Our case against Manto
Congratulations on your 100th anniversary. “What is there to celebrate,” you ask. “I am dead. And why are you, the judges of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, my eternal tormentors, celebrating my birthday?”
We need to talk because you might be dead but your books are still published in many different editions, some on very fancy paper. I saw one edition with a price tag of 750 rupees. Now don’t start calculating how many pints of the good stuff you could buy with that kind of money. Not a drop, sir. Or maybe a quarter of that foul stuff that contributed to your demise.
If you were writing today, and specially if you were writing in English, you could go to all the literary festivals and drink all the free booze you wanted. But they probably wouldn’t invite you because before and after drinking their booze you’d rant against the festival organisers, you’d raise questions about the sponsors’ parentage. Just like you maligned us judges.
Also read: Why was Manto considered a threat to the progressives?
Having made your acquaintance while you were in the dock, and having familiarised ourselves with the filthy bits in your writings in the privacy of our chambers, we just wish to elaborate on the verdicts we handed down in those trials. No, this is not an apology on behalf of Islamic Republic’s judiciary, just some observations, clarifications – and we are sure you still hate it – some literary advice.
Times have changed. If you were writing today we’d probably ignore your little blasphemies against good taste and national interest and would just book you for that half pint in your pocket. But since you are probably sipping some superior stuff in heaven, can we ask you what this obsession was with human anatomy and edible birds?
Why write about plucked chickens?
Why sir, did you like to peer at poor women’s armpits and describe them in gory detail? While describing Saughandi in your notorious short story Hatak you tell us: Her armpit looked as if a piece of plucked chicken skin had been placed there. Did it occur to you that you might be spoiling your reader’ s dinner?
And although we didn’t mention it in our verdict, do you have any idea how offensive it sounds? You knew your language well so we are sure you knew that literary practitioners in Urdu language have perfected the art of describing human body parts as metaphysical entities and all you could come up with was a chicken skin? Plucked? Why couldn’t you have come up with some metaphor that might have involved pouring of some wine in the said body part and sipping it slowly as a tainted dawn hovered in the backdrop?
Also read: Manto- The chronicler of suffering
You see a tired woman going about her day’s work. We see a woman with such an appetite that after sleeping with the local police inspector and drinking (a woman, drinking?) still wants some more. So according to your story, this Saughandi woman has had a pretty dreadful day, maybe the saddest day of her life and she still wants more. She cuddles her dog and goes to sleep with him. How were we supposed to read it, sir?
Your problem, Manto sir was that you weren’t satisfied with mentioning one haram thing per story. We do realise that in the world of short stories sometimes you have to describe bad things, things that our religion and our culture don’t approve of but couldn’t you have exercised a bit of moderation? As if having a prostitute as your main character wasn’t enough, you had to make her drink alcohol, and as if her drinking wasn’t bad enough you had to make her go to sleep with a flea-ridden dog. And I am not even mentioning the uncalled for description of her blouse where she stuffs her haram-earned money. Why did you have to do all that when you could have written about banana peels?
Why writing about banana peels is vital to national interest
Although people mostly remember you for your filthy stories, you wrote, with great verve, about your friends and contemporaries as well. We couldn’t have tried you for that but your friends did. How did it feel to be booed off the stage in Lahore? It wasn’t just what you wrote that offended them, it was also how you insisted on presenting it to them.
Now there you are at Lahore YMCA, in a Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq meeting, you are reading a profile of Chiragh Hasan Hasrat and the subject of your essay wants you to shut up. You might have written the best piece anyone has written about their editor but Chiragh Hasan Hasrat was a Maulana, so did you really have to talk about the booze and the lies? Did you have to take us on a tour of kothas and dicey bars?
Also read: Manto- He wrote what he saw and took no sides
Not only had you no respect for people who called themselves Maulanas, you didn’t even learn the basic fact that in Lahore you can only misbehave if you are rich or if your wife is not around. Everyone was relieved that your wife was present at the occasion and dragged you away.
