Manto: The tormented genius

Today January 18th we remember him on his 61st death anniversary

2016-01-18T13:12:56+05:00 Aamir Butt

“It is very simple to be happy, but it is very difficult to be simple.” (Rabindranath Tagore)

Sadat Hasan Manto is arguably the greatest story writer from Indo-Pak subcontinent. Today January 18th we remember him on his 61st death anniversary, a date he shares with my father who died 20 years ago on this day. In the brief time he spent in this world, for Manto was just 42 when he died, he published no less than 250 short stories, 22 plays and over hundred non-fiction articles including personality portraits, one of which was of MA Jinnah.

Born in the village of Samrala just a few miles from Ludhiana Manto spent his youth and early adult life in Amritsar, a city which along with Bombay and Lahore he considered as one of his three homes. He himself tells us that he passed the entrance exam to higher education on this third attempt and in third division and failed the Urdu paper! And then he only spent a short time in Aligarh University before getting bored and leaving.

So we can conclude that higher education in a language is not required to become a great writer in that language. In fact like Ghalib, whom he idolized, the beauty of Manto is that he writes in simple Urdu without any fancy and sophisticated wordplay. His stories stand out due to his razor sharp observation of the world and his ability to describe this clearly.

At the time of partition Manto was well settled in Bombay, he was writing for the film industry and earning a decent salary; he had recognition and friends like actor Shayam. So while his wife and kids left for Pakistan Manto stayed in Bombay for several months; like many other Muslims he was not sure what to do. What made him decide to move to Pakistan was the same fear which had created Pakistan, that Muslims will not be treated well in an India where there is a Hindu majority. Manto himself narrates the day he finally decided to migrate, he and Shayam visited a Sikh family which had come to Bombay from Rawalpindi, Shayam's hometown, and listened to blood curdling details of what they had seen during the riots. Manto noted that Shayam was deeply moved and on the way back he asked Shayam, ''I am a Muslim, don't you want to kill me?'' and Shayam replied, ''Not now, but at that time when I was listening to their story I could have killed you.''

Incidentally Shayam who became a famous actor but died very young is the father of Pakistani TV actress-producer Saira Kazmi.

After Manto arrived in Lahore via Karachi in January 1948 he spent the first six months in a state of shock. He had rejected the partition of India but as he himself confesses in the end he had to accept this monstrous reality (his words). Still he found it difficult to understand what is India and what is Pakistan. A confusion he later penned in his masterpiece Toba Tek Singh. What he saw all around him sent him into despair but as he writes, ''I did not let myself be overwhelmed by despair. It was in that sea of blood that I plunged myself to come up with a few pearls of regret at what human beings had done to human beings.'' And when he finally managed to write short stories the first one he wrote was Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat) but no one was prepared to publish it. So he wrote another one called Khol Do (Open it) which was published in Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi's Naqoosh and resulted in the magazine getting banned for six months. Much later Thanda Gosht was also published in a special edition of magazine Javed resulting in the first post independence obscenity trial for Manto.

While Manto wrote extensively on the hypocrisy, exploitation and social evils that permeate our society he was not and never claimed to be a reformer. There are no sermons in his writings, no judgments,  he just writes how things happen and the way people behave in real life situations. As he himself tells us, ''The world should not make one understand, on the contrary, one should try and understand the world'' And true to this in his stories he leaves it to the reader to understand and decide what is good and what is bad.

It is well known that Manto was accused of writing obscenity and profanity. For this he was charged and tried no less than six times - three times before and three times after Partition. Even though he was acquitted each time for many his stories were immoral and corrupting. Writer Mustansar Hasan Tarrar who as a 12 year old lived in a house next door to him in Lahore recalls how all youngsters were told by their parents to never ever read his stories for they are dirty, which of course created an intense desire in Tarrar to read the stories and he had read all of them by the time he was 14!

While there is no doubt that some of Manto's stories have sexual content or contain language which can be considered objectionable for puritan folks, it is worth noting that of his 250 stories only 20 or so are in this category. Yet as Manto himself points out with amusement that his critics ignore all his other stories and only read these few selected ones, perhaps because they enjoy the sexual gratification they get from them?

Manto's description of his fourth trial is as interesting to read as a short story. It is full of his keen observation and subtle humour as he exposes the corruption and unethical practice of the courts (everything needed wheels, otherwise nothing would move). In narrating one incident where the honourable judge who seemed to take a dislike to him from the beginning admonished him for holding a packet of cigarettes in his hand and then few minutes later the judge himself picked up a cigarette from his table and lit up Manto illustrates the hypocrisy which is all so prevalent in our society.

