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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

saadat hasan manto -- zia mohyuddin

On Saadat Hasan Manto

Zia Mohyeddin column

The Maverick

It didn't surprise me a bit to learn that a detailed study of Saadat Hasan Manto's life has appeared in India. (We, in our part of the world, do not have time to pursue such needless tasks). The definitive study of Ghalib has also been conducted in India. I am not merely referring to Kalidasa Gupta Raza's work, but that absorbing, exceedingly well-written life of Ghalib by Pawan Kumar Verma. The growing list of Indian publications on Urdu literature (albeit in English) is impressive.

You are probably familiar with the book but I have just finished reading Manto Nama written by Jagdish Chander Wadhawan and translated in English by Jai Ratan. The translation is literate and, at times, clumsy: "There is more name than money in a literary story whereas it is the other way round in a case of film story". Or, "In short where direct criticism of the powers that be has no place and is intolerable". These sentences might carry some meaning for us in the sub-continent, but to those not familiar with our language, they convey an impression of sloppiness.

Having said that, I must confess I found the book well-researched and appealing. Wadhawan had obviously "lived and breathed with Manto" before he set out to unveil the mystery of Manto's personality.
Saadat Hasan Manto was the youngest son of his father's second wife. There were eleven brothers and sisters. His father was a stern man and Manto spent his earlier years in constant dread of his father. Jagdish Chander Wadhawan, carefully, builds up the picture of a wayward adolescent who hobnobs with the rakes and layabouts of Amritsar in their slovenly environment, but is finicky about his own surroundings. In his house in Kucha Vakilan, the young Saadat Hasan, keeps his make-shift room meticulously tidy. He arranges pen, pencil, inkpot and paper neatly before sitting down to read or write. It is ironical that though his room is lined with books he fails in his matriculation examination twice and it is only with great difficulty that he gets a pass on the third attempt, in the third division.

This humiliation rankled Manto throughout his life. My acquaintance with Manto was brief. I only met him once at his apartment in Laxmi Mansions, in the company of two budding painters, Anwar Jalal Shamza and Moeen Najmi. Manto was in his cups (was he ever out of them?) and his talk was full of juicy, Punjabi expletives. He was ranting about Krishen Chander, "that M.A., that son of a ...thinks he is a story writer. You don't become a story writer by passing an M.A. exam. He is a ...fraud. He doesn't know, nobody knows; only one man knows how to write a story -- and his name is Manto".

Ill health dogged Manto throughout his life. He contacted tuberculosis when he was barely 21. Apart from a congenital defect in his abdomen he suffered from pulmonary and respiratory diseases; he had chest pains that made him feel dizzy; he had to have his teeth extracted before he turned 30. In a letter to Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, he says, "I want to write a lot, but my listlessness, my constant tiredness keeps me under its grip and will not let me work. If only I could get a little peace of mind I would collect my thoughts which keep flying like moths in the wind ...I will die one day uttering if only, if only...."

A lesser mortal would have wilted and spent the rest of his life doused in balms and unguents, but not Manto, who seemed to have been endowed with a demonic will to ignore his ailments. His sardonic sense of humour led him to observe that "a perfectly healthy man who runs a temperature of 98.4, has nothing to his credit but the cold slate of his life." Manto's body temperature was always one degree above normal.

Wadhawan describes the tribulations of Manto's trials -- five in all -- with candour. He doesn't become judgmental about the bigots who conducted the trials and condemned and penalized Manto; nor does he shower praise on the judges and magistrates who acquitted him. He concentrates on the physical hardship that Manto went through while embroiled in the wrangles of the courtroom.

One case in particular, concerning the story tilted Thanda Gosht, was tried three times. It went from the lower courts all the way to the High Court. The Lower Court held Manto responsible for obscene writing and awarded him three months rigorous imprisonment as well as a fine of Rs 300, declaring that if the fine was not paid he would undergo 21 days additional rigorous imprisonment.

