What is Manto?

Many years ago, as I was establishing my own literary credentials, a friend from my high school days asked me a rather puzzling question, as we stood eating ḥalīm with naans near the Punjab Universityís New Campus: Yaar, yeh Manto ka dakhla kyun band hai sharif gharon mein? (Dude, why is Mantoís entry blocked from the homes of decent folks?). Speechless, I tried to give him some probable reasons. The bottom line was that the decent folks he meant were hypocrites and Manto took it upon himself to denude the hypocrisy of our society and so on.

Over the years, from time to time, my friends words have haunted me as they have reverberated in my mind. Just as his question was inadequate, so did my answer fail to do justice to the idea of Manto.

Saadat Hasan Manto

What was Manto? An artiste? Simply a good writer? A postcolonial writer? A thinker? A rebel? An iconoclast? A cry in the wilderness? Our collective conscience? A troublemaker? Drunkard? Stylist? Visionary? An idea? A concept? A vision?

I am sure readers can add a few more appellations to the list above. We know he had nothing to show for academic achievements, but he managed to self-teach himself a few foreign languages and translate important literary texts from French and Russian.In his fiction he could be irreverent towards figures such as Gandhi, and in his nonfiction sketches towards Jinnah and his sister. Although the madness of Partition that he captured in his stories after 1947 has overshadowed his earlier output, serious readers know the wide scope of his writing and its quality.

He worked for literary and film magazines; he wrote plays for radio and stage; he wrote screenplays and was involved with the Bombay film scene; he rubbed shoulders with literary luminaries and had actors such as Ashok Kumar as friends; he could be sarcastic towards Nehru in his letter and get away with slighting Noor Jehan. He wrote long stories in pure realism in which character development is essential, as in Kali Shalvari he wrote short, short stories only a paragraph long, such as those included in Siyaah Haashiye; he wrote stories which are first rate satire, such as Toba Tek Singh; he wrote stories where the central character is a dog. He was accused of obscenity and tried in court before and after Partition, though each time he was acquitted. But the real point is this: At his anniversary it is important to ask, why does Manto matter? And if he does, at all, then which Manto? In order to be able to answer that we may perhaps look at the present state of our country, and how it got there. There is no doubt that our subservience to the U.S. interest in fighting Communism has cost pretty much everything. The visionary in Manto was able to see what no other writer could: the inevitable, logical alliance between the U.S. and the Muslim clergy. He clearly states in his quintessential Letters to Uncle Sam, (as mentioned in one of Ayesha Jalalís essays):

Regardless of the storm India is kicking up, you must sign a military agreement with Pakistan since you are seriously concerned about the stability of the world’s largest Islamic state. And why not. Our mullah is the best counter to Russian communism. Once military aid starts flowing, these mullahs are the first people you should arm. They would need American made rosaries and prayer-mats  Cutthroat razors and scissors should beat the top of the list, and also American hair coloring formulas. That will keep these chaps happily in toe [sic]. I think the only purpose of military aid is to arm these mullahs. I am your Pakistani nephew and can see through all your moves. Anyone can now become too clever by half, thanks to your style of politics. […] Once these mullahs are armed with American weapons […] the Soviet Union with its communist propaganda will have to close shop in this country. […] Mullahs, their hair trimmed with There is no evidence that Manto knew either French or Russian; most likely he translated these texts from American scissors, wearing pajamas stitched with American machines in conformity with the Sharia and possessing American made prayer mats too. Everyone would then quickly fall into line and read only your name on their rosaries.

Just as the Partition resulted from Britains systematic colonial policies of divide and rule, and the desire to create an Islamic buffer to counter a Soviet advance, Manto saw through the imperial policies of the U.S., which viewed Islamic radicalism as a trusted weapon to fight Communism without any regard for the future of the people who would be crushed by such an alliance. If our military leadership had developed any relationship with our indigenous literary culture and respected our own writers and intellectuals, as opposed to what the Westerners advised them, we might have been a different country. In other words, Manto saw through the smoke screen of the Marshall Plan where others failed.

The fact that the madness of Partition broke Manto’s heart is to reduce his fiction to the literal level. When he wrote about prostitutes and pimps and engaged with issues of greed, lust and hatred, he was almost always aware of the socio-economic dynamic. He understood that economic inequity caused misery and tragedy for people. What was it that made him fearless in his critique of his society, his country, and his compatriots? It’s
perhaps better that he drank himself to death because, if the state machinery did not get rid of him, the mullah madness would have put a bullet through his head. But even after his death so many decades ago, he refuses to die.

What makes him live on? His art? His empathy for the downtrodden? His hatred for mullahs and imperialism in his stories? The tenor of his craft? The register of his prose? I am tempted to say that more than anything else, his courage in seeing what it is necessary for a writer to see in the society he lives in and write it down in whatever form suits him. His intellect and moral clarity with regards to where he positions himself. Though the noted Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav has claimed that no other twentieth-century writer comes close to Manto when it comes to writing about marginal people, the best reason, perhaps, why Manto refuses to die is that he is not just a writer who wrote stories and satires, he had a vision that we overlooked at our own peril. Maybe we can still atone for our negligence!

Written by Moazzam Sheikh in the Annual of Urdu Studies Volume – 26.

Sources –

Letter to India: In Mantoís Spirit,î Economic and Political Weekly 37(44/45)
(2–15 Nov. 2002):4526–29 [http://www.jstor.org/stable/4412808]. óEditor.Columns • 357

[Gratefully reproduced from The News International (Karachi) (Internet
Edition, Literati Section) 23 January 2011. Edited for the AUS.]

The above article was published in the The Annual of Urdu Studies, No. 26


One thought on “What is Manto?

  1. Pingback: Letters to Uncle Sam – Saadat Hasan Manto | universalpoetries

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