By: Josh Shahryar
It was with much sorrow that I learned that Saadat Hasan Manto has been posthumously awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s highest civilian honor. Too late? Maybe. However, that news opened too many old wounds in my heart. Wounds that I had to write something about if I was to find some closure. You see, to the rest of the world, Manto is a fearless story-teller, who spoke to adults, aiming to open their eyes to endemic oppression around them. To me, though, he will forever be a writer who spoke to children. The news of the posthumous – and might I add tragically late – recognition he received from the government of Pakistan took me back down memory lane to the moment I first encountered his words that seemed so out of place.
It reminded me of this Indian movie, “Kali Topi, Laal Roomal” (Black Hat, Red Scarf). Unlike most Indian movies made in the 50s and 60s, I haven’t seen South Asians sing its praises as much as more seminal works like Awara, Pyaasa, Naya Daur or of course, Mother India. But a certain song in the movie is still celebrated widely and considered an ode to the human condition. That song bears the tale of how I was introduced and influenced deeply by Manto.
The song is, “Deewana aadmi ko banati haiN rotiyaN” (Bread drives people insane). In the song, a man with a red scarf tries to explain to his amour why he’s been forced to become a pick-pocket. Through the course of the song, he takes her around their city and shows her how hunger forces people to do unbearable things. He shows her a child labourer, who carries a box on his head, forgetting about toys, an emaciated man, who has to carry a fat rich man on a hand-drawn carriage… basically, the most down-trodden of the down-trodden and how they are forced by bread to endure pains one could never imagine.
What caught my eye when I first watched the song in the movie was the man with the red scarf pointing towards women on the second floor balcony of a building and telling his lover how they, too, were forced to be there because of bread. This was the late 80s and my young 7 year old mind couldn’t grasp why he was pointing at them. The women looked nice enough. They were wearing clean clothes. Some of them even had make-up on. Why did one of them hide her face in her hands and cry? Why did another run? What was so incredibly painful that they were doing for bread? These questions soon found their way to my dad and his reply was as stern as it had always been when it came to him with my innocent inquiries: “When you grow up, you will know.”
Dismayed, I turned to my older brother – the second greatest source of knowledge in our family. He said the same thing. Onto sister. Same. Mother. Same. I went to school the next day and asked my teacher who echoed my dad: “You are too young to understand these things.” I threw it at everyone in school that I could, but the adults didn’t want to tell me. The kids like me were clueless. The women in the balcony haunted me all the way back to our street. But it was the same story in our neighbourhood. The adults didn’t want to tell me and the children didn’t know.
For weeks I pondered in curious anguish why this was such a big deal.
Then finally, our garbage dump broke. It was an empty oil canister. After months of use, the bottom finally fell off.
I ran to my mother and informed her of this unfortunate incident for her with the fakest smile possible for I knew that it was my lucky day. She sadly said something about how they were making “do numbri” canisters these days and proceeded to replace it with a new one. I waited in candid anticipation all day for the kabadiwala to show up – almost as if I was a tired rozaydar, waiting to hear, “Muslims! Eid is tomorrow!”
He showed up and before I knew it, I was standing in front of him with the metal canister and counting the five rupees he gave me. Maybe I didn’t even count and ran towards Shiraz Bookstore, the one joy I had in life. It was a store run by a bespectacled 60-something man of snow-white hair and fair complexion who reminded me of all the grandfathers I read about in the children’s magazine “Taleem of Tarbiyat”. He sold old and new books, magazines, novels… long story short, he was sitting in heaven, giving it up to people for just a few rupees.
I couldn’t wait to get my hand on an old issue of Sarguzasht digest. But that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the women in the balcony – as I hadn’t been able to since I’d seen them. They say where there’s a will, there’s a way. As I looked through the old digests, my eyes caught a glimpse of an old little book, tucked in between some old magazines about cricket that were too expensive for me to buy. I forgot the name of the book, but I saw Manto’s name printed on it. I had heard about Manto – mostly from news clippings I collected from when the bread-maker (naanwaayee) wrapped them around the bread each morning so the carrier’s hands won’t burn.
“Chacha, ye Manto kaun haiN,” I asked (Uncle who is Manto?).
He smiled at me and said, “Tumhe parhna hai?” (You want to read this?)
“Kitne ka hai?” I casually asked. (How much is it for?)
“Das ropay.” (ten rupees).
“Mere paas to serf paanch haiN. Waise bhi mujhe ye nahiN chaahiye.” (I only have five rupees anyway and I don’t want this to begin with.)
I didn’t want him to know I wanted it too badly. I didn’t want to embarrass myself with my poverty.
“Sarguzasht to chaar ropay ka hai. Aisa karate haiN, main ek ropay main tumhe Manto saab ki kitaab keraaye main de data hook. Jab phir aanaa, to le kar aa jaana.” (Sarguzasht is only four rupees. Let’s do this. I’ll rent Manto saab’s book to you for the other rupee, and you can bring it back when you come back to buy more books.)
“Itni achchi hai?” I asked (Is it that good?)
“Manto’s saab bachchoN ki kitaabeiN likha karte the. Meri nazar main un se achchi bachchoN ki kahaniyaN kisi ne nahiN likheeN.” (Manto used to write children’s books. In my opinion, no one has written better stories for children than Manto).
