Updated: May 19, 2012 17:02 IST

Timeless appeal

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Haunting works: Saadat Hasan Manto.
The Hindu
Haunting works: Saadat Hasan Manto.

Though Saadat Hasan Manto's works were a mirror to his times, they continue to be relevant in ours as well.

Last year lovers of literature on both sides of the Great Divide held a series of celebrations on the centenary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the poet who lamented exploitation of the common people. This year Saadat Hasan Manto's centenary is being observed by those who have read his haunting short stories and pen portraits in Urdu or their translated versions; transliterated in the case of Hindi.

Early life

Manto was born in a village in Ludhiana on May 11, 1912, to a barrister practising in Amritsar and his second wife, a gentle woman with an artistic disposition. The strict father was unhappy because Manto had a poor record, unlike his three sons from his first wife who had done ‘well in life'. Manto failed twice in his school leaving exams and cleared it on the third attempt with poor grades. One of the subjects he flunked twice was Urdu, which is not surprising because niceties of the language were not for him. He wrote about common people, those who were exploited and were on the fringes, so his language had to be colloquial.

An attempt to study at the Hindu Sabha College failed as did his subsequent effort to study at the Aligarh Muslim University where, at least, he got to interact with other writers. Back in Amritsar he was taken under his wing by a learned man Abdul Bari Alig, who introduced him to European literature and coaxed him to translate Hugo, followed by the likes of Chekhov, Gorky and Oscar Wilde. The massacre at Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar inspired him to write his first original short story “Tamasha” (Tragic event).

Manto died before his 43rd birthday. A prolific writer, he left behind five collections of radio plays, three of essays, two of sketches and 22 short stories, not to speak of some film scripts. In 1936 an assignment to edit an Urdu film magazine took him to Bombay, a city he loved immensely.

Except for a two-year stint with All India Radio Delhi, Manto lived in Bombay till January 1948. It was there that he made many friends and experienced poverty. Occasionally when he got film scripts to write Manto made a lot of money, sharing it with some of his needy friends.

Years later writing pen portraits for Lahore-based newspapers and magazines, he wrote about a wide variety of people, but while his piece on actor Shyam was the one he wrote with great feeling, his most readable one was on Ashok Kumar, whom he befriended when he left Filmistan to join Bombay Talkies. Ashok Kumar comes out as a considerate and totally secular individual.

One day while the actor was driving the writer to some place in the city, he took a short cut and, ignoring Manto's protests, entered a Muslim locality in the riot torn city. A group of vicious-looking young men forced the car to stop. On seeing the idol, the leader said, “Ashok bhai don't go straight, turn right and you will hit the main road,” as he eyed Manto who was dressed in khaddar and perhaps taken to be a Hindu. Manto doesn't idolise his friend; he shows Ashok Kumar as a human being. He realised that soon after Partition that the Hindus working for Bombay Talkies were wary of the Muslims who were in a majority. Manto asked Ashok, who headed the studio, to recruit more Hindus but the actor didn't take the suggestion seriously.

Fearing that he would be attacked any day, Manto yielded to the prodding of his wife Safiya and decided to migrate to Pakistan, a decision which didn't go down well with many of his friends. Ismat Chughtai thought that the man with whom she had shared a lot, including charges of obscenity in their writings, was a coward.

In Pakistan

Life in Lahore was difficult. On the one hand, there were court cases and, on the other, there were lack of opportunities. In Bombay he seldom missed a drink but in Lahore, out of frustration, he took to the bottle with a vengeance. He started writing columns and in the process gave a new dimension, a rare spontaneity, to column writing in Urdu. His letters to Uncle Sam are still treasured and so is his letter to Pandit Nehru, whom he accused of holding on to Kashmir, without doing anything to alleviate poverty in the disputed state where Manto had his roots.

He was bitterly opposed to Partition and voiced his views in Lahore of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when it was sacrilege to speak against the division of the subcontinent. He was grieved by the carnage, the rapes and the looting that came in its awake. He wrote, “When I sat down to write I found my mind in a confused state. However much I tried, I could not separate India from Pakistan and Pakistan from India.”

Some of his most haunting stories such as “Khol Do” (Open it), “Kali Shalwar” (Black shalwar) and “Boo” (Odour) were related to sex crimes during Partition; so were his vignettes. The most horrifying ‘one-minute story' was about two men who buy an abducted girl and make her the object of their lust. In the morning they discover, to their horror, that the girl was their co-religionist. One man says “We have been hoodwinked. Return the girl to the seller and ask him to refund our money.” Manto doesn't take names nor divulge the religious affiliations of the characters.

The most memorable of his Partition stories is “Toba Tek Singh”, which is set in a lunatic asylum. Two or three years after Partition the two governments decide to exchange mental patients, Muslims from India and Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan. The inmates of the mental hospital in Toba Tek Singh simply can't understand how a place which was in Hindustan can become a part of Pakistan and what was the guarantee that the two states would not disappear totally from the scene. Bishen Singh, the mad protagonist, refuses to go to Hindustan. He stands on No Man's Land all through the night but just before sunrise he emits a cry, falls down and dies.

One last point; what would have Manto written had he lived now. He would have written stories about the plight of women in the subcontinent, about the senseless battle in the icy wastes of Siachen, about the fishermen of the two countries, who are caught and whose boats are confiscated. They languish in the jails, while their families suffer behind them. Manto's writings have a timeless appeal and yet they are the best commentaries of the time they were written in.

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