Photo: Saadat Hasan Manto
By Taha Kehar
October 2, 2015
Saadat Hasan Manto’s final days open a vista onto the creative struggle and state of chaos that plagued the short story writer. However, a touching tribute can do little to make a martyr of a man who is termed an anti-hero, even decades after his demise.
The truth is, Manto’s work has been constantly dressed up to serve a range of disparate purposes. A literary genius, who was laid to rest in 1955, has been brought back to life only to have the true essence of his work tarnished by misconceptions and personal agendas. Manto has been forced to die a million deaths at the hands of those who have forcibly tried to graft their own perceptions onto his work. The practice of using the short story writer as an icon for various ideologies is now in danger of turning stale. In this day and age, everyone professes to recognise the scope and range of Manto’s writing. It has almost become immaterial for people to have read Thanda Ghosht or Toba Tek Singh to understand the hidden manifestations of the author’s work. Manto’s craftsmanship and his character were shrouded in political meaning.
It is difficult to raise questions over this trend. Even a dispassionate observer would commend Manto’s ability to document the turbulence of his times. After all, the short story writer was among the privileged few who had carefully listened to the music that surrounded a period of wrenching change. However, a large number of people have been drawn to his work, owing to the controversy that it generated. Manto was, therefore, the perfect iconoclast whose worldview could be easily moulded to provide a suitable counter-narrative.
Until recently, Manto’s literary genius was considered an integral ingredient to create an anti-state narrative. His poignant stories about the human tragedy in the wake of Partition pointed towards such subversive tendencies. It was only after the government recognised his contributions some years ago that the hype began to lose ground. Nevertheless, it was the flawed interpretation of these stories that produced these misconceptions. Manto’s attempts to offer a shrewd commentary on the human condition were relegated into political questions that demanded radical answers.
The short story writer has also been summoned from the dead to champion the cause for stable relations between India and Pakistan. Non-governmental organisations have cashed in on their own interpretation of Manto’s work to raise the slogan of peace. However, the outcome has been far from favourable.
I recently attended an event in Karachi that was conducted on similar lines and realised how we have shamelessly butchered Manto’s work to serve our own agenda. Various speakers at this session made a reference to Toba Tek Singh to show that boundaries cannot alter human relationships. However, the name of the protagonist was constantly misquoted and little or no attempt was made to correct this error.
Through his writing, Manto put a mirror to society and hoped that we would look into it and search for answers. Unfortunately, we have only used this mirror to see what we want to see rather than what meets the eye. There is no greater offence that can be committed against a writer than losing the essence of his work to an ulterior motive.