him.
Manto could have survived all those slams and slurs but what threw him into total despair was the attitude of his own friends who expelled him from the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in 1949. What had created panic among the progressives was first, a book Siyah Haashiye, and then Urdu Adab, a literary journal, through which Manto included writers from all schools of thought without bias.
Siyah Haashiye was a book of black jokes about the callous killings during the riots. It showed a terrifying despair where one could not tell laughter from a scream. Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, the secretary-general of the Punjab branch of PWA, said after reading the book, “What I can see is a field littered with dead bodies where the writer is stealing cigarette butts and money from their pockets.” Qasmi’s critique was as callous as the callousness of the characters in the book.
On the publication of Urdu Adab, edited jointly by Muhammad Hasan Askari and Manto, Qasmi as the spokesman of the PWA, wrote an open letter to the latter: “Get rid of the opium of art for art’s sake; bring Askari into your fold by converting him to the art for life. Our movement is based on owning, understanding and respecting the suffering of the masses.” Qasmi guided Manto like a protective father, fearing that Manto could be spoilt by Askari’s “influence of decadent French writers like Baudelaire, André Gide and Flaubert.”
In November 1949, at the all-Pakistan conference of PWA, a resolution was passed against certain writers including Hasan Askari, Manto and, according to Abdul Salam Khurshid, Qurratulain Hyder, whose name was later withdrawn. While Manto didn’t react directly at the time, he later (1951) wrote in Jaib-e-Kafan, “I was angry that Alif (Qasmi) had misunderstood me, doubted my intentions … I am depressed. I earn through my writings by working day and night. I have my wife and children, if they fall sick and if I were to beg for money going door to door I will be really disturbed. Art is autonomous and is an end in itself. It’s no one’s monopoly and it cannot be hegemonised by ideology. The government takes me as a communist and the communists take me as a reactionary.”
Probably during the same period he wrote his epitaph which was inspired by Ghalib’s couplet, “* Ya rab zamana mujh ko mitata hey kis liay/ loh-e-jahaan pe harf-e-mukkarrar nahin hoon mein* [Oh God, why is Time rubbing me off? I am not a letter twice written on the slate of the world].”
Urdu Adab was closed down after the publication of only two issues. In the first two issues both the progressive and non-progressive writers were published, but soon after an ‘office order’ by the PWA forced the progressive writers to boycott the journal. Many of them requested Manto to return their work to them. A desperate and visibly intimidated Arif Abdul Matin wrote to Manto, “For God’s sake return the manuscript of my play; it is no longer possible for me to get it published in Urdu Adab as our union has decided not to cooperate with certain writers.”
Qasmi also withdrew his request for Manto’s story which earlier he had wanted to publish in Nuqoosh, “I had asked for your story before the decision by the union to avoid publishing those authors who don’t agree with the progressive movement.”
Why was Manto considered a threat to the progressives? Could it be ‘obscenity’ that had offended them in the context of the newly-founded Islamic Republic of Pakistan? But Faiz Ahmed Faiz had appeared in his defence at the trial of Thanda Gosht, and had not found the story obscene. According to Intizar Hussain, writing in Saadat Hasan Manto — After 50 Years published by GC University,Lahore in 2005, the reason for Manto’s exclusion “was all about the reaction of progressives to the Partition of India.” Quoting Askari, he says, “The progressives in their opposition to Partition were implying that had there been no demand for a Muslim country there would have been no communal riots.” Even this doesn’t appear plausible.
If the progressives were not in favour of a Muslim state, why would Faiz, a staunch progressive, be the first and one of the very few commissioned officers who opted for the newly established state of Pakistan, and continued his job with the Pakistan Army and the Inter-Services Public Relations? And why would he write an editorial in The Pakistan Times on “the glorious role” of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in “the birth of a major state and the liberation of a major nation.”
