A two-day seminar to commemorate the birth centenary of Saadat Hasan Manto, the celebrated Urdu writer of the subcontinent, opened here on Friday highlighting several unique and not so well known aspect of the writer who is widely considered to have introduced the modern short story in Urdu.

The first day of the seminar saw scholars from India and Pakistan engage in a thought-provoking debate on not only his political affiliations but also the “new found love” for Manto and how the middle class has repackaged him not as a serious critic of society but as an “entertainer”.

Eminent scholar and translator of several of Manto’s works, Professor Ashok Bhalla, who chaired the session on “Partition, Politics and the Post-colonial Predicament”, argued that too much focus had been given to Manto’s works in which he had documented the trauma, pain and horror of Partition. His works which have archived the syncretic history of the sub-continent and highlighted its devastation in post-partition Pakistan have largely been ignored, he argued.

“Take Manto’s Dekh Kabira Roya, in which he has imagined Kabir walking through the streets of Lahore in the post-Partition Pakistan and crying after seeing the treatment of an idol of Lakshmi at the hands of fundamentalist Muslim. With much pain and a sense of loss, he repeatedly highlighted instances of cultural blasphemy happening during his time, some thing which tends to be ignored.”

Terming the seminar an attempt to re-read Manto in all the unexplored contexts, Prof. Bhalla said: “It is an attempt to see all these aspects of Manto’s writing which have largely been unexplored in greater details. Fundamentalists in Pakistan have attempted to appropriate Manto as an apologists for Pakistan and as a Muslim writer of and for Pakistan. Whereas the reality is just the opposite.”

In his introductory remarks, Prof. Bhalla wondered what explained this new love for Manto, when until the past two decades people didn’t talk about him, neither in the literary circle nor in the popular narrative because he raised “uncomfortable questions”.

He argued that Manto had all his life criticised the middle class highlighting its moral corruption and hypocrisies but now the same class has appropriated him as an “entertainer” ignoring the uncomfortable questions which are part of his writings.

“Manto has been co-opted by the middle class entertainment industry. These days you have plays on Manto’s life which evoke laughter. There is no talk at all of uncomfortable questions and serious problems which are part and parcel of his writings.”

On Manto’s political affiliations, well-known political commentator Aijaz Ahmad said the debate was meaningless as it had not moved even a bit since last 60 years. He also argued that one needed to ask new questions and approach Manto and his writings from new angles.

As part of the centenary celebrations, a Dastangoi performance will be staged on Saturday besides a talk by Hindi film lyricist Javed Akhtar titled “Manto Ke Toote Phoote Log”. The seminar is being organised by Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust in collaboration with the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

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