Local literary circles have declared 2012 as the year to celebrate Saadat Hasan Manto’s genius. The grand master of Urdu fiction, Intezar Hussain writes that this year of celebration, “Provides an opportunity to revive our memory about the writer, to make a re-assessment of his works and pay homage to him.”
But should we really pay homage to a perverted alcohol addict who loved to write about sex? Yes, we must. We must halt our jargons on the Nato supply routes, the Higgs boson and Babar Awan’s juridical theatrics, to think for a moment as to what it really means to be human.
Man is but a quixotic heap of whimsicalities, alternating between happiness and sorrow. Our tempers and humours do not adhere to state constitutions or party manifestos. Every single day, we rattle bumpily along a mad roller-coaster of fluctuating tempers – quite independently of whether democracy survives, America declines or Zardari resigns.
Saadat Hasan Manto knew. He knew that human irrationality had a rationality of its own. He knew that it were not the state or the parliament that mattered. He knew that it weren’t these muddled ideologies or garbled theories that mattered. It was the erratic rattle of the roller-coaster that matter. It was all very surreptitious and bizarre.
He knew that the 20-something Salma nursed deep within her the womanly desire for love and validation. He knew that she was ashamed to admit this. It was this raging tempest within her subconscious that lured her to the bed of a strange man, after a girlfriend enticed her to seek a man’s company. “Bus Stand” is a story of weak resolves and strong impressionability. It is not Salma’s story. It is your story. It is the story of that time when the bastion of your promises and principles collapsed, and you were crushed within the ruins – severely disappointed in yourself, burdened with guilt, but gripped with a momentary feel of glee for having ventured thither.
Manto’s characters breathe within our very skins: the rashness of the demented Sikh detainee in “Toba Tek Singh”, the fresh, puberty-ridden sensitivities of young Masood in “Dhuaan”, Man Mohan’s obsession with the attractive voice of an anonymous female caller in “Badshahat Ka Khatma”, the bored and destitute Sultana’s yielding to the attentions of a shady Hindu man in “Kali Shalwar” – they all tell us our own stories. They slide your veneers away, mirror the demon within you, and render you attentive to your own selfishness, helplessness and whimsicalities.
Like Iqbal, Manto reached the pinnacle of fame posthumously. Manto’s genius, however, was celebrated secretly. His work could not be read or quoted in public gatherings without meriting the contempt of many men and women who hated his “obscenity”. His work was severely contested in literary circles for this “obscenity”, and some of his short stories like “Bu” and “Thanda Gosht” were censored by the state. It is but a wonder to note that Manto’s vivid display of the human, devoid of all the pretentions of affected language, is disdained upon as “obscene”.
Stories need not have a purpose, but one must remember that this was not the case with Manto’s stories. They had a purpose: to reveal the human, to instill empathy and expose the many variegations of human nature. He was not interested in catering to the pornographic pleasure of his readers. Had Manto aspired to the latter, he would never have sewn his plots in the political, social and cultural ramifications of his day. Besides, Manto was both a journalist and a script-writer. A very telling book on his life called “Manto Mera Dost”, written by Mohammad Asadullah, reveals that Manto was a man who read widely and spent many hours a day reflecting in quiet.
His writing endeavors begin with the Urdu translations of the works of Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekov. His insightful critiques on Russian literature lead to his christening as “Mahir-e-Roosiyaat”. He remained a journalist by profession for several years. He was thus a man of substance and intellect. To discount his great literary creativity as pure eroticism (and hence “obscene”) is hardly plausible.
But yes, Manto’s work is not for children. It is not for those whose religious sensibilities waver upon the description of a rape scene. It is not for those whose moral fibers weaken upon the sensual description of a woman’s body. It is for those who understand that these descriptions serve a higher purpose. They seek to shatter our impassiveness and prod awake our slumbering conscience.
It is perhaps time we take pride in this great writer and see to a Manto Chowrangi, a Manto Park and perhaps a Manto International Airport too.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2012.