Pakistan is a very special country indeed. We disown our greatest minds because they do not conform to our views and we honour those who have committed crimes. Saadat Hassan Manto, of course, falls in the former camp. Undoubtedly, Manto was one of the best short story writers of Pakistan. However, rather than cherishing this great writer who left a good deal of fame and fortune in Bombay to move to Lahore in early 1948, Pakistan proved to be a-less-than-the-free-homeland which Manto had envisioned. Once, when he tried to get a train ticket and even offered a bribe, he was sternly told that “This is Pakistan” and that such things no longer happen in this country. The sense of change was strong in the early years of Pakistan. Nevertheless, the result of this ‘freedom’ was that Manto was prosecuted for obscenity three times in independent Pakistan and the publishers and newspapers which published his stories and columns came under strong pressure from conservatives to refrain from giving him a platform. As a result, even now, only a small percentage of people know and read Manto. Manto is neither taught at the school or university level nor is there discussion or assessment of the great writer and his work in civil society at large.
Recently, the 100th birth anniversary of Manto was marked by several events. An edited work of Manto’s plays and essays was launched by Professor Ayesha Jalal and Nusrat Jalal, and Ajoka Theatre put together a four-day festival of readings and dramatised versions of Manto’s stories. While all of these are commendable efforts, I wonder if even the people who thronged to hear and see Manto’s work really internalise the issues he has highlighted. Obviously, if we had understood Manto’s work and learnt from it, Pakistan and, more importantly, its people, would not have been in these dire straits.
On one of the days during the Manto festival, the play Naya Qanoon was dramatised. Succinctly, the play is about a tonga driver, Mangoo, who is very excited about the Naya Qanoon which is about to come and change everything. Mangoo overhears the conversations of his customers and then relates them to his friends that this Naya Qanoon is going to give real freedom to the people and transform the state and society. Watching this play in 2012, it seemed as if it was about our current condition since almost everyone is hoping and eagerly waiting for ‘change.’ However, the Naya Qanoon of Mangoo was not the tsunami of Imran Khan or any such promises but the Government of India Act 1935! I wonder what the audience would have thought if the organisers had not announced in advance that the play was about the 1935 Act. In any case, the heightened expectations with the 1935 Act, which gave provincial autonomy and a measure of self-government to Indians, is the same that we expect from almost all of our politicians, who repeatedly claim that their rule will usher in a new era and change everything. More than half a century later, the disappointment of today’s Mangoo’s will soon be evident on the morning after.
Manto’s India and then, Manto’s Pakistan were peculiar countries where everything was topsy-turvy, everything made the opposite sense and satire was the naked truth. Today’s Pakistan is also very much the same. Pakistan where criminals are given a hero’s welcome and laudable writers are forgotten. In the same week where Manto’s centenary only received city pages worth of coverage, the return of a person who is under trial for committing a grave criminal offence gets prime time coverage and official protocol. Seeing this, I am only reminded of Manto’s immortal words at the beginning of Toba Tek Singh “Two or three years after Partition, it occurred to the governments of Pakistan and Hindustan that like criminal offenders, lunatics, too, ought to be exchanged…”
Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2012.