The unpalatable Manto

Manto’s writing had a history of attracting the wrath of authorities for its stinging moral and political comment.

Ajmal Kamal February 17, 2012

We shall be celebrating Saadat Hasan Manto’s birth centenary in May 2012. By ‘we’, I mean his readers for whom Manto has been one great and rare source of insight about ourselves as a people. For the official ‘nation’ — more accurately, the political and literary establishment — he has always been the enfant terrible, the rather recent efforts to somehow co-opt him for the official worldview notwithstanding.

Manto’s writing had a history of attracting the wrath of authorities for its downright honest and realistic portrayal of life and its stinging moral and political comment. He had been prosecuted under the British colonial government for publishing the short stories Dhuvan and Kali Shalvar. Individuals such as Chaudhry Muhammad Husain of the Press Branch, Government of Punjab — immortalised by Manto in the dedications of two successive editions of his collection Lazzat-e-Sang — were always eager to assist the authorities in this respect. Having decided on intolerance of any moral or political comment almost from the moment the new state came into being, the Pakistani authorities have since kept it alive and have never felt the need to relax it.

The first law to suppress dissent of all kinds was the infamous Public Safety Act. It was imposed as an ordinance in October 1948, and was later, in 1952, ratified by the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan as the Safety Act. Apart from numberless political workers, newspapers, and periodicals, the leading progressive literary journals, too, fell victim to this oppressive piece of legislation which was only the first in a long series of such laws. In fact, Savera (Lahore) has the dubious honour of being the first periodical of any kind to be banned, in 1948, under this very Public Safety Act Ordinance. Zamir Niazi, the tireless chronicler of the Pakistani authorities’ suppression of political dissent, mentions in his invaluable book The Press in Chains, how in 1950 two other Lahore-based progressive literary periodicals —Nuqoosh and Adab-e-Latif — were suspended for six months and the editor of Savera, Zaheer Kashmiri, jailed without a trial.

The Safety Act had well-known literary people on both sides. On the one hand, literary critics such as Muhammad Hasan Askari found the law perfectly justifiable — indeed, he went so far as to praise it in his column which appeared under the running title “Jhalkian” in the (obviously and openly anti-progressive) literary periodical Saqi — published from Delhi until June 1947, and subsequently from Karachi. On the other hand, there were writers and editors who were prosecuted under this law, Manto perhaps being the most prominent among them. Manto wrote a scathing piece against the Safety Act and the actions taken under it.

Another progressive writer Ibrahim Jalees (who later became a noted journalist) sarcastically called it the “Public Safety Razor”. A particularly harmful expression of this intolerant and myopic official policy — whole-heartedly supported by sycophants of all kinds including the literary variety — has been felt in the field of education, more specifically in the preparation and dispensation of textbooks for Pakistani students. Once every voice capable of offering an alternative view had been effectively silenced, the field was left wide open for the imposition on students — without any threat of challenge from any quarter — of an anemic and distorted viewpoint through officially produced textbooks.

It was, therefore, a great surprise for me to find that the Sindh Textbook Board, suddenly and for no fathomable reason, decided to posthumously honour Manto, who had been anti-establishment par excellence , by including one of his stories in the textbook, titled Gulzar-e-Urdu (Part II) for Class XII. What was less surprising, however, was the fact that both the Board and the team of compilers and editors faithfully serving it had not lost sight of the ideological principles guiding the preparation of course materials for students. While including one of Manto’s (and Urdu fiction’s) masterpieces, Naya Qanoon (The New Constitution), they subjected it to a careful reading, using their censor’s blue pencil to neutralise what they probably considered the fictional text’s potentially corrupting influence on the innocent minds of second-year college students.

Some insight into the kinds of considerations uppermost in the minds of the textbook censors may perhaps be gained by looking at the passages expunged from the story of the hapless Mangu kochvan (the tonga driver) — passages thought unfit for impressionable college students.

In the next piece in this space I intend to quote the relevant passages from the story followed by brief comments pointing to possible reasons for each deletion.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2012.


Cynical | 12 years ago | Reply

Thanks @ r p

For mentioning 'TTS'. Give me 'Toba Tek Singh' , any day, any time; would love to take it to my grave.I have seen the pain of partition and (hopefully) can comprehend the madness behind it.

Ahmad | 12 years ago | Reply

The sadness of the state throughout history is that it has never let the public make up its own mind. We have never been trusted to be responsible enough and whats worse, we have only reinforced this paradigm by our silence. Manto also wrote "Letters to Uncle Sam" which are remarkable in their relevance 50 years on. People can read them here:

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