By Khaled Ahmed
Nov 21 2013
Saadat Hasan Manto was arguably the best Urdu short story writer and the best writer of “realistic prose” in South Asia. He was also a maverick in a society prickly about “obscenity” in literature, a problem that an ideological Pakistan is still struggling with. But today, his cardinal sin is the implied non-acceptance in his works of the 1947 Partition of India, which passed muster in his day, but in 2013 would have attracted the mischief of Section 123-A of the Penal Code of Pakistan, landing him in prison for 10 years.
Ayesha Jalal’s new book about her granduncle Saadat Hasan Manto attempts to explain his revolt against the narrative that divided India.
Manto was liked by neither the strait-laced Muslim nor the secularised left-wing revolutionary clashing with the British Raj and its successor “imperialist”, the United States. He also related oddly to his contemporaries, especially intolerant of the mediocrity his trade was crawling with. His writing style — hardly pyrotechnic, but laced with rhythmic magic that overcomes the reader by the time he ends the story — is distilled from the “no frills” writings of Maupassant, Zola, Hugo, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Somerset Maugham, O. Henry and D.H. Lawrence. He was a voracious reader of Western literature. His forte however was Urdu, which he could write like an impromptu, possibly drunk, angel.
Historian Ayesha Jalal, Manto’s grandniece — her father Hamid Jalal was Manto’s nephew — has finally written about him, in requital of a debt she knew she owed him. Her latest book, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide (2013), touches upon his revolt against the communal narrative that divided India and, more sensitively, her own deviation from the canon of Pakistani ideology that offended Pakistan, strangely, without pleasing India.
Why did Manto more often than not offend his contemporaries — there were some famous exceptions — and was, therefore, socially stigmatised? Jalal gives us a clue in his competitive instinct. His mother, Sardar Begum, second wife of his father Ghulam Hasan, was from outside the Manto clan and that reflected negatively on him. After putting three sons from the first marriage through expensive education that saw them graduating in law and engineering in England, he had little left to spend on Manto. According to Manto, his proclivity for storytelling was quite simply a product of the tensions generated by the clashing influences of a stern father and a gentle-hearted mother.
She writes: “Memories of neglect and rejection shaped his personality, making him prone to excessive displays of emotion. Unable to forge a meaningful relationship with his father, he longed for the approval and affection of his elder brothers, whom he met only after he had become an established Urdu short story writer. His relationship with the brothers was cordial and correct, but never close. Differences in upbringing and age, not to mention their clashing lifestyles, kept them miles apart, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.
“The distance between the siblings was partly bridged by the personal bonds Manto later forged with their children. His need to earn the respect of his elder brothers notwithstanding, Manto was fiercely individualistic and self-confident. If these traits can be credited to the indulgence of a doting mother and sister, the steely discipline of an authoritarian father served as a catalyst for Saadat’s rebellious nature.”
He wrote about prostitutes and pimps with enough realism to read like pornography to the finicky. His stories “Thanda Gosht” and “Khol Do,” “Kali Shalwar”, “Bu”, etc, took him to court, where he was acquitted. After 1947, however, when he was hauled up in Karachi, he was convicted with a fine by a judge who told him in private how much he loved his work. He writes about this in a preface to demonstrate how the creation of Pakistan had driven a wedge in the citizen now wearing a new identity.
His happy days were spent in Bombay, writing scripts for movies in which he even acted at times. He drank together with his best friend Sunder Shyam Chadha, or Shyam, the screen icon — and both detested the parting that the communal violence of 1947 had caused. Manto’s best internationally known story was “Toba Tek Singh”, which he wrote in 1954, after spending time in Lahore’s mental asylum for his alcoholism: “Regarded as his best Partition story, it is a scathing comment on the absurdity of the division and the policy of the two post-colonial states to split up the inmates of the asylum according to their religious affiliation. Manto’s message is searing but clear: the madness of Partition was greater than the insanity of all the inmates put together.”
Shyam and Manto succumbed to alcohol for different reasons, but were joined by the angst of 1947. About Manto, Jalal explains: “He always sought instant gratification. If it was delayed, he no longer wanted it. These unfulfilled desires left a bitterness in his mouth, whose effects critics detected in most of Manto’s writings. He realised that his need for alcohol was symptomatic of spiritual and mental weaknesses, but he lacked inner strength and peace of mind to delve into their causes.”
Manto had descended from a Kashmiri ancestry into a Punjabi family of Amritsar. His Brahmin name Manto was derived from the profession of his forebears who used “mant” (three-pound weight) but should have had the “-oo” ending, as Kashmiri names do, like Nehroo, Kitchloo, Mattoo, Saproo, etc. Why did it fall prey to the Scottish ending
“-o”, like Minto, Murdo, Munro, and Mungo? One can only guess; perhaps because of Lord Minto, viceroy of India from 1905 to 1910. Some of Manto’s relatives have given up explaining, and now simply write Minto, as in the case of Lahore’s famous lawyer, Abid Hassan Minto. Minto as a place-name means “by the mountain” and was appropriate for Manto, a Kashmiri. In many parts of India, the “-oo” ending is masculine, while the “-o” ending is feminine. When you say Manto, you are grammatically addressing a woman.
National narratives divide nations and make them go to war to sustain their clashing identities. Manto was anti-British, like most thinking Indians, but was put off by the divisive politics of the Congress and the Muslim League. He was captivated by the popular folk hero Bhagat Singh, a radical young Sikh hanged by the British in Lahore in 1931 for killing a police officer and hurling a bomb in the central assembly. In 2012, when the Lahore administration tried to commemorate Bhagat Singh at the place where he was hanged, a “non-state actor” organisation produced by Pakistan’s national narrative prevented it under the threat of violence. Ex-foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad actually wrote an article supporting the thugs!
Manto was a “literary renegade” in a newly formed state bristling with a new identity. Ayesha Jalal too became a bit of a renegade writing her book The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (1985), delineating the uneasy fit between the claim of Muslim “nationhood and the uncertainties and indeterminacies of politics in the late colonial era that led to the attainment of sovereign statehood”. In her monumental Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850 (2000), her thesis was that the idea of the Muslim nation and its “separation from the rest” was not tenable, given the fact that the Indian nation itself was not yet formed: separate from what? She offended some in Pakistan again by reminding us that nations are formed after the formation of the state. Her examination of history before the British Raj found no “one nation”, and equally found no “two nations” under the Raj.
Khaled Ahmed is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’.