Well, what was I waiting for! I gave up my hard-earned money and brought home more to read. As badly as I wanted to know what Jahani Ustad’s next exploits in Tawaan were going to be by reading Sarguzasht, I just had to open up and see the Manto book.Homework could wait! Shiraz chacha had introduced me to Umroo Ayyar, Tarzan, Chun Changloo, Chaloosak Maloosak and many others, but if this was the best book for children according to him, I almost wanted to eat it for lunch!
I went into the store room where no one came, snuck my tiny frame under the chaarpaayee on top of which we laid the blankets and sheets and underneath it there were a dozen pillows, surrounded by boxes, other charpaayees and trunks. I was in my own world and ready to read the best stories of my life. I could be free of the thoughts of the women in the balcony for once.
I opened the book and started reading.
Two minutes later, I stopped and checked the cover to make sure it was the same book. Yep.
Five minutes later, I said astaghferullah loudly and berated myself for not saying it before.
Ten minutes later, I was disgusted…
Twenty minutes later, I was ashamed…
Thirty minutes later….
About an hour later, I knew why millions of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs had to leave their homes in 1947 forever.
Around the two hour mark, I knew what the word “Ismat-durry” (rape) meant.
Around the three hour mark, I knew that there were other mullahs besides the one in our city that touched children in the wrong way.
“Koja-asti o bacha? Biya nan bekho!” I heard my mom scream from the veranda. (Where are you? Come eat something!)
I pretended I didn’t hear. She had other kids and would soon forget I wasn’t there. I couldn’t risk her finding out I was reading Manto. Not that she could read, but I just couldn’t lie to her if she asked me. She was my mother.
As I kept reading, I found more answers to questions. Questions that I wasn’t getting answers to from the adults. Questions that I wanted to forget my manners and scream at my father for, “Padar jan! Man mekhayam ke ami hale befamam!” (Daddy dearest, I want to know these things right now!”)
But I knew those questions not only made me a bad son, and a terrible Muslim for questioning my elders’ authority, but it would also result in my dad slapping me hard at best or picking up a plastic water pipe and beating me till he was tired at worst.
Toba Tek Singh…
I kept reading every short story and after every single one, I would exclaim, “Wow, so that’s why!”
Here were the answers to questions I had been asking for years and been told by the adults in my life almost unanimously that I would understand them when I grew up. It wasn’t just me, every kid, including my own brother and sister went through a period of being denied answers. I don’t remember when I finished reading the book, but it was probably the moment I realized I needed to turn on a light.
I knew the truth.
The women on the balcony were taking money to have sex with men. It was of course wrong to do it – but they were victims of the society I was growing up in.
I didn’t know what sex meant. I did know it had to do something with the mullahs being alone with the boys who went to read Quran with them at night. And whatever it was, it was too shameful. Too shameful to ever be mentioned by anyone – except for when my dad had to tell me why he couldn’t send me to the mosque to study like the other kids: “You won’t understand!”
And it’s true that I didn’t know. Couldn’t know. Not until I read Manto. But was it my fault that I didn’t? Was it the other kids’ fault who were being touched by the mullah? Was it those women’s fault to be on the balcony in such shame? Was it Toba Tek Singh’s fault he had to die in no man’s land? And then it dawned on me: Why wasn’t my dad doing anything to stop this from happening?
Certainly, if he and the other men in our city got together and told the mullahs to stop touching the boys, they would stop! Maybe if the people in the city where the women on the balcony had to live in shame made it possible for them to find a different job, they would, no?
Maybe Toba Tek Singh didn’t have to die like that.
Why was Manto telling me all these things? Why wasn’t he telling them to my parents? Why not the neighbourhood? Didn’t they read this? Didn’t they suddenly feel ashamed and guilty? Why didn’t they do anything? Why isn’t anyone doing anything?
I didn’t know.
And I didn’t dare ask my father.
It was bad enough that I’d read Manto. I didn’t want to wake up with pipe marks on my arms and legs again.
Maybe my dad didn’t do anything, but he was right about one thing. I did grow up and sure enough and I learned many things. I learned that even though the adults could have stopped the abuse of boys in our masjeds, they didn’t. They didn’t read Manto when they were young, you know. So when they had questions like me, they weren’t given the answers I found. They had to grow up and slowly learn them. In the process, brutal oppression simply became another thing they could ignore about society as they lived their lives.
Just like they could ignore the fact that beating your children at a tender age makes them grow up damaged and hurt.
As I travel and meet people around the world, I realize every day what a shame it is that Manto isn’t taught everywhere to children.
Maybe if kids learn about societal oppression and how it’s wrong from a very young age in no uncertain terms, they won’t grow up to be desensitized adults who’ll ignore the plight of the marginalized and the abused. Maybe if their sincere requests about honesty in regards to what they see around them are not ignored, they’ll grow up to be men and women of action, unlike their parents. When I was young, I used to think my parents wouldn’t tell me about oppression because they wanted to protect me.
Now that I’ve grown up, I realize that they wanted to protect themselves. Protect themselves from criticism. Protect themselves from being reminded that they were half-dead. That their humanity was fast asleep. That they were simply machines, breeding, living, dying and ignoring the fates of the oppressed. Maybe they felt guilty; I don’t know. But thanks to Manto’s stories, my parents’ guilt stops with me.
They say if you take small doses of poison over a long time, it stops affecting you. I think oppression in societies, especially in societies like the one Manto lived in, has managed to survive for so long because knowledge about it is fed to people slowly and with age and by the time they are adults, they are used to it.
I was shocked when I was little and I’ve been forced into action ever since. Thank you, Manto saab, I’ll be forever indebted to you for that.
“If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth.” — Saadat Hasan Manto