Friday, May 11, 2012

Manto at 100! Still relevant and riveting

by Salman Hameed

Saadat Hasan Manto - considered as the finest Urdu short story writer would have turned 100 today (image on the right is a stamp issued on his 50th death anniversary). Unfortunately, he lived for only 42 years and died in Lahore in 1955. But in his short life, he wrote over 20 collections of short stories and redefined the genre in Urdu. His writings challenged the norms of the society - be it on the issues of gender or class exploitation, or in exposing the hypocrisy of the intellectuals. Some of his most famous short stories deal with the partition of Pakistan and India in 1947. He sympathized with the victims irrespective of their religions (Hindu, Muslim or Sikhs), while mercilessly satirizing the nature of humans that lead to commit heinous acts of violence. So here is the beginning of the english translation of his most famous short story, Toba Tek Singh (for Urdu, you can follow the link here). If you haven't read any Manto, check it out:
Two or three years after the 1947 Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums were to be handed over to India.

It was difficult to say whether the proposal made any sense or not. However, the decision had been taken at the topmost level on both sides. After high-level conferences were held a day was fixed for exchange of the lunatics. It was agreed that those Muslims who had families in India would be permitted to stay back while the rest would be escorted to the border. Since almost all the Hindus and Sikhs had migrated from Pakistan, the question of retaining non-Muslim lunatics in Pakistan did not arise. All of them were to be taken to India. 
Nobody knew what transpired in India, but so far as Pakistan was concerned this news created quite a stir in the lunatic asylum at Lahore, leading to all sorts of funny developments. A Muslim lunatic, a regular reader of the fiery Urdu daily Zamindar, when asked what Pakistan was, reflected for a while and then replied, "Don't you know? A place in India known for manufacturing cut-throat razors." Apparently satisfied, the friend asked no more questions. 
Likewise, a Sikh lunatic asked another Sikh, "Sardarji, why are we being deported to India? We don't even know their language." The Sikh gave a knowing smile. "But I know the language of Hindostoras" he replied. "These bloody Indians, the way they strut about!" 
One day while taking his bath, a Muslim lunatic yelled, "Pakistan Zindabad!" with such force that he slipped, fell down on the floor and was knocked unconscious. 
Not all the inmates were insane. Quite a few were murderers. To escape the gallows, their relatives had gotten them in by bribing the officials. They had only a vague idea about the division of India or what Pakistan was. They were utterly ignorant of the present situation. Newspapers hardly ever gave the true picture and the asylum warders were illiterates from whose conversation they could not glean anything. All that these inmates knew was that there was a man by the name of Quaid-e-Azam who had set up a separate state for Muslims, called Pakistan. But they had no idea where Pakistan was. That was why they were all at a loss whether they were now in India or in Pakistan. If they were in India, then where was Pakistan? If they were in Pakistan, how come that only a short while ago they were in India? How could they be in India a short while ago and now suddenly in Pakistan? 
One of the lunatics got so bewildered with this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day while sweeping the floor he climbed up a tree, and sitting on a branch, harangued the people below for two hours on end about the delicate problems of India and Pakistan. 
When the guards asked him to come down he climbed up still higher and said, "I don't want to live in India and Pakistan. I'm going to make my home right here on this tree."
All this hubbub affected a radio engineer with an MSc degree, a Muslim, a quiet man who took long walks by himself. One day he stripped off all his clothes, gave them to a guard and ran in the garden stark naked. 
Another Muslim inmate from Chiniot, an erstwhile adherent of the Muslim League who bathed fifteen or sixteen times a day, suddenly gave up bathing. As his name was Mohammed Ali, he one day proclaimed that he was none other than Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Taking a cue from him a Sikh announced that he was Master Tara Singh, the leader of the Sikhs. This could have led to open violence. But before any harm could be done the two lunatics were declared dangerous and locked up in separate cells. 
Among the inmates of the asylum was a Hindu lawyer from Lahore who had gone mad because of unrequited love. He was deeply pained when he learnt that Amritsar, where the girl lived, would form part of India. He roundly abused all the Hindu and Muslim leaders who had conspired to divide India into two, thus making his beloved an Indian and him a Pakistani. When the talks on the exchange were finalized his mad friends asked him to take heart since now he could go to India. But the young lawyer did not want to leave Lahore, for he feared for his legal practice in Amritsar. 
There were two Anglo-Indians in the European ward. When informed the British were leaving, they spent hours together discussing the problems they would be faced with: Would the European ward be abolished? Would they get breakfast? Instead of bread, would they have to make do with measly Indian chapattis?
Read the rest of the story here.

