By Aakar Patel
August 26, 2018
Saadat Hasan Manto
My friend Bachi Karkaria, whom readers of this paper have long known, wrote this week to ask if I could come to the Times Literary Carnival in Mumbai in December. This was for a session on the writer Saadat Hasan Manto, with actress Nandita Das, who’s bringing out a movie on him, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Manto. I like the Times jamboree. It is set in a Bollywood institution, Bandra’s Mehboob Studios. And it has packed sessions. I wrote back to Bachi saying unfortunately I would be away at the time. But I really wish I was there, to talk about Manto. Why? Let me tell you.
A brief biography goes as follows: Manto was of Kashmiri origin but raised in Punjab, and moved to Bombay (as it was then called) in his 20s. He had dropped out of college, having failed, of all subjects, in Urdu. He was a journalist for a film magazine and for radio. He dabbled at writing scripts, but none of his movies did that well.
It is clear that he was not particularly accomplished in a city that does not have much respect for average people. But it is also true that he was able to attract towards himself some of the most famous people in Bollywood (it wasn’t called that then), including one of its biggest stars, Ashok Kumar. Why was this?
It was his writing of the short story, an art of which he was a true master. Like Maupassant, he needed very little space to be able to create a world. And in the best traditions of literature, Manto did not run away from difficult subjects. He examined sex work and religion, in a period when India was even more prudish than it is today, and unfortunately, just as communal.
Sigmund Freud said humans had the narcissism of small differences, meaning that one hated those people, whom one most resembled, barring minor and almost indiscernible differences.
The writer Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay in which he explored this to understand why there was such hatred and violence between Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant, between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot, between Serb and Croat, between Kyrgyz and Uzbek and, of course, between Indian and Pakistani.
Manto understood this and wrote about it much before Hitchens. He was totally above religion, like so few of us can be even in our time. This gave him the ability to put us all under a microscope and record our failings. He loved Indianness because it was the only identity he had.
His record of Bombay during Partition, in two short essays, is a masterpiece that should be required reading in all our schools. Manto had three little daughters, not much money and a wife whose brother had moved to Karachi.
Fearful for the safety of his young family, he moved to Pakistan. He was given a refugee flat in a building called Lakshmi Mansion in Lahore (where, it will interest readers to know, Mani Shankar Aiyar was born). He had not much work in Pakistan, a place he disliked, and he was fond of his drink.
He died in his early 40s in 1955 and was forgotten. India forgot him because he wrote in Urdu, the enemy’s language. Pakistan forgot him because his material was essentially anti-Pakistan. His daughter Nighat told me that till she was in her 30s, she did not know how famous her father had been. And she had no idea then how famous he was again to become.
About 35 years ago, Debonair magazine published a short story by Manto, translated by Khushwant Singh that caused a sensation. It was called ‘Bu’ (the odour).
It is the story of a man, Randhir, standing in the balcony of his Mumbai flat in the rain. He sees a peasant woman under a tree getting drenched. He invites her into his place. They become intimate (the narrative is flat, direct and not at all contrived). He becomes intoxicated by the odour of her armpits. The story ends with him in bed, newly married, to a beautiful woman, still thinking of that afternoon and of that odour.
I was 13 when I read it and it affected and disturbed me. I read it again recently, this time in the original Urdu, and my hair stood on end. It is one of literature’s great works. This story and this translation brought Manto back into fashion in Mumbai and Bollywood. Writers and actors began using his material, and Naseeruddin Shah’s troupe has a superb theatre series around Manto.
Manto was tried five times for obscenity, being convicted the fifth time, and fined, in Karachi, just before his death. He is a writer for the ages, relevant in his time and in ours and I hope Nawazuddin Siddiqui will bring him to life again.