Lately I took a literary pilgrimage. When I came back from it, I was not the same person that I used to be because mostly what arouses my conscience now are words and I can feel words more than anything in my existence. I came across this man called Saadat Hasan Manto, and with my limited knowledge and ignorance, I didn’t know that he happens to be the world`s best short story writer. As Times Literary Supplement puts it “What is characteristic of (Manto`s) best work is a wry, sardonic refusal to be shocked. His attitude is that of a man who can no longer be surprised by the things people do to each other, but who nevertheless retains his humanity and compassion.”
Manto, the most controversial short story writer in Urdu, was born on 11 May 1912 at Samrala in Punjab`s Ludhiana district. In a literary, journalistic, radio scripting and film-writing career which spanned over more than two decades, he produced 22 collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches, and numerous scripts for films. He was tried in court for obscenity half-a-dozen times- thrice before and thrice after independence. Manto`s greatest works were produced in the last seven years of his life, a time of great financial and emotional hardship for him. He died several months short of his 43rd birthday in Lahore during January 1955.
Manto was one of the great writers of Urdu prose. His work was always finished with a distinctive bite and sharpness to it. It might come as a surprise to as it was to me, that despite coming from a middle-class Kashmiri family of Amritsar, Manto showed little enthusiasm for formal education. He failed his school-leaving examination twice in a row; ironically one of the subjects he was unable to pass was Urdu, the language in which he was to produce such splendid work in the years to come which alone can give one goosebumps. He was to become the most influential writer in Urdu language during his era and for the times to come. Manto is loved only by few and hated by many since he wrote on subjects on which you and I may think about, but would never talk to another soul about. This was his only crime, his compassion to write whatever he saw. No doubt, he did a fair job in doing so, but nevertheless offended countless hypocrites at the same time.
The iconic author himself suffered a lot during the Partition; he had to move to Lahore although he belonged to Bombay and had always considered the city his home. This is why most of his short stories were based around the massacres of Partition. In his own words, he stated, “I found it impossible to decide which of the two countries was my homeland: India or Pakistan? Who was responsible for the blood being so mercilessly shed every day? Where were they going to inter the bones that had been stripped of the flesh of religion by vultures and birds of prey? Now that we were free, had subjection ceased to exist? Who were going to be our subjects? When we were the subjects of the British, we used to dream of freedom, but now that we were free, what would our dreams be? Were we even free? Thousands of Hindus and Muslims were dying all around us. Why were they dying? All these questions had different answers: the Indian answer, the Pakistani answer, the British answer. Every question had an answer, but when you tried to look for the truth, none of the answers were of any help. Some said that if you were looking for the truth, you would have to go back to the ruins of the 1957 Mutiny. Others said, no, it lay in the history of the East India Company. Some went back even further and advised you to analyze the Mughal Empire. Everybody wanted to drag you back into the past, while murderers and terrorists went about unchallenged, writing in the process, a story of blood and fire that had no parallel in history.”
For Manto, a human was a human regardless of what his or her color was or which God he or she bowed their head in front of. To him the kind of society was of no good where blood was shed in the name of religion and on the command of the so called beneficiaries of the religion. All of the inhumane acts never made any sense to him and it is no wonder, because he believed in humanity to an extent to which nobody else could digest or accept even today. In his eyes, nothing could justify inhumanity, cruelty or killing somebody. The best thing about his work is he had no heroes, everyone was a bloody villain. What people don’t get is that he was righteous in light of that day and age. People like Manto himself were the only heroes, and those were victims of constant rejection. Despite all the difficulties, Manto’s integral work stood out and passed the test of time undisputedly. Indeed his work is deeply ironic and mostly profoundly moving. Manto did view the tragedy of 1947 as a not-so-interested party, yet he cared unconditionally.
After arriving in Lahore in 1948, Manto wrote just one film which was a big failure. After that, he did not get any work. Sadly, the only money he managed to make was due to the work he never intended to write yet some of that work reflected truth, the harsh truth. Despite lack of work and his ill health, it was while living in Lahore in the last seven years of his life that Manto produced some short stories which are perhaps amongst the finest written in any language. In the postscript to one of his collections, addressing his readers, he wrote, “You know me as a story writer and the courts of this country know me as a photographer. The government sometimes calls me a communist, at other times a great writer. Most of the time, I am denied all means of making a living, only to be offered opportunities of gainful work on other occasions. I have been called an unnecessary appendage to society and expelled accordingly. And sometimes I have been told that I am on the list of those the state considers desirable. As in the past, so today, I have tried to understand what I am. I want to know what my place in this country that is called the largest Islamic state in the world is. What use am I here? You may call it my imagination, but for me it is the bitter truth, that so far I have failed to find a place for myself in this country called Pakistan which I love greatly. That is why I am always restless. That is why sometimes I am to be found in a lunatic asylum and sometimes in a hospital. I have yet to find a niche for myself in Pakistan, though as far as I am concerned, I think of myself as an important person. I believe that I have a name and a place in Urdu literature because, frankly, if I did not have that delusion, life would become quite unbearable.”
Manto was tried on an obscenity charge for his story, Colder than Ice, and was convicted but the judgment of the lower court was set aside in appeal. He recalled that episode and his state of mind during that time in the note appended to his book Ganjay Frishtay. He stated, “I felt utterly lost. I wasn’t sure what I should do. Should I stop writing altogether or should I write recklessly, unconcerned with consequences? I felt utterly listless. Sometimes I wished they would give me a lucrative piece of property so I could be free for a few years not only of financial worry but this entire business of reading and writing. I dreamt of becoming a different person who would no longer think, preferring to make a living selling contraband stuff for profit or producing illicit liquor. The last possibility I eventually crossed out from my list of alternative lifestyles because I was afraid I would drink half of my product myself. Contraband stuff I could not trade in because that needed capital and I had none.”
Manto wrote his own epitaph, though ironically, it does not appear on his grave because his family was afraid that if it did, there were enough extremists in the country, one or more of whom would immediately declare the act heretical and the author “outside the pale of Islam”. Instead, the family chose a couplet from Manto`s favorite 19th century poet Ghalib to whom one of his book is dedicated; and about whom he had once said that, after Ghalibthe right to compose poetry stood forfeited. The couplet from Ghalib reads: “Dear God, why does time erase my name off from the tablet of the living? I am, after all, not one of those words that is mistakenly calligraphed twice and, on detection, removed.”
Here in Manto`s own hand are the words that he wanted to mark his grave:
“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story writing….
Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is greater short-story writer: God or He.”
– Saadat Hasan Manto 18 August 1954.
I wonder why is he still wondering, would he had been alive today he could have seen it for himself that nothing has changed. People are still killed in the name of those unknown for the purposes of humanity, maybe because that is what people do, get killed. My guess is that if he would have been alive today, maybe he would have had more to write about. What is devastating is that people, who tend to do everything illicit and clandestine behind closed doors, take a shot at Manto and point to him as the one who was source of vulgarity. Manto was in fact a soldier in the war against hypocrisy. I say let us all wait for the day when we are held accountable for our deeds, and then we shall surely see who is the one who burns in the fire of hell for his or her sins. Till then, let’s enjoy his work as rare, outstanding piece of art which is incomparable to date since he has been laid to rest.