Couple of other things. I have always found the story of his epitaph amusing and funny. He had written it six months before he died, but it does not feature on his grave - and you'll see the reason why. This is what he wanted on epitaph:

"Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: God or he.”

Ha! Here is an excerpt from Mohammed Hanif's tribute article for Manto in today's Dawn. This is the bit that connects with the epitaph request:
Have you settled that old argument with your creator: Who is a better short-story writer? You do realise that that this kind of claim hurts people’s sentiments. Especially sentiments of people who don’t read stories, who can’t read stories or who think reading and writing stories was a perversion. I hope you understand why your family didn’t inscribe that God vs Manto argument on your tombstone as you had wished. Censorship even in my death, you protest. No Sir, just common sense. I hope that you are up there with your creator, being argumentative, still carrying on that debate about who is better at the storytelling game. (That kind of thing, by the way, is called a creative-writing workshop these days). If your old friend Ismat Chughtai drops by while you are having that debate, you and your creator should take a break from arguing and say to her: we’ll both go in the kitchen and make tea, why don’t you write us a story.
And definitely check out this fantastic article by historian Ayesha Jalal: He wrote what he saw - and took no sides:
Any attempt to fathom the murderous hatred that erupted with such devastating effect at the time of the British retreat from the subcontinent, Saadat Hasan Manto remarked, had to begin with an exploration of human nature itself. For the master of the Urdu short story this was not a value judgement. It was a statement of what he had come to believe after keen observation and extended introspection. Shaken by the repercussions of the political decision to break up the unity of the subcontinent, Manto wondered if people who only recently were friends, neighbours and compatriots had lost all sense of their humanity. He too was a human being, “the same human being who raped mankind, who indulged in killing” and had “all those weaknesses and qualities that other human beings have.” Yet human depravity, however pervasive and deplorable, could not kill all sense of humanity. With faith in that kind of humanity, Manto wrote riveting short stories about the human tragedy of 1947 that are internationally acknowledged for representing the plight of displaced and terrorised humanity with exemplary impartiality and empathy. 
Manto’s Partition stories are a must read for anyone interested in the personal dimensions ofIndia’s division and the creation of Pakistan. Pieced together from close observations of the experiences of ordinary people at the moment of a traumatic rupture, his stories are not only unsurpassable in literary quality but records of rare historical significance. Unlike journalistic and partisan accounts of those unsettled times, Manto transcended the limitations of the communitarian narratives underpinning the nationalist self-projections of both Pakistan and India. There is more to Manto than his Partition stories to be sure, but there is no denying his remarkable feat in plumbing the psychological depths of an epic dislocation with telling insight, sensitivity and even-handedness. He did not create demons out of other communities to try and absolve himself of responsibility for the moral crisis posed by the violence of Partition. A cosmopolitan humanist, he rejected narrow-minded bigotry and refused to let distinctions of religion or culture interfere with his choice of friends. During a brief life that fell short of 43 years he lived in Amritsar, Bombay, Delhi and Lahore, forging friendships that survived the arbitrary frontiers of 1947. The constellation of friends he left behind in India included the trendsetters of progressive Urdu and Hindi literature, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai, and Ali Sardar Jafri as well as icons of theBombayfilm industry like Ashok Kumar and Shyam.
...
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.
Read the full article here.

Manto: Happy centennial!

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