Manto appealed. The case was moved to the Sessions court where, ironically, the judge, Inyat Ullah, generally thought of as a narrow-minded prig, made a priceless comment, "If I punish Saadat Hasan Manto, he will say that he has been punished by an orthodox bearded man". He acquitted Manto with a smile and remitted the earlier fine imposed on him, in full.

The authorities were not pleased and they filed an appeal in the High Court against the Sessions Court's judgement. The case came up before Justice Muneer, who had the reputation of being an unbiased and a fearless judge.

Manto and his lawyers must have heaved a sigh of relief. The relief was short-lived. The honourable judge pronounced that the 'leanings of the writer' had to be taken into account and not his 'intentions'. A story could not escape from being obscene if the details of the story were obscene. A story was not like a book, which could be good in some parts and bad in some parts. He declared Thanda Gosht to be obscene, upheld the governments' appeal and reimposed the fine.

Justice Muneer sounds like a myopic literary critic of a vernacular weekly. Ignoring his remarks that a book can be good and bad at the same time -- a bland statement if ever there was one -- I am curious as to what he means by 'the details of a story'? Does he mean the 'incidents' that occur in the story, or the 'language' that some characters use, or the bits of narrative between dialogue? If a story is to be judged by its 'details' then nearly every story by Salinger and Updike is obscene. And how did the learned jurisprudent perceive the difference between Manto's leanings and his intentions? Justice Muneer's judgement was hailed as a landmark on the subject of obscenity. It makes me shudder.

(to be continued)

Zia Mohyeddin column

The maverick
Part II

Manto is not the only genius in the creative world to have drunk himself to death. Dylan Thomas, in England, and Meeraji, in India, come to mind immediately. Interestingly enough, both Meeraji and Manto died in their forties. Researchers may yet discover that self-destruction reaches its culmination when you cross the age of forty.

It is easy to say that Manto drank to drown his sorrows. The world has been full of painters and sculptors, musicians and actors, poets and playwrights who, like Manto, suffered from extreme deprivation -- and humiliations -- but did not take to drink. Drink, to Manto, was like a shield he wore to protect himself from his inner broodings. In the last few years of his life he was aware that he had lost his self-esteem. He began to borrow money unashamedly; he would accept a pittance for a story without a murmur and the pittance went out to buy cheap liquor. The degradation to which he had sunk made him loathe himself. There was only one way-out: end his wretched life. He had been warned, repeatedly, that cirrhosis was eating him up and that if he didn't stop drinking he wouldn't live long.

During the few sober moments he had, he wrote, "I am feeling so depressed. I wish I could do something. But what is that something? I keep pondering over it. I feel like writing so many things but there is no time for it. I don't know what to do about it."

But he did know. He made frequent promises to give up drinking and, on one or two occasions, he did. Manto's sister told Wadhawan that he got his small room tidied up and sat down to write, "after arranging all the paraphernalia on his table. Many days passed happily in this manner. We would sit down unobtrusively in his room taking turns one by one. One day he said that the method was leading him nowhere. He thought it would do him good to enter the mental hospital where nobody would come to meet him. After deliberating over it for a few days he entered the hospital. This was his own decision."

The mental hospital in Lahore, the pagal-khana, was anything but a hospital. It was a prison occupied by derelicts and hardened criminals whose influential relations had had them certified as insane, a few schizophrenics and some decrepit outcasts. Manto spent sometime in the pagal khana. Urdu literature will, forever, be indebted to him, for it was here that the seeds of his superb work, 'Toba Tek Singh' germinated.

'Toba Tek Singh' is a story that is perfect in its balance and its structure. Manto's narration is artless; he doesn't waste a single word in the building-up of his story. The end is so moving that it makes you reel. It is a most scathing indictment of the senselessness that prevailed on both sides of the border in the wake of partition.

