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The chronicler of suffering

Updated 17 Jan, 2017 04:45pm
Manto and his wife | Manto Family Archive
Manto and his wife | Manto Family Archive

There was a galaxy of writers in the middle of the 20th century that created a fascinating and rich corpus of Urdu short stories over a short span of three decades. They would enrich and inspire readers in their own distinct ways but most of them believed in a progressive ideology based on the ideals of socialism. In the Pakistan of the 1980s, when my generation was growing up under a stifling right-wing martial rule, reading literature gave us solace and progressive literature gave us hope.

But there was one man, Saadat Hasan Manto, who invariably made his readers shiver. He shocked them and caused them sleepless nights. He took them beyond the compulsions of crass politics and outward social change. As teenagers, we would first pick him up, mistaking it for erotica. For, there was no one else in Urdu fiction whose work was as nuanced as his or as brave in dealing with the taboos of sexuality.

But the more we read the more we understood that this boldness was laced with subtle emotion and deep sorrow. One would feel numb and frostbitten: numb after reading Khol Do and frostbitten after reading Thanda Gosht. Through Toba Tek Singh, he made many of us understand the paradox surrounding the Partition of India with all its surreal undertones.

Saadat Hasan Manto fills us up with a deep compassion for humanity in a unique way. In describing his protagonists and their deeds, he employs an ambivalent treatment of good and evil in human psyche. He neither moralises nor proselytises. He neither invokes rancour nor revenge. He inspires you with his insight and wisdom, not by emboldening the contours of a particular political ideology.

He understood what only those delving deep into either Marxist philosophy or human psychology do. The oppressors and subjugators are never at peace with themselves, and, the humaneness in a cruel man may pinch him hard from deep inside at a time when he would least expect. Likewise, a normal human being without power or pelf has an equal possibility of becoming a beast if circumstances warrant. Therefore, the liberation of human body, mind and soul cannot be a selective liberation. It is for humanity at large.

Mao Zedong once said that it is suffering alone that transcends the class of a person. Manto was the chronicler of suffering: he did not just go beyond associating people with their economic prowess, social class, caste, colour or faith, but also detached them from their motivated actions. The worst suffering in Manto’s life, for him personally and for the people around him collectively, was Partition.

Manto’s pen did not hiss but screamed on paper; his fingers did not press but pounded on the keys of his Urdu typewriter as he dissected religious extremism and communal violence surrounding the Partition. His characters belong to all faiths and nationalities, all classes and communities. Humanity is Manto’s only concern.

His collection of vignettes, Siyah Haashiye, is a direct and stark reminder of the rotten underbelly of freedom and Partition, the riots, the loot and plunder, the brutality that many cities and towns across the subcontinent witnessed. The slim volume appeared in 1948. One of the pieces read:


"The knife plunged into the stomach, ripped the belly, moved down the midriff, also slashed the string holding the man’s pyjamas. The man with the knife then looked down and said, ‘Oh no, no! … that was a mishtake!"

(*The South Asian street version of ‘mistake’)

After coming to Pakistan and settling in Lahore, he felt nostalgic for Bombay which he had left in his prime as a screenwriter. Most of his pen portraits that he contributed to the Urdu periodicals from Lahore, Afaq and Director, between 1948 and 1954, recollect his memories of those whose friendship or acquaintance he cherished when he was a part of the Bombay film world. Ganje Farishte, a compilation of some of the pen portraits published in these magazines, also appeared during that time.

Manto loved Ashok Kumar and fondly called him Dadamoni, as most of Ashok’s friends and fans would. In his sketch, Manto relates an incident:

"The religious killings were now at their height. One day Ashok and I were returning from Bombay Talkies. We stopped at his place, where I stayed for several hours, and then he offered to drop me home in the evening. He took a short cut through a Muslim neighbourhood. A wedding procession led by a band was approaching from the other side of the street. I was horrified. ‘Dadamoni, why have you come here?’ ‘Don’t you worry,’ he said.

He knew what I was thinking. But it failed to calm my nerves. We were in an area which no Hindu would dare enter. And the whole world knew Ashok was a Hindu, a very prominent Hindu at that, whose murder could create shock waves. I could remember no prayers in Arabic, nor an appropriate verse from the Quran. But I was cursing myself and praying in broken words, ‘O God, don’t let me be dishonoured … let no Muslim kill Ashok because if that happens, I will carry that guilt to my grave. I am not the entire Muslim nation. I am only an individual but I don’t want the Hindu nation to curse me forever and ever if something happens to Ashok.’

When the procession reached the car, some people spotted Ashok and began to scream, ‘Ashok Kumar … Ashok Kumar.’ I went cold. Ashok had his hands on steering wheel and he was very quiet. I was about to scream to the crowd that I was a Muslim and Ashok was taking me home when two young men stepped forward and said, ‘Ashok bhai, this street will lead you nowhere. It is better to turn into this side lane.’"

Manto was always aware of global politics and the bearing it has over the lives we lead, particularly in the Third World. The first ever literary endeavour he undertook was translating Russian literature into Urdu. However, he largely refrained from obvious political comment in either fiction or non-fiction.

This seems to have changed a bit with his nine letters to Uncle Sam, written between 1951 and 1954. The backdrop was perhaps the new economic, technological and cultural power assumed by the US in the wake of the Second World War, coupled with the beginning of a relationship between the Pakistani establishment and Washington, primarily aimed at combating Soviet interests. Manto is prophetic in some of these letters. No one dares write with such cadence and directness today.

In the third letter to Uncle Sam, he says:

"You have done many good deeds yourself and continue to do them. You decimated Hiroshima, you turned Nagasaki into smoke and dust and you caused several thousand children to be born in Japan … Out here, many mullah types after urinating pick up a stone and with one hand inside their untied shalwar, use the stone to absorb the after-drops of urine as they resume their walk. This they do in full public view. All I want is that the moment such a person appears, I should be able to pull out that atom bomb you will send me and lob it at the mullah so that he turns into smoke along with the stone he was holding…

As for your military pact with us, it is remarkable and should be maintained. You should sign something similar with India. Sell all your old condemned arms to the two of us, the ones you used in the last war. This junk will thus be off your hands and your armament factories will no longer remain idle…

One more thing. We can’t seem able to draft a constitution. Do kindly ship us some experts because while a nation can manage without a national anthem, it cannot do without a constitution, unless such is your wish."

Here is another excerpt. This is from the fourth letter:

"There is something about lipstick that I need to mention to you. The kiss-proof lipstick that you sent over did not gain much popularity with our upper-class ladies. Both young girls and older women swear that by no means is it kiss-proof. My own view is that the problem lies with the way they kiss which is all wrong. Some people kiss as if they were eating watermelon. A book published in your country called The Art of Kissing is quite useless here because one can learn nothing from it. You may instead like to fly an American girl over who can teach our upper classes that there is a difference between kissing and eating watermelon. There is no need to explain the difference to lower and lower-middle class people because they have no interest in such matters and will remain the way they are."

You read Manto today and you realise that the predatory times of the Partition of British India are not over. And in addition to the pains we inflict upon ourselves, those inflicted by the global powers have also increased with time. For us, Manto’s writings on the Partition form the basis for establishing a process of truth and reconciliation around this colossal tragedy, the terrible suffering it made a generation go through and its never ending aftermath — the aftermath that we saw in Dhaka and continue to see from Srinagar to Ahmedabad in India and from Gilgit to Karachi in Pakistan. When truth is not established, brutality is not condemned, and perpetrators of atrocities go scot-free; reconciliation cannot be achieved and a lasting peace can never be made.

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 and author based in Islamabad. He also writes a weekly newspaper column.