In Siyah Haashiye or Urdu Adab, Manto did not appear to advocate a separate country but simply brought out the barbaric humour out of the killing of people in the name of religion. Manto in his writings had never defended one religion against another. Mozel, a Jewish woman, dies while saving a young Sikh, Tirlochan. While she is dying, Tirlochan tries to cover her naked body with his turban, but she sneers back: “Take away your religion.”
In Thanda Gosht, it is the “wretched blood” of the wounded Ishar Singh that topples religion, caste and race. As to the demand for Pakistan, Manto who had property in Amritsar didn’t claim anything after Partition except for an ice store in Lahore and that too was denied to him.
“Those who were talking of freedom of expression were resented by the progressives,” says Syed in Noori na Naari. But why should the progressives resent Manto when in their manifesto they had committed “to promote the freedom of expression”? They were struggling for the freedom of expression and so was he; they were “respecting the suffering of the masses” and he was going through suffering; they were talking about poverty and he was living it; they were romanticising the fallen man and Manto himself was the fallen man.
So what caused such a reaction to the most gifted short story writer of his times? Muzaffar Ali Syed further elaborates, “Immediately after the Second World War, the leaders of bourgeoisie socialism were ready to collaborate with the bourgeoisie — they were willing to sacrifice Mira ji, Manto and [Noon Meem] Rashid.”
Perhaps all that has been said are mere polemics of their times but there could be more than meets the eye…
Sometime in the mid-1930s, on a foggy “Night in London,” young Sajjad Zaheer saw “The Light.” In Nanking restaurant, amongst a coterie of like-minded male writers, Zaheer, lovingly called Banne Miaan, announced the manifesto of the PWA. Zaheer’s novel A Night in London established him as an icon of social commitment. The novel featured Hiren Pal, a committed freedom fighter who leaves his beloved Sheila Green to pursue the ideals beyond the love of a woman. This motif became a template for the progressive writers, “Aur bhi gham hein zamanay mein mohabat kay siwa [There are other woes in the world, apart from the woes of love]”.
The ‘othering’ of the female to assert the progressive mission created a binaric schizophrenia between the love of woman and social reality. The deferral of anima, the feminine side of male, is to repress the mother, the womb, the unconscious and to assert the father. As [French psychoanalyst] Lacan states, “When ideologues preach, they assert the patriarchy and it’s phallic.”
Manto renames Qasmi as Alif, the vertical alphabet of Urdu language. The unbending thrust of 'Alif' is suggestive of phallic oppression. In his playful irreverence, Manto calls Zaheer an armchair communist, Faiz an afimi (lotus eater), and his own guru Bari Aleeg, a coward and a runchhor (unreliable). He prays to God to turn Chiragh Hasan Hasrat into Stalin who could dictate from behind the iron curtain. For Manto, they were the oppressive fathers who in Freudian terms would tell the child not to play with his genitals.
Mumtaz Shirin says, “Manto has presented the mother in the image of the prostitute.” In her book Noori na Naari, she discovers Manto in myth and religious archetypes. For her, Manto juxtaposes the holy mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, the sinful whore; the sacred and the profane.
Manto’s heroines don’t queue up with the hearth-bound bibis or the drawing-room ladies of the elite; they stand out mostly as sex workers fighting for bare existence in a male’s world of exploitation and human degradation. With detached limbs and body parts as utility props they are the disfigured image of Madonna; damaged Eros. The loss of mother is the loss of womb, the loss of compassion, love and humanity in a society which is admonitory, tabooed and restrictive like the punishing father.
Manto resurrects the ghost of the feminine side, otherwise banished by the progressive patriarch, and by giving her a voice topples the despotic father figure of reform, pity and sympathy. Manto brings out the mother from the womb of a prostitute and confronts the oppressive father. He shatters the romantic ideal of the progressives by bringing out Sheila from their closets. He strips off her romantic trappings and places her next to Janki and Saugandhi. Perhaps this act of Manto made the progressives run for lights; he had nabbed “the pillar with the noose of his drunken breath.” His rude glance will keep chasing us like a footfall for many ages to come.
This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2012 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a poet, playwright and drama director.