By Khaled Ahmed
March 16, 2019
Pakistan, predictably, banned Nandita Das’s film “Manto” last year because “it does not subscribe to the correct version of the Partition”. Filmgoers were outraged in Lahore, Manto’s city, and even the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Fawad Chaudhry, was forced to make a somewhat inane defence of the film, saying, “I am trying to persuade importers to bring this movie to Pakistan.” The Censor Board repeated its determination to not let the film be shown in Pakistan.
Historian Ayesha Jalal — Manto’s grandniece, whose version of Pakistan’s history is equally indigestible to the state — gave her own take on Manto’s worldview in “The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide” (2013), and spoke at a literary festival in Lahore soon after the ban, condemning Pakistan’s ingrained inferiority complex vis-à-vis India and said, “Whatever decision Manto made at Partition, he reconciled with it, but his status in his new country was never clarified.”
Jalal added pointedly: “One day he was called the best short story writer in the country and the next day asked to abandon the only flat he had been given to live in. That’s what Nandita has tried to convey, but since it’s an Indian film made by an Indian filmmaker, I think that’s the objection: How dare an Indian tell us that a Pakistani man who moved to Pakistan was unhappy”.
Manto had himself tried to understand what had happened. He was hauled up before the courts for “obscenity”; but the British Raj courts didn’t accept that his work was not literature and let him walk. After 1947, however, his cases came up in courts “transformed” by “new identity” and convicted him with fines. As he records, one judge in Karachi actually met him a day before the hearing and called him the greatest living writer in Urdu only to convict him the following day.
Strangely, a sketch he had produced in an Urdu journal described the “morning after” feeling of a Pakistani man walking the street in Lahore. As the citizen of a new “ideological” utopia, the man felt too judgmental to forgive the streets follies he had been forced to ignore during the days of “slavery”. He disliked what he had liked before because it was not in accordance with the precepts of the new state; and objected even to the way people dressed.
Manto’s sketch about wall-chalking inside a public latrine in Lahore during the riots explained his “neutral” dislike of the brawling communities. Pakistan will never understand his “non-alignment” with, rather than “rejection” of, what was going on: The latrine scrawls had two communalists cursing each other while a “third person” in his comment applied their cusswords back on them. He wrote fiction to express his alienation from the violence — expressed through rape (“Thanda Gosht”) and sheer mental collapse (“Toba Tek Singh”), yet another comparison with a “madhouse” — by writing short stories that offended the communalists from both sides of the divide. Faiz Ahmed Faiz stood on the other side of the ideological divide from Manto, but his own “morning after” poem about the false or “mottled dawn” of Pakistan actually expressed Manto’s disappointment. Prophetically, the utopia came apart in 1971.
Nandita Das’s film is made with a deep understanding of what was happening inside Manto. The film “Manto”, earlier made in Pakistan by Sarmad Khoosat, was courageous but had relied more on the externals, thus avoiding the ideological censor brought on by Das’s version containing the hidden rebuke that it was made in “hostile” India.
Ayesha Jalal said Nandita’s film was more historically accurate but was banned “though still available online”, “which made no sense”. She thought social critique had been interpreted as criticism of Partition: “If you don’t have the capacity to bear the critique then the problem is not with Manto but your own self. As a historian, I see these attempts to control the media as a sign of failure. The more desperate we get, the crazier our laws are getting.” Nandita’s reaction was: “Pakistanis defending a film from India shows that we are united in our pursuit of peace and justice.”
In Pakistan, late Khalid Hasan translated Manto and “globalised” him. In his account, “Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition by Saadat Hasan Manto”, he tells us that Manto did not want to return to Lahore. He went to Delhi to work for the radio for a time only to return to Bombay. Then riots overtook Bombay and broke his heart. His wife told Khalid that he was asked by actor Ashok Kumar’s Film Company to leave after it received communalist threats.
Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan