The Progressive Writers Movement never completely owned and recognised Manto in his life. Hasan Askari also mentioned that in his essays on Manto. Apparently, there were some lists issued in literary magazines which stated who belonged to the progressives and who didn’t. “Manto did not need that. He never did and never would. He was not interested. Period. He did wish to be told of his greatness. He simply did not care about the material aspects of his social life. Manto was a qalander in that respect. He was beyond acclaim or applause. He was indifferent to constructed literature and art for a purpose. His passion was to write stories and stories alone.”
Manto’s life is an excellent example of what happens when a man of outstanding genius falls among men of little talent. First come the publishers, and in a country with no copyright laws, or where scant respect is shown to them if they exist (inspite of the Writers Guild) a man of letters has no protection against exploitation. His writings are used for the setting up of large publishing establishments whose owners, after his death, shed hypocritical tears and pat themselves on the back at having ‘helped’ and ‘established’ the unknown Manto, or who write critical articles on his work after his death with indecent haste (and indecent purpose), to prove that he was not such a wonderful writer after all. There are other publishers who takes advantage of his weakness for booze and make him dash off stories – some brilliant, others of indifferent merit— for paltry sums of money while themselves sitting their offices. Sole rights for a story by him were determined by these good Samaritans at Rs. 20/-. These stories were first published in their magazines, and then printed in collections for which neither Manto nor his family ever received any royalty…
He was extremely disturbed by the batwara and the heinous communal riots that accompanied it. “Towards the mayhem — inqalab — that was unleashed as a result of the country’s partition I remained insolent for long, and still am, but later I recognised the dreadful reality, though in such a way that I did now allow pessimism to get to me.”
He was consistently writing against the wholesale repression that came to be the policy of the new state in its initial years — banning of a large number of newspapers and periodicals, jailing of writers and journalists, persecution of political dissent such as the Red Shirt movement in the then NWFP — under the all-purpose Public Safety Act (which he called the “Amrit Dhara Act”) — and the unwarranted space given to religious bigotry, jihadism and intrigue in the new country’s politics through instruments like the Objectives Resolution, war and xenophobia. Twice he had himself been tried — and acquitted — for obscenity in two of his stories related to the partition riots (He was to face one more of such trials — decided against him — before he finally left the world).
In this eloquent preface — which he gave the title Jaib-e kafan — Manto draws upon Ghalib’s masterful line: Hai dagh-e ishq zeenat-e jaib-e kafan hunuz. He writes: “I used to be recognised as a progressive, then all of a sudden I was branded a reactionary, and now the fatwa-givers are thinking again and are willing to acknowledge anew that I’m a progressive. And the government, which gives its own fatwa to overrule all fatwas, believes me to be a progressive, i.e. a surkha — a communist. From time to time it gets angry, accuses me of obscenity and tries me in courts. On the other hand, the same government advertises in its publications that S. H. Manto is a great writer of our country whose pen did not stop even in the past turbulent days. It frightens my sad heart to think that this fickle sarkar may happily pin a medal to my shroud, which will be an insult to my commitment — my dagh-e ishq.”
Anyone who has read Manto with any seriousness probably has a favourite. It is true that for historic reasons his stories directly impacted by the partition set him apart from his peers and raise him to a stature where he alone resides. That cannot be achieved by a writer through conscious efforts. Only Time can sculpt such beauties. It is not a stretch to suggest that Manto is to Urdu short story what Miles Davis is to trumpet, Billie Holiday to Jazz singing, Max Beckman to painting, and Chaplin to silent cinema whose City Lights’ final scenes can bring tears to your eyes even after almost a hundred years.
