By M Aamer Sarfraz
January 23, 2019
Each generation has a history of carving out artistic idols for veneration which may help them avoid facing reality or perhaps to refrain from engaging in rational discourse. These gods also attract all sorts of associated legends, depending upon the relevant generation’s perception and motivation. Sa’adat Hasan Manto may have been such an idol. I have read him recurrently throughout my life because, like others, I am fascinated both by his personality and works. This piece, however, is a personal impression and not written as a psychiatrist or critic because it is important to directly appreciate his literary work than forming an opinion based on others’ verdict.
I must confess that I am not the biggest fan of Sa’adat Hasan Manto. I believe that writing short stories is about their culture, content, craft and consistency; and nobody wrote better than Krishan Chandler in Urdu. Having said that, Manto, a film written and co-directed by Nandita Das, was going to be screened in Pakistan last month, but was banned. It gives me a shameful sense of déjà vu because the hysterical synchronicity of such shenanigans has become so typical of the Pakistan and Hindustan establishments, and Manto had died painfully fighting against such bigotry.
Some of us may disagree, but Manto has been described as the best short story writer in Southeast Asia. He left behind 22 collections of short stories, one novel, five collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches, and several film scripts. Some of them were great, and others were written just for pay-cheques e.g. Nak ki Qismain. He also wrote some to make fun of greedy publishers; and even sold work which did not belong to him. Nonetheless, whatever he wrote carried his trademark bravura. He was tried six times for obscenity; thrice during the British Raj and thrice in Pakistan. Manto is likened to Scott Fitzgerald and D. H. Lawrence, but he was actually stirred by human comedy like his protagonist Maupassant, who frequented the world of prostitutes, pimps, thieves, and killers.
Most of Manto’s literary critics are either for or against him, because sides are often taken in the subcontinent on the basis of personal relationships and peer politics. Along with his premature death at the age of forty-three, Manto was unfortunate for attracting more friends and foes than genuine critics. Nonetheless, since his death, he has become a one-sided affair in Indo-Pak, as his adulation has grown and grown. The situation at present is that Manto, the writer, has been buried under many layers of idolisation, and questioning any aspect of his life or works is akin to blasphemy. He would have hated this situation because he had said once that he loathed a civilised society, which laundered everyone into becoming a saint after death.
His short stories can be divided into three categories: about riots, about sexuality, and those related to particular issues or characters. The latter also include stories about the Bombay Film industry. ‘Mozil’, ‘Mummy’ and ‘Mera Naam Radha Hai’ are actually very similar to each other, depicting selfless characters who become Manto’s literary devices to reaffirm and reiterate his humanistic vision. Nevertheless, his own vanity and the use of shock-tactics always lurk around the corner. ‘Hattak’ and ‘Babu Gopi Nath’ are balanced and formidable though, as they portray near perfect experiences. Sugandhi is perhaps the most psychologically complex, animated and gratifying character created by Manto.
Manto writes very powerfully about the senseless riots which broke out before and during the ‘Partition’ e.g. ‘Sihayay’, ‘Darling’ and ‘Ram Khilawan’. His masterpiece, now filmed and included in BBC’s hundred most influential short-stories in world literature, is ‘Toba Tek Singh’. Khalid Hasan (late) translated it beautifully in English, but I have always felt that, as a gifted writer, he could have done better (I upset him twice by insisting on this). Unlike others (including Manto himself), I am not a great admirer of ‘Khol Do’ because it is written as an ordinary character, and it seems that the writer was desperately preparing ground, sometimes out of context, to simply place those words towards the end.
Manto is known to the average reader for his short stories with a sexual content. Due to stories like ‘Kali Shalwar’, ‘Boo’ and ‘Thanda Gosht’, he was accused of obscenity. Manto defended himself against it in writing and at other forums, and one can choose to agree or disagree with him. It is sad that, due to the hype, such stories were never properly evaluated by critics. Obscenity belongs to the moral realm while literature is about expression of art in sophisticated forms. There will always be grey areas though, which is where Manto frolicked too often to irk the establishment. It is a pity that he became increasingly defensive about it, perhaps due to his own middle-class origins. Faiz sahib’s statement about ‘Thanda Gosht’ was a masterwork, “The writer neither wrote porn nor has risen to the higher literary standards in this story”.
Manto had strong narcissistic and attention-seeking traits in his personality. He had walked barefoot on burning coals in his youth just to prove a point. It seems that he kept performing such pranks throughout his life although they took more fictional forms. He wrote how he “walked a tightrope suspended far above the ground where people expected him to fall any moment but he never did”. The same death-wish may have prompted him to dabble in politics whenever he had a chance. He was a ‘leader’ of young intellectuals in Amritsar; it seems he sought the same thrill later in his chronicles including ‘1919 Ki Baat’, ‘Suraj Kay Liay’, and ‘Letters to Uncle Sam’. Unfortunately, he never succeeded in inspiring a literary, labour or political movement, partially because most of his expressions were rather emotional, and had no spirited intellectual dimension.
Manto could not inspire an intellectual revolt, therefore, he sought attention by offending others. He is known to have instructed his first publisher to create a highly provocative cover for his book. Following its success, it appears that he increasingly presented himself as a real-life character who was out to disrupt traditional beliefs and values. He presented through his stories that everything which appears to be virtuous hides some ugliness underneath and vice versa. Being philosophically vain, he could not channelize this hypothesis into a more conceptual and cognitive paradigm, and ended up being more and more frustrated in its articulation. His enduring narcissism often got the better of him, and he was widely known to have left those parties early where he was not the centre of attention.
Despite his endless love for Bombay, Manto wrote his best short stories after moving to Lahore. In one of those, he ridiculed his sentence for obscenity, “My judge thought that truth and literature should be kept far apart.” He often perceived the world as opaque and maintained that his stories were merely a reflection of it. He could never figure out who was his real target; he fired at many in the process, and often without remorse, but injured none.
He remained a scandalous figure throughout his life as there was no middle-ground for him; he was either described as sex-obsessed or a saint. His intransigence, antagonism and bitterness might even have been a protective armour with which he safeguarded his internal turmoil. Understanding Sa’adat Hasan Manto in a historical context is really challenging because he was perhaps a man far ahead of his time. In my view, he still deserves to be rediscovered by readers and critics alike.
M Aamer Sarfraz is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Visiting Professor.