Manto was charged under Section 292 of the PPC for publishing a story which was obscene and against public morality. His defence was based around the argument that the story Thanda Gosht (Cold meat) was not obscene, whatever content it may have because it is part of literature and literature can only be good or bad but never obscene or immoral. As Oscar Wilde puts it there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book, a book is well written or badly written that is all. The charges were initiated by Chaudry Mohammud Hussain who was upset at not just the vulgar language and sexual content but also thought that the story portrays Muslims as so bay-ghayrat (without honour) that they let Sikhs rape even dead Muslim girls. He like many others failed to understand that the story actually tells us that even those who commit unspeakable acts of barbarity often have a little bit of humanity left in them and somehow, sometimes this humanity finds a way to punish them.

The defence produced a list of 32 witnesses to be called. The judge refused to let so many witnesses appear and only agreed on 14, but stopped after just seven had given their testimony. Among those who did appear was Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum; the prosecution produced four witnesses, interestingly Dr MD Taseer, Faiz's hum zulf (brother in law) appeared in the court though from his statement it looks as if Dr Taseer was more upset at the low literary quality of the story than at it being obscene. Agha Shorish Kashmeri also appeared in the court.

After much deliberation and an agonizing wait the judge found Manto guilty as charged and to everyone's surprise sentenced him to rather harsh 6 months rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 300.

In giving the reason for his decision the judge stated that the standard of morality is not universal but specific to each area and in Pakistan the standard of morality to be followed is that which is in accordance with the Quran, and he feels that the story is obscene when the Quranic standards are applied.

An appeal was filed in the session court against the decision, when Manto and his lawyer saw the judge who was to hear the appeal they were apprehensive as the judge had a long flowing beard and a dent on his forehead.  However, to even greater surprise the judge gave a decision after just a single hearing acquitting Manto of all charges and ordering that the fine he had paid is refunded to him.

While his stories are a masterpiece of Urdu literature also well worth reading are Manto's non-fiction work and paramount in this are his series of articles titled 'Letters to Uncle Sam. Manto wrote a total of 9 such letters between 1951 and 1954. The letters are full of his laconic wit, sarcasm and humour, besides other things they provide a commentary on the disastrous path Pakistan had started to follow. In the first letter Manto writes about his anguish at Partition and the fact that nothing much has changed for him:  

"My name is Saadat Hasan Manto and I was born in a place that is now in India. My mother is buried there. My father is buried there. My first-born is also resting in that bit of earth. However, that place is no longer my country. My country now is Pakistan which I had only seen five or six times before as a British subject.

I used to be the All India’s Great Short Story Writer. Now I am Pakistan’s Great Short Story Writer. Several collections of my stories have been published and the people respect me. In undivided India, I was tried thrice, in Pakistan so far once. But then Pakistan is still young."

In another letter he vents his scorn on the Mullahs and the USA:

"You have done many good deeds yourself and continue to do them. You decimated Hiroshima, you turned Nagasaki into smoke and dust and you caused several thousand children to be born in Japan. Each to his own. All I want you to do is to dispatch me some dry cleaners. It is like this. Out there, 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 as they resume their walk. 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 that atom bomb you will send me and lob it at the Mullah so that he turns into smoke along with the stone he was holding."

However the most astonishing bits are those that show his insight and ability to see far into the future and here in one of the letters he writes:

“India may grovel before you a million times but you will definitely make a military aid pact with Pakistan because you are really worried about the integrity of this largest Islamic sultanate of the world, and why not, as our mullahs are the best antidote to Russia’s communism. If the military aid starts flowing, you should begin by arming the mullahs and dispatch vintage American (dry cleaning) stones, vintage American rosaries and vintage American prayer mats, with special attention to razors and scissors, and if you bless them with the miraculous prescription of vintage American hair dye as well then do understand that the cat is in the bag. The purpose of military aid as far as I understand it is to arm these mullahs. I’m your Pakistani nephew but I am aware of all your machinations; but this heightened intelligence is all thanks to your politics (God save it from the evil eye). If this sect of mullahs is armed American-style, then the Soviet Union will have to pick up its spittoon from here, even whose gargles are mixed up in communism and socialism.”

