“Many outstanding short story writers appeared on the Urdu literary scene. But Manto will not be born again. No one will be able to replace him. I know this fact, so do Rajindar Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Khawaja Ahmad Abbas and Upendarnath Ashk.”
Several noteworthy aspects emerge from these words from Krishan Chander, the renowned short story writer. Each writer above is an outstanding figure in the oeuvre of Urdu short stories and all of them were contemporaries of Saadat Hasan Manto – some were even antagonistic to him (Ashk wrote a long article titled Manto Mera Dushman). Professional jealousy aside, all of them had to acknowledge Manto’s greatness.
Even those who condemned him for, in their eyes, the carnal and lewd contents of his stories could not deny his greatness as a writer. His acute observation, psychological insight into his characters, born of close interaction with them, courage to write what he observed, his graphic expression, his spontaneity, his prolificacy and the simplicity of his narrative brought him on a par with any great short story writer in any language, be it de Maupassant, Gorky, Chekhov or Maugham.
Though Manto is primarily known as a short story writer, he wrote more than 100 plays (he worked as scriptwriter for All India Radio in Delhi and could write a play on any subject at short notice) and an erudite essayist.
He also wrote some delightful sketches, bringing his subjects to life. The collective name given to these sketches is Ganjay Farishty because with deadly honesty he scraped off all artifice, revealing their true persona, warts and all. And what a delight it is to read any of them, especially Murli Kee Dhun (on actor Shayam), Teen Golay (on Meerajee), and other takes on Agha Hashar Kashmiri, Ismat Chughtai and Noor Jahan.
Many critics of Manto hold that he wrote only sexually explicit stories, little realising that an overwhelming part of his work does not deal with lust and its offshoots, and even when they do, it is always part of a wider theme and commentary.
One great story of this genre is Suvraj Kay Leeye (For the sake of self rule). It is the story of a handsome young man, Shahzada Ghulam Ali, in the backdrop of the struggle for freedom being carried out in Amritsar in the 1920s soon after the massacre of Jalyanawala Bagh.
A female co-worker in the movement, Nigar, and he are in love and decide to get married. But before doing that, they seek the blessings of their guru, Baba Jee. While grudgingly granting permission, he emphasises that the struggle for independence should get precedence over physical desire. As a dutiful follower, Ali pledges that the young couple will not become the parents of a child born in slavery and would remain celibate till India wins freedom. After the passage of few years Manto meets Ghulam Ali. India is still under British subjugation, but Ali has become father of two children. When Manto reminds him of his pledge of yore, he comes out with a powerful dictum that the violation of one’s nature and instincts is not bravery and cannot help achieve any goal. He laments that the spirit of any religion or movement gets dissipated by emphasis on rituals and outward symbols. It is a powerful story dealing with an important fact of human life, with Manto’s distinctively vivid characterisation.
Manto remained in a mental hospital for a while in an attempt to cure his alcoholism. His experiences there gave us a great story: Toba Tek Singh. Soon after Partition, it was decided that the inmates of the mental hospital should be transferred to either India or Pakistan in accordance with their respective religions. The protagonist of the story, Bishan Singh, comes to know of the proposed transfer and repeatedly tries to find out which of the two countries his hometown is allocated. The consummate story teller depicts the scene and the characters at the mental hospital with such mastery that each scene and each character comes alive. The reader empathises with each one of them, mostly with heartbreak and occasionally with laughter. The story is a telling commentary on the madness of Partition.
Naya Qanoon was written in the backdrop of the Government of India Act 1935. Mango, a tongawallah, naively presumes that with the implementation of the new law, India will become free and everyone will become equal. On the day the Act is implemented, he encounters a gora sahib who wants to hire his tonga. An altercation ensues with regard to the fare Mango is demanding. Irritated by the bossy attitude of the gora, Mango starts beating him. Taken aback by the suddenness and the intensity of the attack, all the gora can do is shout for help. Soon the police arrive and arrest Mango who, puffed up by his distorted perception of the new law, keeps justifying his behaviour. He is ordered to shut up, is put behind bars.
Babu Gopi Nath is a story of a profligate with fast depleting finances. His only wish is to find a suitable match for his mistress before his last penny runs out. When she finally succeeds in getting a proposal for marriage, Babu Gopi Nath spends his last penny to provide her with a substantial dowry. Only Manto’s discerning eye could fish out a jewel from the surrounding muck.
Manto lived for just over 42 years. His life was not entirely spent in literary pursuits but also in waywardness and heavy drinking. Yet he managed, in a short life, to produce a momentous oeuvre of short stories, plays, essays and life sketches comparable to the best in any language. The enormity of his work is evident from the fact that the five volumes of his complete work consists of more than 4,000 pages. It is a pity that recognition given to him is not commensurate with his talent. But, then, as the poet Elizabeth Browning asked, “since when was genius found respectable?”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2012.