Manto's other stories on partition, that he wrote in Lahore, have a frenzied flavour. The fact is that apart from some trenchant sketches of celebrities and one or two penetrating short stories, Manto's literary output in Lahore didn't have the 'soul' of his earlier, memorable short stories. Perhaps it was because he felt restless in Lahore.

He felt at home only in Bombay. He had a fairly large circle of friends and admirers; he knew the byways of Bombay intimately and he had written some of his best short stories in Bombay. Indeed, he had achieved his fame as a towering writer of fiction while he was living in Bombay. It was only after the studio he worked for rejected his stories, repeatedly, that he decided to leave Bombay.

He arrived in Lahore in 1948 and soon after began to miss Bombay. He wanted to go back and wrote to Ismat Chughtai about it, but nothing came of it. He ran out of money he had brought with him; the lucrative job he had been promised with Gidwani Pictures never materialised. He was down and out.

In Bombay his film earnings were two to three thousand rupees a month (a substantial amount in those days) and he picked up a tidy sum by selling his stories and his radio scripts. He once worked for All India Radio and had written nearly a hundred Radio plays. Barring one or two, all of them had been broadcast.

Manto should have been able to make some kind of a living out of the newly established broadcasting service in Lahore, but the doors of Radio Pakistan were barred to him on account of a fracas he had had with Zulfikar Bohhari in Bombay. Some producers in Lahore Radio were Manto's well-wishers, but they dared not offend Bohhari Sahib. Manto remained a persona-non-grata for Radio Pakistan in his lifetime.
He wrote some film scripts but the movies turned out to be flops. In any case, the movie producers in Lahore were a different breed who felt more comfortable with hacks, who danced attendance on them, and didn't mind cringing for their money. Manto was too big a name for them.

It was not just financial worries that drove Manto to despair. Until partition took place, he had always been hailed as one of the stalwarts of the 'Progressive Writers Association.' Manto hated to be branded, and in some of his writings lampooned them. The 'progressives', en masse denounced him as a renegade and a reactionary. The reactionaries dubbed him as a licentious leftist. And the guardians of the newly found state's morals condemned him as a purveyor of filth.

Manto lashed out. He took swipes at all his destructors. The short pieces that he wrote, more for the sake of selling them for thirty rupees (which he desperately needed every day to slake his mounting thirst for alcohol) than for any lasting purpose, are insipid and slipshod; his wit is often blunt. Manto was well past caring. In his desperation he became reckless, and his writing suffered.

Manto did not keep a diary, but sometimes he recorded his inner most feelings in a letter:
"Since long I have felt in the words of Turgenev that I am the redundant fifth wheel of a carriage. I wish I could be of some use to someone".

He was a loving father and, from all accounts, a caring and loving husband. The realisation that he was utterly incapable of looking after the needs of his wife and three daughters must have galled him no end.

Sadat Hasan Manto was a maverick who, cussedly, refused to go along with any party or group. He remained a maverick throughout his short life. We should be grateful to Jagdish Chander Wadhawan for pointing it out to us so unambiguously.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good account on Manto's life, I read some of his writings in early eighties, when I was living in Pakistan, and certainly, I found his stories to be honest and blunt; and certainly would leave ever lasting memories in readers' mind. I read english litrature now and off course urdu as well(if I can find it, as I live in Melbourne); I wish, if I could read his writing again!

Dr. Iqbal Gondal

April 29, 2006 6:42 AM  
Blogger temporal said...

thank you for your comments

his collected works (kulliyaat) are now available in five volumes...i picked them up on my last visit...and am sure you can also order them through the net also

April 29, 2006 8:46 AM  
Blogger ~ Tears in Heaven ~ said...

Beautifully recounted! I am studying Toba Tek Singh at the moment, and really admire the way Manto has poignantly expressed himself through his deadpan, factual, mock-serious and non-judgemental narration. The way he has used wonderful subtlety and literary restraint in this powerful satire, to delineate the absurdities of Partition, is amazing!

November 23, 2008 8:28 AM  

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