And incredibly that is exactly what the Americans did in 1980s, starting a process which has led to the destruction of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In another of his articles Manto tells us:

“These people who are commonly known as leaders, view politics and religion as that crippled, lame and injured man, displaying whom our beggars normally beg for money. These so-called leaders go about carrying the carcasses of politics and religion on their shoulders and to simple-minded people who are in the habit of accepting every word uttered to them in high-sounding vocabulary, they bandy about that they will breathe new life into this carcass. Religion is the same as it has always been and will always remain so. The religious spirit is a concrete reality which can never change. Religion is a rock which cannot be affected by even powerful waves of the sea. When these leaders cry their hearts out telling people that religion is in danger there’s no reality to it. Religion is not something which can be endangered. If there is a danger, it is to these leaders who endanger religion to achieve their own ends.”

And how true this is, starting from Liaqat and his Objective Resolution to Zia and the present lot a succession of leaders have used religion to get what they want and in the process have replaced the tolerant Pakistani society with militant jihadism that is causing so much misery to Pakistan and the world.

Despite his fame as a writer Manto spent most of his life in poverty, the seven years he lived after moving to Pakistan were those of bare hand to mouth existence. In another of his letters to Uncle Sam he says, I am poor because my country is poor.

While lack of opportunities and his alcoholism were major culprits his generosity played a part as well. One of his friends recalls how he was walking along with Manto who had just been paid Rs 20 for a story when they saw a vendor selling gandaris dressed up as a groom. Manto went to him as gave him Rs 20 and said, ''Go and attend to your wedding, I am buying all your stock''  The financial problems had a disastrous affect on his relationship with his long suffering wife Safia.

Not that he did not have opportunities to better himself by other means, for when he arrived in Pakistan he saw all around him people including his friends scheming to grab abandoned houses and mills. They asked him to get something for himself but he refused to take part in what he called loot and plunder. Some sources claim that Qudratullah Shahab allotted an ice-factory to him but the truth is that Shahab offered and Manto's wife Safia was keen on it but Manto refused to accept this.

One wonders why, faced with so much financial problems as well as hostility, did he not move back to Bombay? He would have been well aware of how well men like Sahir Ludihanvi are doing. The explanation for this is in another of his letter, "I want to live in Pakistan because I love this bit of earth, dust from which, incidentally, has lodged itself permanently in my lungs."

Writers are often asked the question for the motivation that makes them write and in his article Why Do I Write Manto states the reason he writes as simply because he has to eat and drink and if he does not eat and drink he cannot write. Here he laments that this is a sad fact of life but that is how God has willed it, for while God tells us he is free of everything (bayniaz) Manto says this is wrong as He asks for prayer and prayer is like a buttered piece of bread God satisfies his appetite with.

As for Manto eating was not that much of an issue. He hardly ate anything, a piece of bread dipped in curry was often what he had the whole day, it was the drinking which was a problem. Drinking excessive, cheap, alcohol was what killed him.

The end was not pleasant, as recalled by one of his closest friends in those days  Prof GM Asar,  Manto's last story was Kabootar Kabootri that he read at a small FC College student gathering three days before his death. Days later he was on his way to college when his youngest son told him that Apa Iqbal, Manto’s sister, wanted to see him. When he went to the Manto home next door he found her crying. When he asked her what the matter was she replied,

“Why are you asking me, go in and see your brother?” Prof Asar went into Manto’s room and found him covered with a quilt. He called out his name but there was no reply, just a shudder in the heap. An ambulance was sent for that took Manto to Mayo Hospital. The doctor on duty felt for Manto’s pulse and said casually, “You have brought him to the wrong place. You should have taken him to the graveyard. He is dead.”

So what drove Manto to drink himself to death? Like anything else there are a multitude of factors, Mr Shamim Ahmad in his book Torment and Creativity has analyzed this in some detail. He considers the main cause for Manto taking up alcohol consumption in a society where this is considered amoral and a sin was rebellion. This stemmed from Manto's resentment against a strict and puritan father who never showed any affection for his son from his second wife.  Shamim sahib also blames Manto's arrogance and oversensitivity at real and perceived insults from others leading to constant anxiety for which he used alcohol as a remedy. Added to this was the anxiety of making a living for himself and his family after he moved to Pakistan where there was no film industry and writing short stories was not very lucrative. While all these factors doubtless played a part, I think there were other reasons as well. Manto, like many poets and prose writers suffered from his sensitive nature; while the ability to feel the pain of others and to write about it so effectively creates beautiful literature it also leaves the artist in the clutches of constant melancholy. And the events of 1947, the barbarity and depravity exhibited by humans during the riots left deep wounds on his psyche from which he never recovered.

