By Akash Bharadwaj:
“See Akash Babu, Manto was a great storyteller; there is no doubt about it. But will you allow his stories Thanda Gosht (Cold Flesh), Khol Do (Open It) and such others to be read by your daughters and sisters? Tell me!”
One evening almost a year ago, a frail looking man of fifty or fifty-five (my father’s colleague in a government college), spoke these words while in a casual discussion on Progressive Urdu Literature. Hearing his sudden outburst, I fell at a loss for a moment, fumbling for right words and expressions to come to my rescue. The discussion took me to the day when for the first time I had chanced upon one of Manto’s short story collection. The book had a newspaper cover on it and above that a thin layer of dust. I was advised to read it secretly. I had wondered then, what lay in those pages that required such secrecy and protection!
As I find out over the years, those pages were a witness to Manto’s trials. All his life, he stood against this very hypocrisy that under the garb of decency and well-meaning intentions rots the system. And after all who are we to ‘allow’ our daughters and sisters to read or not to read Manto? They have all the right to delve into Manto’s psyche as he delved into theirs.
Post that conversation, in a state of outrage, I looked for what Manto had to say about his writings. He often commented, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth.” Today, when conservative moral brigades across parties and groups insist on a unified idea of a Hindu nation and ‘development’ fast gained new currency, we must share what we know of Manto’s world; for he led a lifelong struggle against communalism with prescriptive understanding of the world through his writings.
Born on May 11, 1912, Manto published his first volume of short stories in 1938 while in Aligarh University. During these years, he was influenced by literary greats like Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, Chekhov, and Gorky. Their writings and style left a long lasting impression on him. Before he died in 1955, he had written over twenty-five volumes of stories, plays, and film scripts. His writings brought Urdu prose writing to a new imaginative height and marked a decisive shift in Urdu literature. Premchand’s realism with its didactic tone gave way to Manto’s fragmentary world. While the former wrote about village life in a narrative structure that had a strong teleological base, for the latter, the job of a writer was not to explain the world but rather to observe it. Manto’s characters were mostly urbane – the prostitute, the clerk, and the journalist. They acted and spoke for themselves. They were ordinary human beings besotted with passion and desires; with anxieties, orthodoxies and contradictions of their times inherent in them. Because of the realistic portrayal of life and actions of these characters, Manto was tried for obscenity six times; thrice before partition in British India and thrice after partition when he moved to Pakistan.
Manto’s work also dealt with politics. His short story, Toba Tek Singh, is one the most powerful denunciations of the horrid events of the partition. Reading Manto is a reminder of the violence of boundaries; that even in the worst of times there are people who hold onto their conscience; that sometimes so called lunatics can expose the hollowness on which grand notions like ‘nation-state’ are built. It was also his politics that all his life, as an artist, Manto stood alone. He once remarked, “There were progressives who took me as one of them. And now some of them say he is not one of us. I did not believe them then. I do not believe them now. If someone asks me I belong to which group, I would without hesitation say- I am alone.”
Despite standing alone, Manto’s work spoke to and was part of a broader Nayi Kahani and Progressive Writers’ Movement. To remember him is to enter into his world: “I feel like I am always the one tearing everything up and forever sewing it back together”– he once wrote. The world Manto presents, is one of sensation and poetry. His ‘realism’ goes beyond just being mimetic; it creates an explosion that makes you numb. In a sentence, he tells you of an experience akin to a nightmare from which there is no way out. “Woh aksar mahsoos karti ki wo khud ko nahi bechti, lekin log chupke-chupke use kharid lete hain” (she often felt she does not sell herself, but others manage to buy her secretly), wrote Manto of Niti, a character in his short story – The Licence.
The Licence follows life of Niti, a young girl, who falls in love with Abbu Coachman. They are living a happy life when one day the police come to their house. Abbu is charged with abducting the girl and is sent to the prison. Faced with marriage proposals and overtures from neighbours and friends and tired of persistent poverty, Niti decides to ride Abbu’s tonga herself. Reminding herself of dignity and respect that work brings. She starts earning well, but is often subjected to lewd comments and gestures by people. She gets a feeling that people, in addition to the rides, also buy parts of her body and soul. Later, she is called by the Coachmen Committee to be told that she needs a licence to run her tonga. They even advise her to sit at a Kotha (brothel), that way she could even earn more. She is left with no desire to question and speak. She heads to the cremation ground where her husband Abbu lies dead. Eyes filled with tears and in a choking voice she tells him: Abbu, your Niti died in the Committee meeting today.
This death is what might give one a license to sell one’s body. Manto dwells on that. For him, it is never a question of obscenity, but of circumstances and struggles. His stories very often ask a simple question: who are you? A body, a chunk of flesh or a soul? In a few pages, he has the ability to invade a reader’s consciousness and reveal to him/her the amoral and the ordinary that remain suppressed under layers of tradition, morality, and progress. And, of course, the realisation that words are not merely words- in Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories- they define the contours of who you are, what you see and where you stand.