By Kabir Sharma:
Saadat Hasan Manto wasn’t just one of the greatest writers of all time; he was a revolutionary and daredevil. Relentlessly bringing up truths nobody else had the guts to, he forced society to confront itself, causing it great discomfort. His writing will forever remain the crushing and inescapable force it was made to be.
A fresh collection of essays, ‘Why I Write: Essays By Saadat Hasan Manto’, edited and translated from Urdu by Aakar Patel, strings together the breadth of his writing – humorous, sarcastic, appealing, and attacking. All but two of the essays have been brought into English for the first time. Aakar Patel has chosen and organised them very well, showcasing the development of Manto’s many facets. The annotations to each essay are most insightful, and build excellent context.
Following the essays, one sees how dealing with the world gradually began to change Manto and his writing. The jocose Manto became darker with time, as people got divided and violence escalated. His wit never dies out though, and even towards the end, comes through in his funny anecdotes and shattering sarcasm.
The collection starts out with lighter, more personal pieces by a younger Manto, giving glimpses into his own life in the press and movie world of 1930s Bombay. How he slept in his office to save money, how his mother found him a wife against all odds, how much of Bollywood’s who’s who came for his wedding even though they hardly knew him, and how his wife’s financial concerns got him to write more.
The hilarious scenes he creates to make his point on much-debated issues of the time are unforgettable. Two such, lampooning the arms race and the Hindi-Urdu debate, had me laughing loudly sitting in the metro.
Things which had no humour in them, he wrote about with honesty and clarity. The essays on the riots in Bombay give first-hand observations. Different stories of people caught inside and outside the mobs: survival and death, murder, humanity and continuity. He attacks leaders causing the violence face-on.
Soon after the partition, Manto had to leave Bombay and move to Pakistan. But in his heart, he could never leave the country and city he loved.
He was deeply pained by the superficial changes he saw on the streets of Lahore. Looking at the unending violence everyone believed would be over after the partition, he warned people even then to expect “an era of barbarism” if the psyche of violence was not resolved sensitively and psychologically.
“Praise the lord, we can find neither poet nor musician“, he says in a brilliant satire on the government’s crackdown on free thought. It rings true all across the world even today.
Manto was tried a number of times as his writing was regularly deemed obscene. In talking about the trials and the ‘bizarre’ courts he hoped nobody else would ever have to go to, a certain humour returns to his writing. He jokes with the police, and complains about all the arduous travelling the trials required- thanking only beer for making the journeys sufferable.
So called moralists never stopped lashing out at him. “Take him away Lord… He has little use for it (the world). He eschews the fragrances of Your world and runs towards its odours. He shuts his eyes when faced with light and goes in search of dark corners. Sweet things he dislikes, he delights in the bitter… He bathes in filth. When we cry, he giggles. When one is meant to laugh, he howls. He’s forsaken you, Lord, and worships the devil,” he imagines them to be praying in the haunting essay ‘The Background’.
Too true for a world not willing to question or be questioned, made to believe it could do and forget (much like our own); he drank himself to death at the age of 42.
The essays are a look inside a brilliant, playful, hopeful, but deeply wounded man. Inside a mind that wrote to shake us, to forever remind and bother us with the astounding loss of conscience it lived through. Manto, inexorably honest and humane: responding to a world which was neither.