You were Maulana’s apprentice, didn’t you learn anything from him? Maulana wrote a piece called Kailay Ka Chhilka which students are taught in schools because as you know it’s sensible, gentle humour. You step on a banana peel, you fall, others laugh. Nobody gets hurt. So that is Maulana’s revenge on you, on us: His Kailay Ka Chhilka is part of the national curriculum. You, on the other hand, still continue to pose a clear and present danger to our collective morality. And after contemplating for half a century we have realised that it might have something to do with your insistence on calling a shalwar, a shalwar.
The terror of the shalwar
You seem particularly puzzled that why our honourable courts would object to your short story called Kaali Shalwar, in which a down-on-her-luck prostitute (again a prostitute, I think we need to update you on that), Sultana, wants a black shalwar to observe moharram. On a desolate morning, she sits outside her little shack, looking over the railway tracks watching railway engines bellow giant puffs of smoke that “float up like fat men”.
It’s not the railway tracks or the colour black that we were objecting to. We didn’t have a problem with the fact that she wanted to observe ashura (although that would be a problem now, she might get killed before she can score that shalwar — and you thought you lived in turbulent times).
Also read: Manto- The historian of the individual
It’s all about shalwar, stupid. You were born in Punjab and came back to live in Lahore. You should have had better sense. You should have just called it kali sari, or kali skirt. You might even have got away with a black gharara but when you say shalwar we immediately think of our sisters, our mothers, our wives and our neighbours’ daughters, sisters and their shalwars. Who wants to be thinking about their own women while reading a story about a prostitute? If you had said kali dhoti we could have lived with it. But shalwar is too close to home.
And then you sound puzzled when my fellow judges decided to put you on trial for your shocker Khol Do. We were thinking what kind of impact it will have on our new nation’s moral fibre when they read Khol Do. Your rather flimsy defence obviously was that you were writing about horrors of rape or how people became insensitive to banal, everyday brutalities.
That’s exactly what you wrote. You wanted to shock your reader. But all my fellow judges could see was a shalwar. And shalwars, as you know, have azaarband. My fellow judges thought if people read the word shalwar and the string that holds it up, it will drive them into bouts of reckless fornication. We foresaw hordes of impressionable teenagers reading this story and self-abusing themselves into premature blindness.
Also read: Manto- Poetics of storytelling
You wondered how your most horrific, most graphic, foul smelling stories could turn anybody on? How could such horrors turn anybody on? Well, sir, it could give us ideas.
A person no less than Justice Javed Iqbal, son of your fellow Kashmiri poet Sir Allama Mohammed Iqbal (the alleged dreamer of the dream we all live in), wrote that if people read Khol Do, they might be tempted to become rapists too. Now you get the point? You might have written a story about the trauma and tribulations of a woman. Some of us read it as a rape manual. We, sir, have become a rape-positive republic.
Were you a dog lover or a dog hater?
What’s with you and dogs? As mentioned earlier Saughandi goes to sleep hugging a dog. Then you take another dog to India-Pakistan border and the soldiers from both sides shoot at him. We need clarification; the law might be the same but we tend to interpret it differently for those who love dogs and those who consider them haram and only use them as metaphors.
You seemed very puzzled about what it was that we found obscene in the image of a ruined prostitute looking over the railway track and then finding comfort in the company of a flea-ridden dog?
We didn’t object to the prostitute, nor to the railway tracks; our problem was with the dog, that flea-ridden mongrel, and the fact that she goes to sleep with that dog. That image haunts us. That dog’s fleas crawl over our skins. Are you supposed to entertain us, make us better human beings or make our skin crawl with the fleas of a haram animal sleeping with a woman who has just done many haram things?
Why do you insist on calling a breast a breast?
Were we not clear enough in our judgements that you kept bickering and insisting that you have the right to say the word breast? In Urdu. And your justification is what? That it’s there? Who do you think you are? Sir Edmund Hilary? This is a family magazine and despite your provocations, we’ll not allow a discussion on the subject of breasts.
