In Urdu, a ‘stylist’ is usually someone who writes an ornate style, but Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) emerges as a great stylist after your ear picks up and the image-seeking eye has tired. Urdu literature in Pakistan has suffered a decline at the hands of hardline advocates of religion and the books they prescribed for schools. Manto is the sentinel that stands defiantly in the face of this race to the bottom. The dominance of Manto in Urdu is in the rhythm of the sentence, the sort that Urdu poetry never lacked but is possible in prose. Manto worked hard on his diction despite the impression given by his publishers that he would write on the insides of an empty pack of cigarettes while travelling on a tonga.
Both Pakistan and India have got Manto wrong. In India he is read because he is seen to reject the creation of Pakistan; in Pakistan, purists, apart from blasting him for ‘obscenity’, at times tend to agree with this interpretation. In fact, both India and Pakistan are involved in doing horrible things to each other’s potential citizens. If Manto negated Pakistan in his story Toba Tek Singh, he also negated elsewhere a communalist India that made it impossible for him to stay on in Bombay. His best portrait was of film actor Shyam, also his best friend, who once said he would have killed Manto had he (Shyam) been present at a Rawalpindi massacre of Hindus.
Manto was really in love with only one city, Bombay. That is where he succeeded as a writer and as an observer of men. In Lahore, people might remember him as a bitter, insulting man who respected hardly anyone, but back in Bombay he was able to admire Hindu actors like Shyam and Ashok, and write a wonderful sketch of actress “Parichehra” Naseem Bano only to understand the Hindu-Muslim divide a lot better than most of us and write about it with the kind of mordancy that we often don’t favour in our partisanship. He once did not treat Pakistani cinema icon Noor Jahan too well but the great lady, recognising his genius, always turned up when invited by him.
Manto did not want to return to Lahore. He went to Delhi to work for the radio for a time only to return to Bombay. Then riots overtook Bombay and broke his heart. He was asked by Ashok’s film company to leave after it received communal threats. The remainder of his days that were spent in Lahore — where he was to be put under trial for obscenity and hated by the rightists and progressive writers equally — were drowned in alcohol trying to forget the city he had loved. What we got as a spin-off was the best ‘partition’ writing that we have managed.
Manto irreverently made a psychological study of the founder of the nation, the Quaid-e-Azam, but his more biting iconoclasm was expressed in his stories like Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat). There is the famous Khol Do (Open Up) about a girl raped by Sikhs, and The Assignment, which brings out the complexity of the communal mind Manto had hinted at. Among the sketches, “Pathanistan” rebukes with greater intensity today than it did in 1947. Manto’s sketches were cinematic spin-offs from the carnage of 1947.
Manto would not have celebrated his 85th birthday in 1997 when South Asia was on the brink of nuclearisation. Maybe today he would have agreed to celebrate his 100th birthday seeing that Pakistan and India are about to normalise their bedevilled relationship. That should make us all, on both sides of the long line that divides us, pause and think. Manto’s humanism inclined him to the conviction that happiness does not necessarily lie in conflicts over religion and nationalism but on fellowship and caring, on love and decency, on tolerance and forgiveness. Never were these qualities more in need in the subcontinent than they are today. Some right-wing critics (the leftists never liked him) say Manto was no good because his fiction didn’t have a “maqsad” (objective). The truth of the matter is that he, more than any other writer of Urdu, has a message that hasn’t died after a 100 years.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2012.