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Delhiwale: Living with Manto in Ballimaran every waking minute

Retired professor Shamsul Haq Usmani has devoted all his time to one persuasion, one author

delhi Updated: Oct 30, 2017 20:13 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Shamsul Haq Usmani at his home in Old Delhi’s Ballimaran.
Shamsul Haq Usmani at his home in Old Delhi’s Ballimaran.(Mayank Austen Soofi / HT Photo)

In this age of constant distractions, it takes immense strength of will to devote all one’s waking hours to one single purpose. For instance, reading, re-reading and studying the complete works of an author.

Retired professor Shamsul Haq Usmani is one such man. We meet him at his home in Old Delhi’s congested Ballimaran. Mr Usmani is a self-confessed ‘Manto Walla’, a species (that’s what he calls it) that is intimate with the entire oeuvre of author Saadat Hassan Manto, the author who so memorably chronicled the human cost of Partition in his short stories.

Indeed, Mr Usmani’s entanglement with the legendary Urdu writer has grown so exclusive that he himself may become a legendary figure in the world of Urdu literature.

At 72, he is labouring through his grand project “Poora Manto”, in which he is preparing a definitive edition of everything Manto ever published.

Mr Usmani’s house is on the narrow alley of Galli Chowkidar. While the Walled City is one of the noisiest parts in the Capital, the old mansion with its lovely wooden doorway is miraculously steeped in solitude, as if there is an understanding in the neighbourhood not to disturb the scholar’s concentration.

“Most of the Manto material that has been floating around is not completely accurate,” explains Mr Usmani in his frail voice. Dressed in a white kurta and green lungi, he escorts us up the steep stairs to his study. Putting a big portion of the blame to piracy, he says, “Lots of publishers printed Manto’s stories and novels without his authorisation and those works, riddled with errors, acquired a lasting life through translations into other languages.”

“Today,” he sighs, “it is difficult to come across original Manto.”

HIS LIFE’S WORK

Mr Usmani is currently correcting “all the punctuations, spacing of paragraphs, story titles, years of publication” and other nitty-gritties that may not bother a lay reader, but are of profound importance to scholars and students of Manto. As a fanatical reader of the author, Mr Usmani gained access to original writings of Manto over the years in public and private libraries across the subcontinent.

Opening a cupboard, he takes out three handsome hardbounds with Manto’s face on each cover. These are the first three volumes of his project; the series is being printed by the Karachi-based Oxford University Press Pakistan.

The first volume was originally published by the Delhi-based National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language, but that organization’s bureaucracy disoriented Mr Usmani so extensively over “pointless details” that he decided to published the later volumes on his own. It was sheer good fortune that people in the prestigious Pakistani publishing house happened to see the first printed work: as soon as they did, they immediately contacted him to bring out the entire definitive edition.

“I’m now working on the fourth volume...”

Mr Usmani had a surgery last year and has grown weak. “Manto’s short stories will end in the fifth volume and then I will edit his novels, followed by the journalistic pieces he published in the Imroze newspaper… I think I will be able to finish Poora Manto in ten volumes.”

SCHOLAR’S DISCIPLINE

These days, Mr Usmani rarely leaves home. He spends all his time in this room. There are two beds here, one of which serves as his writing desk. Every night at eleven, he sits down to work to get up only in the morning, when the muezzin of the nearby mosque calls out the faithful to prayer. He goes to sleep after offering namaz.

Such a rigorous schedule does not mean the academic has distanced himself from his family. His wife continues to be “the first reader of everything I write”. Her name is Roshan “but I call her Shireen”, he adds. “Shireen, as you may well know, is the Urdu equivalent of sweetheart.”

Arranging his Manto books beside his pillow and gazing at them with affection, Mr Usmani says, “Manto’s writing is so arresting... once you start to read him, it is impossible to get out of his world.”

Manto died in Lahore in 1955. Mr Usmani, who last visited Pakistan in 1970, never went to his beloved writer’s final resting place. “I read him daily so what’s the need of going to his grave?”

Keeping his hand on his heart, he says, “Manto flows in my bloodstream.”