Can we just reiterate that it doesn’t matter whether that breast is attached to a mussalman shareef aurat, a Jewish awara aurat, a film star, a prostitute, a dead woman; we don’t care if it’s not even attached to its owner any more. It’s still a breast.
Over the centuries, your favourite, and now our national, language has evolved dozens of ways of describing this bit of anatomy without actually naming it. Just look at the variety of soft fruits deployed by your contemporaries in this context. And learn.
We are the judges, you can’t judge us
There were other writers who we put on trial but in the end we came around to accepting them, even celebrating them. We put Faiz Ahmed Faiz on trial but not for his poetry, for his extracurricular activities. We beat the hell out of a poet called Habib Jalib for his poetry. But now we can’t have a dinner party or political rally without shouting their verses. Even those who wear a taj and sit on a takht keep threatening: hum daikhain gai. We can live happily ever after with cuddly revolutionaries.
You, on the other hand, cannot be trusted to behave in decent company even after you have been dead for more than half century.
Our Manto-esque world
Yes, some youngsters say that when they come across a short story about body odour, violence that’s not sentimental or when they hear a story about a prostitute. Since you were so interested in them, I thought I’ll update you.
Yes, we do have prostitutes in our Islamic Republic. We don’t know how many. But every night thousands are ferried across the country, mostly wearing hijabs, ordered and delivered like fast food. Why would a prostitute wear a hijab, you wonder? Simple, it makes the delivery safer and easier. Under the hijab they are properly dressed for work, some might even be wearing a thong. (No, I am not going to explain what a thong is.)
What were we looking for in your house?
When we ordered a raid on your house in Lakshmi Mansions, Lahore, you wondered what the police were looking for. No sir, they were not looking for a wireless set or some anti-state propaganda. They were looking for that mysterious machine that constantly manufactured ‘doubt’. Because you, sir, were sowing doubts in people’s minds about their own humanity; you were holding them from the scruff of their necks and making them smell their own filth.
And then you had to travel to Karachi to face a trial. You didn’t have Ismat Chughtai with you then and only 10-12 bottles of beer for the 36 hour journey. And when you arrived for your hearing the judge turned out to be a fan of your work. But he sentenced you anyway. And when you wondered (that seemed to be your default mode, always wondering) if he liked your stories why was he imposing a fine. He said, he’d explain after one year. You didn’t survive that year. Consider this the explanation that our fellow judge promised. My fellow judge also asked me to ask you that…
How are you getting on with your creator?
Have you settled that old argument with your creator: Who is a better short-story writer? You do realise that that this kind of claim hurts people’s sentiments. Especially sentiments of people who don’t read stories, who can’t read stories or who think reading and writing stories was a perversion. I hope you understand why your family didn’t inscribe that God vs Manto argument on your tombstone as you had wished.
Censorship even in my death, you protest. No sir, just common sense. I hope that you are up there with your creator, being argumentative, still carrying on that debate about who is better at the storytelling game. (That kind of thing, by the way, is called a creative-writing workshop these days). If your old friend Ismat Chughtai drops by while you are having that debate, you and your creator should take a break from arguing and say to her: we’ll both go in the kitchen and make tea, why don’t you write us a story.
How we live now
There is no point telling you about what has been going on after you. You‘ll only gloat and say that Manto saw it coming, he wrote about it. Let’s just say that there is more material than you could ever handle. In your last days you said, "iss zillat ki zindagi ko ab khatm ho jana chahiye" (this miserable life should end now).
You should see us now. Your casual moan has become our national anthem. And we are not sitting there waiting for it to end; we have become very proactive. You should really see us now. Everyone walks around with a dagger stuck in their back. As a storyteller we wish you were here, as a citizen we are glad you are gone. In our desolate morning we sit and stare across the railway tracks, we watch the engines bellowing and smoke rises towards the sky “like fat men floating up.”
This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2012 issue as part of a series marking Manto's 100th birthday. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a journalist and author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.