There are writers and then there are writers who become legend. They stay with you, obscuring boundaries of history and geography; all humans become one on the basis of these shared experiences, anxieties, disillusionments and realisations.
Saadat Hassan Manto was one such maestro who spun short stories that reached far and beyond his own universe. Undeterred by realities, he would paint pictures through words, weaving together the sane and the mentally sick, the virtuous woman and the prostitute under one umbrella. And that was his strength: to cater to all kinds of intellect and to hold up to the world its own complexes and imperfections.
To celebrate his 100th birthday, writers, poets and intellectuals gathered at the Pakistani Academy of Letters here on Friday. Mounted in front of the podium was a sepia portrait of a bespectacled Manto, writing on a sketch pad in furrowed concentration with a cigarette perched on one lip. In true birthday spirit, a cake was also cut.
Hameed Qaiser, short story writer, presented his tribute by reading out a self-written letter titled “Pyaray Manto” in which he coalesced the writer’s life events with his own appreciation and love. The note was both personal and poignant. He addressed the writer and criticised the indifference of government organisations and institutions in highlighting Manto’s stature. He compared the neutrality of SMS, email and Facebook to the intimacy of handwritten letters, which the writer loved.
“Just like Elizabeth Taylor and Angelina Jolie are the most photographed women, Manto is the most written about writer,” said another short story writer, Nelofar Iqbal. “There’s no going back once you’ve become enchanted with his work. While complimenting his wit, depth and diversity, she added that “his taste lingers on.”
Perhaps the most interesting feature of his writing is its relevance to the modern era. He left a legacy for contemporary writers as a guiding compass to write short stories as pointed out by Humera Ashfaq, lecturer at International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI). She said that he treated his characters equally, without distinction of land or religion, gender or circumstance. As Shakespeare pointed out, “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Presiding over the session, IIUI Director Prof. Fateh Muhammad Malik dubbed Manto a “revolutionary writer”, who stood against tyranny and ideological confinement. He added that Manto being Pakistani or Muslim had little to do with his work, he was a humanist who wrote for humans. Be it Sikh, Muslim or Hindu.
“We must ponder over why writers like Manto, Faiz, Jalib, Gul Khan Naseer and Ajmal Khattak are kept away from our educational and other institutions. How else can we promote our literature to the world?” said Anwar Ahmad, short story writer and chief guest.
The speakers referenced popular characters from his stories and his good friend Shyam. They traced influences of the partition on his life, the incident of Jallianwala Bagh which left a deep impact on his personality, his time at a mental hospital which gave him insight into alternate psyches. The epitaph that he wrote for his grave and his final words to his wife were stark reminders of the double standards of our times:
“Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story writing. Under tonnes of earth he lays, still wondering who among the two is the greater short-story writer: God or he, Saadat Hasan Manto.”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 12th, 2012.