The final straw, which is not often mentioned was the problems created by his honesty. Manto said things as he saw them,  for him the truth needed to be said openly regardless of who may get upset at this. Such people are often misfits in a society. Here in many ways I can personally relate with Manto for when one speaks the truth openly one is often left with few or no friends. Obviously Manto was anti-Mullah and anti-religious orthodoxy so it was natural that right-leaning writers and intellectuals shunned him - but what was worse was the so called left leaning intellectuals and liberals who had created the Progressive Writers Movement also disowned him! The reason for this was that Manto dealt in reality and not idealism and while men like Faiz were able to survive due to their soft spoken nature Manto with his fairy temperament and saying things as they were bluntly did not. One example of this is the way Soviet Union was looked at by the progressive writers, they were all anti-imperialist and anti-USA, and so was Manto but the difference was that the progressive writers looked at Soviet-style communism as a way to create the perfect society on earth. Manto suffered from no such delusions and when many years later the reality of Soviet society and suffering of its people became common knowledge Manto's ability to look through the facade became all too clear. This attack on his writings by those he considered his brothers in arms wounded him deeply as he writes, ''I was angry. What was wrong with these  people, I asked myself. What kind of progressives were they who were only regressing? Why was this Big Red of theirs rushing headlong into black darkness?''

At the end, this rejection by everyone as no one was prepared to hear the truth led to his isolation and untimely death which in a way could be considered a suicide.

Manto dearly loved his three daughters and the question is how he could he propel himself to an early grave knowing that he will leave them fatherless? And this thought was not alien to him for he writes, ''The fear that keeps gnawing at me is if I were to die suddenly who will look after my wife and three minor daughters?''

Unfortunately, unlike romantic stories,  as we  see so many times in real life, love is not always enough for people to stay together or to keep on living. As one of his characters Eshar Singh in Thanda Gosht says just before he cuts his own throat, ''Man mother begotten is a strange thing''

Manto  wrote his own epitaph which he wanted to be on his gravestone:

"In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful Here lies Saadat Hassan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of storytelling… Under tons of earth he rests, still wondering who among the two is the greater fiction writer: God or he."

His family decided not to put this on for obvious reasons and a different text was used.

Manto lies buried in a rather obscure and forgotten plot in Miani Sahib graveyard. This is just what he would have wanted for he once wrote, ''My melancholy heart trembles that one day this indecisive government will find itself pleased with me and place a medal on my coffin, which would be a great insult to my commitment to what I believe in.'' Unfortunately Manto's fears did come true when in 2012 out of the blue the government decided to give him Sitara-a-Imtiaz.

So what is the legacy of Manto? Well his stories are there to read and enjoy but the message we should take away from his life is to speak the truth, to look at life honestly and have the courage to say what we see, even if this is bitter for some, even if those annoyed are your friends and relatives. Here in this world we see people who claim to be fair and unbiased but often have holy cows of their own. This could be an ethnic group, a political party, a religion, an institution or something. What Manto teaches us is that nothing is above scrutiny and critical analysis. And if we cannot for some reason speak the truth ourselves we should learn not to shun those who do just because what they say hurts one of our sensitivities.

Years after Manto's death in 1969 it was decided to celebrate a Manto Day; one of the participants was the fiery poet Habib Jalib who literally invited himself to the event claiming to be a close friend of Manto, something that was a revelation to Manto's friends and family!  Jalib had already been to jail a few times for criticizing the dictator Ayub. As he came on stage people in the packed hall were expecting him to say something about Manto and he read a poem which started,

Manto Kisi Ayub Se Dabta to Nahi Tha (Manto was not afraid of any Ayub)

Then in pin-drop silence what followed was a poem in which there was no Manto but a ferocious attack on Ayub Khan until the couplet with which Jalib ended the poem:

Bay baaqi-o-haq goee ki talwaar tha Manto (Manto was a fearless sword of truth)
Tum kaun ho, tum kya ho, mera yaar tha Manto (Who are you, what are you, Manto was my friend)


I don't think anyone can describe any better how the memory of Manto can be of use in our times.

Do not think my love will not last                                                                                            
As the dawn is inseparable from the sun                                                                                     
So is my love, which I'll wear                                                                                                  
Like a badge on my coffin

(Verses of Ghalib quoted by Manto in his article To My Readers)

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