As the internet fed me news of what Lahore, Karachi and New York City were planning for Manto’s birth centenary celebrations, my heart swelled with excitement. At the same time, an anxious little part of me wondered if Bombay (now Mumbai), the city that was Manto’s muse, would adequately honour the memory of the much-loved Urdu writer.
My anxiety vanished when PT Notes, the monthly newsletter of Mumbai’s famous Prithvi Theatre, announced, “Saadat Hasan Manto’s canvas is splashed with colourful and controversial stories ranging from the partition to his involvement in the Indian film industry. Come join us as we celebrate his birth centenary by exploring the world of storytelling through his writings.”
This event took place on the evening of May 8, as part of Mehfil@Prithvi, a young initiative run by Urduwallahs, a group formed to discover and celebrate the beauty and cultural history of Urdu through conversations, poetry readings, discussions and other kinds of sharing over, of course, chai. It was a well-organised and well-attended affair. “Doston, Urdu ke dil mein badi jagah hai, andar aayein,” said one of the guests at the mehfil, as he gently ushered in latecomers and requested the early birds to make space.
Over two hours, a fascinating feast of offerings was laid, which people like me in the audience devoured eagerly. The mehfil was held together by the commentary of filmmaker Arwa Mamaji who ensured that all Urdu aficionados and Manto-lovers had a good time, whether they were highly proficient in Urdu or beginners like me.
One of the highlights of the evening was an audio recording of Pakistani actor Zia Moheyuddin narrating Manto’s Toba Tek Singh. The mehfil also included readings of excerpts from Manto’s Teetwal Ka Kutta, Meri Shaadi, Ismat Chughtai’s Mera Dost, Mera Dushman, and a video clip from a film based on Manto’s story Kali Shalwar. We also listened to excerpts of what the poet Gulzar wrote about Manto, what Manto wrote about actor Ashok Kumar, what poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote about Manto, and the letters Manto wrote to his pen-pal Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi.
That apart, we had the opportunity to listen to actor-director Naseeruddin Shah whose theatrical production Manto Ismat Hazir Hai has been widely performed and much appreciated. He spoke of his recent visit to Lahore where he also met Manto’s daughters to discuss his plans for some new theatrical adaptations of Manto’s work. He said, “Ayesha Jalal, Manto’s grand-niece, has written a fascinating thesis – Pakistan turned Manto into an alcoholic. She describes his descent into hell over a period of seven years. He experienced deep disillusionment and terrible unhappiness.”
Shah’s comments found a rejoinder from veteran writer-filmmaker Shama Zaidi who was invited to share her thoughts. She said, “Manto would have been disillusioned anywhere. It was in his nature. He could not get over Bombay. He used to say Bombay was inside him.” Perhaps it was fitting then that this mehfil was being held in a city so dear to Manto.
During the interval, while chai was being served and bookmarks sold, the bright shiny lights resting against the trunk of a tall tree at Prithvi House took me back to my first encounter with Manto as a student at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. His short stories and vignettes were part of ‘Indian Writing in English’, a course all undergraduates aspiring to a major in English Literature were required to take. We read him in translation, and stood struck by the starkness and intensity of that writing. Here was a voice so different from the other writers we were discovering. There were no rambling descriptions, just snapshots, not pretty pleasant ones, but grimy ghastly ones. They had their own beauty – sooty, charcoal-like, smelly, smutty.
May 8 was the first time I was listening to these stories in Urdu, the language Manto had written them in. Urdu, a zubaan that feels so close to the Hindi that I have grown up speaking, and yet is written in a script that I cannot read. A language that I am committed to learning soon enough. A language in which Manto came alive for me that evening.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2012.