Dr. Ayesha Jalal
On his 100th birthday, Manto stands taller on the literary horizon than others who wrote about the mass migrations of 1947. Where he needs greater appreciation is in the role he played as a witness to history through his chilling narratives of Partition. In a country where history as a discipline has suffered from calculated neglect in the interests of projecting statist ideology, Manto’s Partition stories are an excellent entry point for enquiring minds eager to understand the past that has made their present fraught with such uncertainty and danger. The ever-percipient Manto had anticipated the problems of treating religion as a weapon rather than a matter of personal faith and ethics, which have over the past three decades surfaced with a vengeance in Muslim Pakistan. His words of warning have a resonance that is louder than when he said: “Our split culture and divided civilization, what has survived of our arts; all that we received from the cut up parts of our own body, and which is buried in the ashes of Western politics, we need to retrieve, dust, clean and restore to freshness in order to recover all that we have lost in the storm.” If there is a birthday present Pakistanis and Indians can jointly give Manto, it is to admit the reality of the problems he spelt out in his writings on Partition. It may then become possible for them to take the requisite steps towards recovering what has been lost by the myopic refusal of their respective nation-states to understand each other’s position, rectify past errors, and strike a mutually beneficial and sustainable historical compromise.
Manto is too mercurial to be placed in a timeframe; he is resistant to any categorisation or placement. What shape the society is taking on, the botoxed shape of enlightened moderation or a chequered shape poxed by corruption, intrigue and terror, one is not sure but, like all great artists, Manto remains ever-present and relevant to all times; he is our contemporary. Pick up anything today, modern fiction to new linguistics or art discussions, or journalism to media freedom, he is there.
‘Civil’ society and the state, both are power constructs and Manto is a depowering experience. He never wanted to become an ‘inevitable example’ for the state or the ‘civil’ society. Unlike others he was not into popularity polls or franchised art. Manto was feared by the state and is still feared by ideologues, religious saviours, reformers and the civilised elite. He hated the pulpit culture. He was averse to enshrined reverence, as he said, “I hope my writings are not given the lofty status as that of Iqbal, my soul will be restless. God may save me from the termite.” His Adam was not a crusader or a martyr, the epicure of suffering, fetishising poverty or the epical superman. His Adam was the unaccommodated man, a petty thief, a pimp like Khushia, or a sex worker like Sogandhi. He remains an underground swell and will perhaps never be a part of the state establishment or dominant cultures.
Manto is not going to fade away from our memory. The man who laid bare the festering sores of society will, I am sure, continue to be the subject of many studies. Some bright spark might even consider to examine how badly his art suffered as a result of his migration to Lahore.
Other than Amritsar, a town he speaks of with warmth in all his reminiscences, Bombay was the only city he felt comfortable in. He knew the byways of Bombay intimately and had a large circle of friends and admirers there. He had achieved his fame as towering writer of fiction while he was in Bombay and he was more than well-off in Bombay.
Manto didn’t have any roots in Lahore. In his early youth, he had lived there for two years as a young literary aspirant. In the post-partition Lahore, he felt rejected and abandoned and he must have found it a most dispiriting chore to go begging editors and publishers of flyblown magazines to buy his stories.
In his ‘profile’ of Anwar Kamal Pasha, he recounts that the hotshot producer-director once invited him to his studio and asked him for his help in solving a knotty problem with the script he was filming. Manto immediately saw the problem and not only pointed it out but suggested a new development which could tighten the story and make it more gripping. Pasha was awe-struck. He liked what Manto had suggested but was doubtful as to whether he should accept a solution offered on the spur of moment. Manto could read his mind clearly: “You would have been thrilled,” he said, “if I had taken the script home and brought it back after a week to tell you that having mulled over it for days my suggestions are as follows. No, my friend, I think quickly.”
As he was about to leave, he said flippantly, “And do you know how much my advice would have been worth?” Shamefaced, Pasha offered him a cheque for a measly five hundred rupees. “I should have torn the cheque into bits and thrown it in his face,” he writes, “but my needs…oh my needs. I accepted it and wept bitter tears realising how low I have sunk.”
No wonder he died soon afterwards.
He wasn’t really a dirty old man. For one, he never grew old: he died before his 43rd birthday. For another, between his obsessive drinking and writing — 22 collections of short stories, one novel, five collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches, and many scripts for films — everything else must have been crowded out of his life.
As for the charge of obscenity and vulgarity in his writing, every one’s elixir of excitement is not the same. People who consider Manto vulgar may also find erotic pleasure watching a woman nurse her baby in a public place, while others present may ignore it as a private matter between the mother and child.
He has a way of looking at things and an expression all his own, and that’s what makes him Manto — a sensitive human being and a brilliant writer whose pen dances between his observation of poverty and misery and the humour and ready wit of his expression.