by Rakhshanda Jalil
The progressives who marginalised him can now redress an old wrong
Centenaries are useful occasions for reflection and understanding. In the case of someone as contentious as Saadat Hasan Manto, his hundredth birth anniversary, on May 11, offers an occasion to make amends. Of course, those who regard Manto as a writer of a “certain” sort of stories would do well to study his oeuvre to understand its range and complexity. But, more importantly, those forces and those writers’ blocs — now diminished and depleted — which marginalised and mocked Manto during his lifetime can redress an old wrong. I am referring to the influential group of writers called the “progressives”, who had established the Progressive Writers’ Association in 1936 and in the years leading up to Partition set themselves up as a controlling authoritarian body.
Put simply, if the progressives had an ideology, Manto had a world view; both had their roots in the Russian revolution, both gave unequivocal emphasis to social change. In the early years, the progressives were willing to ignore Manto’s lack of ideology since he kept churning out story after story about the working class, especially the outcast and the marginalised. A story like “Naya Qanoon” (New Law) was, in fact, widely acknowledged by the progressives and found a place in the many anthologies edited by progressive critics and editors. The story’s central character, Mangu the Coachman, who believes a new law has been passed that has given independence to India, takes on an English Tommy and in the process becomes an emblem of the subaltern’s desire for freedom. In his unlettered, untutored, instinctive defiance of British rule and in his impetuous headlong rush to throw off the imperial yoke, Mangu became the progressives’ version of Everyman. Till the 1940s, the progressives were content to let Manto be; while they were happy enough to appropriate the more political stories in his first two collections — Aatish Parey (1936) and Manto ke Afsane (1940) — trouble began to brew with the third collection Dhuan (1942). One story, “Boo”, in particular, irked the progressives, causing Sajjad Zaheer, founder-member of the increasingly powerful PWA, to publicly condemn it at a conference in Hyderabad in October 1945. A resolution against obscenity was drafted (a resolution that included references to Manto, Ismat Chughtai and Miraji); fortunately, the move to pass it was scuttled by the maverick Maulana Hasrat Mohani who called the assembly of writers to make a judicious distinction between obscenity and latif havasnaki (“refined sexual desire”)!
Thwarted in passing a unanimous resolution, a core group within the PWA began to marginalise Manto. For his part, Manto initially defended himself by saying that his intention was neither pornography nor titillation but simply to show certain important and stark realities of life: “If it is obscene to even mention a prostitute then her existence is also obscene. If one is forbidden to mention her, then her profession too should be forbidden. Remove the prostitute; her mention too will end.” But later, like a wilful naughty child who, upon being taken to task, becomes more wilful, more intent upon doing that which brings censure, Manto kept cocking a snook at the progressives’ growing wrath. In the collection of sketches called Siyah Hashiye (Black Margins), we see him bent upon rebellion, willing to cross the limits of brutality, jeering the gods of social realism to do their worst. Fortunately, Manto was able to check himself and once he found his own voice over the din of Partition, he wrote some of his finest stories, leaving us with some memorable characters just before his end: Babu Gopinath, Mozelle, Toba Tek Singh, Mammad Bhai, Janki, Neelam, Mummy, Hafiz Manzoor, Qadir the butcher, among others.
While he wrote with particular empathy about women, simulating a certain naturalness in speech and behaviour that can only come from close interaction and minute observation, he wrote with astonishing perspicacity about fellow men as well. And all sorts of men: writers, filmmakers, photographers, social workers, office workers, tinsmiths, tongawallahs, washermen, water-carriers, pimps, shopkeepers. In short he could claim a nodding acquaintance with people in all rungs of life. To match these characters and their real, living contexts, he gave us an equally living, equally real language, the sort of Urdu that had never been written before but one that sounded perfectly believable in the mouth of these characters. Over 60 years later, Toba Tek Singh’s famously unintelligible diatribe has become a telling commentary on the madness of Partition: “Oper di, gur gur di, anx di, bay dhiana di, mung di dal di...”
Manto’s relentless individuality always posed a problem for literary critics, both progressive and otherwise. In celebrating his centenary, it is time his legacy is celebrated not in parts but in its entirety, with its strengths and weaknesses, beauty and ugliness, absurdity and realism, detachment and empathy getting their fair share of attention. It is time this idiosyncratic combination of contraries, always a delight for Manto’s readers, stopped being a problem for the critics.
Jalil is the editor-translator of “Naked Voices: Stories and Sketches by Manto”