Manto liked to defy norms: Ayesha Jalal

  • Aasheesh Sharma
  • Updated: Feb 06, 2016 16:59 IST
Ayesha Jalal at Jaipur literary festival 2016, in Jaipur, India on January 23, 2016. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times)

On the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival, we interviewed Ayesha Jalal, Saadat Hasan Manto’s grandniece and the author of The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work Across the India-Pakistan Divide (HarperCollins India), on why the subcontinent is still in love with the life and works of the short story writer.

Which is the kind of reader who likes to read Manto?
The critical minded, the one who questions boundaries and wants to go beyond accepted parameters. Why was he such a monster for some people? Because he wrote about things you are not supposed to write about. You are not supposed to write about awkward subjects. He broke a lot of taboos. This sensibility, which was way ahead of its time, appeals to people in the subcontinent.

His books were banned a number of times. How does Pakistan perceive Manto today?
My book, with a title like Pity of Partition, got three awards in Pakistan. This is an indication of the change in mindsets. Nobody imagined that the Pakistani government would give him the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, the highest civilian honour in the country. But he has won it, albeit posthumously.

Why do you think writers and filmmakers in India and Pakistan cannot get over their fascination with Manto?
I don’t want to be facetious, but one reason could be that he was not appropriated by either of the two states. He is a particular kind of thinker, the non-accepting type, a contrarian. Those of us, who are of that ilk, like Manto and find him and what he represented very interesting.

Manto’s life has inspired two movies on either side of the border. How do they compare?
Nandita Das’s film is yet to come. The film made in Pakistan begins with Manto getting electric shocks, which never happened. The film also focuses on a particularly gloomy, dark phase of his life, the fag end. I hope Nandita’s film will be a little bit more accurate as a biopic and more comprehensive. She is focusing more on the days he spent in Bombay and Lahore, which are interconnected.

The Maximum Chronicler: Manto with his family in Bombay. He wrote that he had many fond memories associated with the metropolis. (Photo courtesy: harpercollins India)

He is also remembered as one of the best chroniclers of Bombay. What did the city mean to Manto?
In his books he says that Bombay gave him his best friends. He made the most amount of money here. He had his first-born here. So, there were a lot of memories associated with the city and lots of things he loved Bombay for.

But he also brought out the underbelly of the city…
In Manto’s stories, Bombay is a microcosm of a much larger global or even a South Asian context. He discusses the prostitute for whom he had a heart and wrote about her with a lot of sympathy. He saw the bazaar as a kind of exchange and he thought it was hypocritical of men who visit the same prostitute’s den and then one goes to the mosque and the other goes to a temple.

You never met him in person. What did you discover about him while researching your granduncle?
My memories of him are all received. But during the course of my book, I discovered things that nobody had told me. For instance, I was always told that Manto didn’t like academics, that he was recalcitrant about studies. In a country like Pakistan, where there is rampant anti-intellectualism, it is common to say that ‘Manto ne bhi toh kar liya na.’ He made it despite not finishing school. But the man I discovered in my research was tremendously well-read. He translated Victor Hugo and Guy de Maupassant and Russian authors. His stories did not come in from nowhere.

He was great friends with literary icons such as Ismat Chugtai and Krishan Chander. His relationship with Upendranath Ashk, with whom he fought in the days when they worked with All India Radio, improved in the post-1947 scenario.

Why does the character of Bishan Singh from Toba Tek Singh stand out in everybody’s memory from Manto’s wide body of work?
He is a symbol of a person who hasn’t reconciled to the idea of Partition. It is a feeling which thousands of people in India and Pakistan still share.

Follow @Aasheesh74 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, January 31, 2016

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