To a mad world, caught in a turmoil of terror, anything written in an Islamic language, seems to be a potential pamphlet for Zihad. We would like to invite this mad world in for a quiet cup of tea, iced perhaps, and open a page for them to read the following: Ladies and gentlemen, meet Saadat Hasan Manto (May 11, 1912 – January 18, 1955). The finest Urdu writer the world has even seen. Who like the rest of the great souls, was never afraid of putting humanity before religion. And was thoroughly punished for it.
Blood red Urdu words are splattered across the chest of the black T-shirt in a menacing font. The back says, with an invisible chuckle, “Relax, it says I love McDonald's in Urdu.” This wisecrack of a t-shirt, bestseller across many internet stores, hits the problem in the head. To a mad world, caught in a turmoil of terror, anything written in an Islamic language, seems to be a potential pamphlet for Zihad. We would like to invite this mad world in for a quiet cup of tea, iced perhaps, and open a page for them to read the following: “Out here, many mullah types after urinating pick up a stone and, with one hand inside their untied shalwar, use the stone to absorb the after-drops of urine. This they do in full public view. All I want is that the moment such a person appears, I should be able to pull out a teeny-weenie atom bomb and lob it at the mullah so that he turns into smoke along with the stone he was holding.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet Saadat Hasan Manto (May 11, 1912 – January 18, 1955). The finest Urdu writer the world has even seen. Who like the rest of the great souls, was never afraid of putting humanity before religion. And was thoroughly punished for it.
Rebellion came as a second nature to Saadat Hasan Manto, son of an overbearing father and a timid, yet caring mother. Sometimes it came across as desperate courage, when as a teenager, he was the only person to step up and assist a magician in a firewalking drill. Sometimes it came across as sheer reluctance, when he failed in Urdu in school. And in the end, it came across as supreme confidence. His epitaph was supposed to read: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and mysteries of short-story writing... Under tons of earth he lies, wondering who of the two is the greater short-story writer: God or he.” Pity, it does not appear on his grave in Lahore because of his family's fears that it would enrage the orthodox and the clergy.
After he responded to the call of the firewalking magician, he has been walking on fire ever since. The end of his teen years also marked the end of his innocence when he wrote his first story, Tamasha, based on the Jallianwala Baug Massacre as witnessed by a seven-year old boy.
In the rest of his life, he was tried for obscenity half-a-dozen times, thrice before and thrice after partition, but never convicted. "If you find my stories dirty,” He said, “the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth". Certain self-righteous sections of the Pakistan's literary world made it their duty to keep striking till he breaks into pieces. And break into pieces he did, when the lustre of his life and pen melted away in bottles in the last years of his life.
But unfortunately, we can’t just accuse Lahore for breaking the man. Bombay was just as culpable. He was the victim of a hate mail campaign in Filmistan, where he worked as a writer with close friends such as Ashok Kumar in the volatile times of partition. The campaign accused him of infiltrating the studio with Muslims. He was branded a communalist, the same people he hated passionately throughout his life. He had to leave the city with his head hung in shame. A blow he never recovered from. It cleaved him into two pieces – the patient, gentle Saadat Hasan and the dark, acerbic, brilliant Manto.
In a very Mantoesque sketch about himself, he writes about his doppelganger, “We were born together and I suppose we will die together. But it may also come to pass that Saadat Hasan may die and Manto may not. The thought really bothers me because I have always done by best to keep our friendship.” They didn't get along very well in the early years and the relationship only worsened as the years passed by. And the partition of the Indian subcontinent only cut the divide deeper.
No one has been so enraged by the human frailities, yet no one has been so forgiving of them. As Times Literary Supplement says, “What is characteristic of [Manto's] best work is a wry, sardonic refusal to be shocked. His attitude is that of a man who can no longer be surprised by the things people do to each other, but who nevertheless retains his humanity and compassion. ”
And of course, no one can describe Manto better than Manto himself, as he does in 'Manto's Prayer':
“Dear God, master of the universe, compassionate and merciful: we who are steeped in sin kneel in supplication before your throne and beseech you to recall from this world Saadat Hasan Manto, son of Ghulam Hasan Manto, who was a man of great piety.
Take him away, Lord, for he runs away from fragrance and chases after filth. He hates the bright sun, preferring dark labyrinths. He has nothing but contempt for modesty but is fascinated by the naked and the shameless. He hates sweetness, but will give his life to taste bitter fruit. He will not so much as look at housewives but is in seventh heaven in the company of whores, He will not go near running waters, but loves to wade through dirt. Where others weep, he laughs; and where others laugh, he weeps. Faces blackened by evil, he loves to wash with tender care to make visible their real features.
He never thinks about you but follows Satan everywhere, the same fallen angel who once disobeyed you.”
He has already been established as one of the greatest short story writers of twentieth century. Some of his legendary short stories are Thanda Gosht, Khol Do, Toba Tek Singh, Iss Manjdhar Mein, Mozalle and Babu Gopi Nath. Toba Tek Singh, especially is considered as his magnum opus and perhaps the most anthologised Urdu short story in the world. A satiric account of deportation of mentally challenged people to their respective countries after partition, Toba Tek Singh, leaves us numb with shock. In fact, so deeply attached are he and his stories with partition violence that in general perception they are almost synonymous. To write the truest accounts of men turning into beasts all around him and some of them refusing to do so, things got a little too personal. The horror of the aftermath never left him. He was undone by the very event he so passionately portrayed.
His portrayal of women in his stories and especially in the sharp, no holds-barred sketches of his compatriots in the Bombay film world shows them not just as cliches of servile homemakers or sultry temptresses but humans. Even his portrayals of prostitutes show them steeped in flaws yet shining in human glory. The films he has written including Kisan Kanya (1937, one of India's first colour films) and Apni Nagariya (1940) also deal with the bitter truths of class and caste divide with no holds barred. “Every angel admitted to the facility I operate”, He wrote, “has been barbered thoroughly and in style so that not a single hair may be left standing on his head.” Needless to say, the so-called angels were not amused.
Manto's 'Letters to Uncle Sam' bristle with savage wit even in their English translations. It lays bare the futility of partition and the riotous and sorry state it has left both parts of the subcontinent, especially Pakistan. And last but not the least, how life was continuing to turn hell for him despite being already recognised one of the greatest Urdu writers of all time.
Yet, he was not all dark humour and tragic endings. With his ragtag band of merry intellectuals he went ahead coining new slangs like 'fraud' (show-off, make-believe as in Fraududdin, which he called one of his show-off acquaintances) or 'kabab' (making a complete fool of someone) and making codewords which no one outside the band would understand. Yet he was made a 'kabab' of himself at the last days of his life. Neither his deep love for his daughters, nor his wife's deep devotion for him could pull him out of the edge of self-destruction. He gazed into the abyss for too long. When the abyss gazed back, he had to go spiralling in – an alcoholic, a pauper, a vicious caricature of a previous Manto.
On January 18, 2005, the fiftieth anniversary of his death, this prolific journalist, storywriter, playwright and screenwriter was commemorated on a Pakistani postage stamp. A perfectly ironic Manto ending to an impeccable Manto short story. Only this time, it was for real.
User *abro* and www.flickr.com - for lead picture.
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