Excerpt: Manto Saheb; Friends and Enemies on the Great Maverick translated by Vibha S Chauhan and Khalid Alvi

Updated on Sep 07, 2018 08:41 PM IST
Reproduced here is an essay on Manto by Ali Sardar Jafri
Writer Saadat Hasan Manto.(HT Photo)
Writer Saadat Hasan Manto.(HT Photo)
Hindustan Times | ByAli Sardar Jafri
287pp, ₹499; Speaking Tiger
287pp, ₹499; Speaking Tiger


We have lost the most foul-mouthed member of our literary world and the void created by his absence fills us only with desolation and loneliness. He had the kind of foul mouth that could have been the envy even of people who have the chastest and most uncorrupt way with words. We know of many who are foul-mouthed. Our filthy and sullied society has spawned countless foul-mouthed people, like cacti and thorny bushes in a desert. But none of them have Manto’s panache — he knew how to make those thorns flower. He took foul and offensive language to a height at which it transformed into literature and art. His readers feel angry and exasperated at times and then there are times when they just love him for what he writes. What, however, his reader cannot do is leave a story by him unfinished.

When a magazine arrives, Manto’s writing is the first to be read. We are keen to find out who has been abused. Whose turn it is to be battered by him. Which hidden aspects of society has he unveiled. People are as eager to get their hands on a new book by Manto as they would be to see the beloved for whom they had been waiting, the one who arrives in their city without notice. People run towards it in droves.

And that same foul-mouthed one has now left us. A large number of people are lamenting and weeping. He will never again write a story. Never again will he publish a book. Never again will anyone be offended. Never again will any lawsuit be filed against him. Never again will such an intelligent madman go to a lunatic asylum. Never again will such an indomitable drinker set foot in any drinking hole. Never again will a person like him attend get-togethers where he will quarrel with friends even as he showers his love on them. All one now has are the memories this delightful conversationalist left behind.

Manto was like an extremely intelligent, adorable but irate child who had a grievance against his father, who was envious of his brothers, and who had broken all his toys in angry protest against some injustice. He had hesitated to put his arms around a mother who loved him and whom he too loved deeply because of a peculiar notion of pride and self-esteem. And now he seems to be showing everyone that he never had any love for those toys. In fact, he claims that he found them quite ugly and goes on to announce, ‘These chairs are far more beautiful; the bed too is a toy I can play with. Look out! This sickly, eczemic dog is far more compassionate than you are; this lame cat is more beautiful.’

A smile would appear on his face when he realized that he had managed to make everyone stop everything that they were doing and watch his antics in amazement. This habit stayed with him even in adulthood and it seemed like he continued to wreak vengeance upon society by bombarding it with his foul language.

One sometimes comes across similar foul language in earlier writings. It is a distinctive feature of some other writers as well. But it was Manto who took it to impossible heights and exploited it to create immortal, incomparable characters in Urdu literature. Future generations will learn a great deal from Manto but Manto himself will never come back to us. They will learn from Manto what and how they should write as much as what they should not write about. Nonetheless, what is lamentable is that none of them will ever be as spiky, incisive, pungent, acidic — and as sweet at the same time — as Manto was.

Manto began his literary career by translating the Russian and French writers, and the impact of their style and narrative strategies is evident in his early writings. However, none of the writers from this group — with the exception of Gorky — managed to move beyond a realistic criticism of the bourgeoisie age. It is this framework that shaped Manto’s early creative and intellectual phase.

Those were strange times indeed! Europe’s decadent capitalism was undergoing transformation on a large scale and evolving into fascism. This also pushed many young rebels towards subversion and anarchism that was being expressed through forms like French Dadaism and Surrealism in the realm of literature and art. The perceptions and rationalization of these movements were rooted in the inability to identify the real adversary and comprehend the historical evolution of human existence. Besides this, in India of the time, the rotting feudal administration was plastered over with the leprous layers of foreign imperialism. This led to the rise of not only the revolutionary struggle for Independence but also to the rise of political terrorists and of romantic rebels in literature.

And thus the Russian Revolution, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Bhagat Singh, Kropotkin, Victor Hugo, Gorky, and Romanov’s short story ‘Without Cherry Blossoms’ had become the basis for Manto’s mental and emotional creative realm about twenty years earlier when I first met him in Aligarh. Gorky’s influence was clearly visible in the vagrant characters that Manto created in his early writing. It is possible that some other factors — that I am not aware of — may also have influenced him. Manto brought together all these elements and, after weaving them into the fabric of bitterness of his personal life and injustice in social system, he shaped it into a new and distinctive personality that came to be known as the writer Saadat Hasan Manto.

His special and unique personality allowed him to challenge anything and everything. He could not compromise with anything; he could not lower his head in defeat; he could not plead for anything; and he could even go to the extent of not demanding his dues. The intervening twenty years witnessed many new influences and circumstances that continued to impact the scene. Gorky, the revolution in Russia, Victor Hugo and Jallianwala Bagh gradually receded into the background and Bhagat Singh, Kropotkin and Romanov became increasingly prominent. Somerset Maugham was added to the list after 1940. It is possible to disagree with Bhagat Singh’s preference for violent methods but we can never doubt his love for the country. In the same way, one may have serious literary and ideological differences with Manto but one has no option but to accept and acknowledge his sincerity, honesty, love for humanity, for the country, and strong sense of anti-imperialism. And then it is not difficult to understand that Manto could smash society to smithereens and scatter its remains far and wide. However, he could neither reconstruct it nor design a new costume to cover its nudity. He was an outstanding pioneer of social realism of our times and the commander-in-chief of his battalion of literary militants. It was his innate decency and love for humanity that constantly urged him towards literary militancy.

