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Walking with the marginalised

Fearless: “Manto’s critics got louder, angrier, but he didn’t stop writing stories about prostitutes and pimps and madmen.” Manto with his wife Safia and sister-in-law Zakia.   | Photo Credit: Manto Family Archives

Saadat Hasan Manto’s works have always been in vogue, with Partition stories such as ‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Thanda Gosht’ and ‘Khol Do’ forming a bulk of literary discourse not just in Pakistan and India but across the world. That the icon has such a fan following is not without reason, for no other writer comes close to describing so vividly, and with a brutal honesty, the horrors of that rupture the way Manto did. His stories, contentious and daring, are masterpieces of literature.

A prolific writer

However, the greatness of Manto’s writing on the Partition eclipses his other works; their long stay in the limelight has robbed them of their surprises. These stories, which only form a small part of his writings, have often skewed assessment of his work. Manto was a prolific, determined writer who produced nearly two dozen collections of short stories, five collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches, and one novel.

Shahid Anwar, whose play Ghair Zaroori Log (persona non-grata) was based on six of Manto’s stories, said during an interaction with me in 2014: “The principal problem with Manto’s literary work was that somehow he got confined to the Partition and its framework.” No wonder that most of the stories that Anwar chose for his play, including ‘Hatak’, ‘Pairan’ and ‘Mummy’, are those that often go unnoticed in Manto’s body of work. So impressed was Habib Tanvir by Anwar’s pick that he wrote a rare foreword to the play.

Stories about the nameless

Manto was a fearless champion of the truth and was disdainful of any kind of hypocrisy. He wrote for marginalised peoples, openly mocking orthodoxy that sought to suppress some voices. Manto’s critics got louder, angrier, but he produced one story after another that showed empathy for those on the periphery. Manto’s characters are prostitutes and pimps, writers, even madmen. They are often nameless people whose human essence and relentless quest for identity and dignity he sought to explore.

‘Mummy’ is about an ageing and compassionate matron of a brothel. Although she is seen as a nuisance and is harassed by outsiders, Mummy cares for her clients. She is furious when her favourite client seduces a minor and beats him mercilessly. Yet, when the same client falls sick, she is the one who takes care of him. Despite her kind-heartedness, Mummy is compelled to leave town while those who visit her mehfils, the well-off and the so-called respected people, continue to enjoy their status in society. Manto brings out this irony beautifully. The story shows his respect for women who are ostracised by society, but who nevertheless retain their dignity and humanness and expose society’s hypocrisy. Manto believed that if given an opportunity, the marginalised could challenge the unjust mores of the times.

What Manto constantly tries to point out through his stories is that society has failed to provide succour to those who are most in need. It’s a dog-eat-dog world; only the fittest survive. But even in those circumstances, love flourishes and dies, and small human deeds stand out for their poignancy. Manto’s stories shock the reader with their graphic yet humane descriptions.

‘Hatak’ is another such story where a fille de joie, Saugandhi, falls in love with a policeman. One night, he warns her that no other man can come close to her. A constant game of betrayal and lies plays out with the human body as its site.

“Manto not only profiles his times but reflects unforgivingly on our collective consciousness. He clearly visualises the politics of marginalisation which disowns the very people that are the real constituents of a civic order,” Anwar had said.

In fact, Manto thought of himself as uncared for, long before he migrated reluctantly to Pakistan. He was tried thrice for obscenity before he moved to the new country. He saw what lay in store for him in India and in Pakistan. He understood that people like him would never get their due. And while he lived, he was acutely conscious of his predicament.

“What drew me to the writer was his free spirit and courage to stand up against orthodoxy of all kinds,” Nandita Das said, responding to a question on why she chose Manto for her next directorial venture. “He wrote with a rare sensitivity and empathy for his characters.”

The sacred and the filth

Manto never wrote from a distance. What society considered filth, he considered sacred. He always walked hand-in-hand with his characters. He is present in every scene that he depicts — he is the invisible ethereal form, assessing, empathising, dissecting. His stories are up close and personal, giving us the feeling that they are not fictional accounts but personal anecdotes. This is also perhaps why Manto carried throughout his life the accusation of being vulgar. But he never apologised. For his detractors, Manto had this to say: “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth.” It is perhaps this faith in what he believed in that makes Manto as relevant today.

Muqbil Ahmar is a writer and theatre activist.

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 11:18:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/Walking-with-the-marginalised/article14458237.ece

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