After 1940, he constructed his own yardstick for judging the success of his stories: the more controversy and uproar his stories generated, the more successful they were. Once, in 1945 or 1946, he told me in Bombay, ‘Sardar, it was no fun writing this story. Nobody has abused me and neither has any law suit been filed against it.’

Manto, unlike Rajinder Singh Bedi, could not penetrate the hearts of his sad, dejected characters and provide evidence of the sincerity of the human heart. Neither could he, like Ismat Chughtai, provide shelter to innocent sinners and cover them up with the purity of the cloth that covers Mother Mary. And of course he could not, like Krishan Chander, use his pen to bring together the agony of this simmering society to provide a glimpse of a more hopeful and beautiful future. Manto was more attracted to distortions of the psyche than to the pain of people. He got more pleasure in groping through the hearts of those who were sick than the healthy ones. His heroes are not just vagabonds. They are anti-socials and criminals that he picked up and flung at society — and broke into his bitter, sarcastic laughter after doing so. He believed that those who wore garments of faith were complete frauds and if he caught any glimpse of devotion or the fear of God in people, he would strip them naked.

Society was like a rotting onion in Manto’s hands. He laughed even as he peeled off its layers with great skill and precision, and said ‘Look here! This society of yours is nothing but a heap of stinking onions peels.’

Today the onion bulb is still there and so is its peel, creating the illusion that there is something hard and substantial at the core. But the fingers that peeled off the layers with such finesse are now lying cold in the grave, and every writer desires that his fingers become infused with the magic of Manto’s, even if it is only for a day.

Manto’s greatness lies in the manner in which he exposes society’s naked body in front of its own eyes. He dug human corpses out of brothels, bazaars, drinking holes, the four walls of domesticity, and every dark corner of society, stood them out in a public place and proclaimed, ‘Look here! These are the beasts that were once human!’

But Manto’s tragedy lies in that he could not see the faces of those people whom he could have brought into the public eye and announced, ‘Look here! These are the human beings who were once beasts!’

Urdu writer, poet, critic and film lyricist Ali Sardar Jafri in a photograph clicked on 07 October, 1991. (Rajiv Gupta/HT Photo)
Urdu writer, poet, critic and film lyricist Ali Sardar Jafri in a photograph clicked on 07 October, 1991. (Rajiv Gupta/HT Photo)

Manto was not able to grasp truth in its most holistic and authentic form. He merely looked at oppression in isolation, protested against it and then dropped it. These things can make us somewhat cruel and unkind, in the same way in which we become insensitive to poverty, cruelty and filth because we get accustomed to them and start tolerating them without much anxiety. We leave a dead body on the road and walk away; we watch a hungry man but continue to eat. Similarly, writers too become so used to repeatedly portraying repressed characters in their writing that, at times, even extreme cruelty and the most painful tragedy may fail to touch them.

It is because of this that Manto has written some shoddy stories along with some outstanding ones. If on the one hand he has written exceptional stories like ‘Naya Kanoon’, ‘Tarakki Pasand’, ‘Kabristan’, ‘Mootri’, ‘Khol Do’, ‘Mozel’ and ‘Toba Tek Singh’; on the other, in the words of Sajjad Zahir*, he has also written such ‘painful but irrelevant’ stories like ‘Boo’ and ‘Hatak’, besides appalling but meaningless stories like ‘Sarkande ke Peeche’ in which he has described human flesh being cooked in a vessel. He would sometimes be so sensitive a person that he could perceive the throb of that child’s heart who was sitting in a train and whose father was unable to play with him. At other times, Manto would become so heartless that he could not hold back from cracking jokes even at the expense of deeply tragic events like the riots of 1947. He got so caught up in the human world of actions and encounters that he got personally involved in them and, in the process, lost sight of their causes and their underlying motives. Such a writer can simultaneously become both gentle and merciless in his personal and domestic life too.

And then such a writer turns into an individual who is dissociated from both friends and enemies. His self-centeredness does not allow him to go along with either the Progressives or the fundamentalists. So, Manto too was distanced from both these groups and had become accustomed to pronouncing his own verdicts. These verdicts took the shape of stories and were sometimes correct and beautiful but at other times wrong and ugly too.

Read more: Manto trailer: Nawazuddin Siddiqui starrer is a film for our unbearable times

From the perspective of art, Manto was unique and unparalleled. There was nobody like him. No other writer had the ability to create the impact that Manto could with the simplicity, dexterity and perspicacity of his language. Manto’s sharp and astute characterization, his well-structured plots, the narrative of his stories, amazingly satirical, incisive and cutting style, and his poetic charm was unique to him. He could flesh out a character in a couple of words. He narrated his stories however he wanted and after reading his stories one does not get the impression that they had been written to be read. They appear to be ordinary yet exceptional at the same time, like a spring that bubbles down a mountain, or a tree that has grown freely without any impediment. The uniqueness of his stories has to be accepted without any qualms. And this is no mean achievement. In fact, this is the mark of an artist.

Manto was a sensitive man and so he twice ended up in a lunatic asylum. He was fearless and thus had to present himself in the court many times. He was persistent and stubborn and had interminable clashes with his opponents. He had a high sense of self-esteem and so he starved. His thirst was eternal and so he kept drinking. He could not whip up the passion to live on and so he died. But he was an artist and thus he continues to live on even after his death.

And now, finally, you would want to know why he was foulmouthed. Because this society abused him, foul-mouthed him, like it has done to lakhs and crores of other people. Manto’s foul-mouthing has not brought about much damage. In fact, its benefits far outweigh any harm it may have caused. Manto’s ‘foul-mouthed-ness’ is that rare, incomparable and cherished wealth of our literature which we will treasure and keep alive; and sure enough it is that which will keep us alive too!

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