“Saadat Hassan Manto”, writes journalist Aakar Patel, was essentially an “Indian trapped in Pakistan.” Aakar Patel’s dalliance with Urdu two decades ago turned into the obsession of a man in love and he put his fetish for the language to test with a translation of the non-fiction essays (bought from the Urdu Bazaar near Jama Mazjid) by Manto, one of the greatest Urdu short story writers born to India.
Manto is best known for his everyman stories of Bombay’s seamy underbelly and the horrors of Partition. Toba Tek Singh, the iconic short story about a lunatic stuck in an asylum in Pakistan has come to epitomize the insanity that went into the making of the Partition.
It is Manto’s non-fiction essays, however, which open a new window to the writer’s life and his thoughts, for instance, on why and how he writes, the hearty story of his marriage and his happy and lighter days in Bombay as a hopelessly underpaid scriptwriter in Bollywood.
Manto’s essays become a rare witness to how dark his life gradually becomes, especially around 1946 as communalism begins taking over his city just before Independence. Manto writes, “when we left home we would carry two caps. A Hindu topi and a Rumi topi … Religion used to be felt in the heart, but now, in the new Bombay, it must be worn on the head.”
By the time a worried and misled Manto has moved to Pakistan with his family, he realises the smothering puritanism in The Land of the Pure can never be the home Bombay had been to him. Manto becomes the Orwellian chronicler of “the age of barbarism” an already intolerant, absolute and violent Pakistan that he had entered.
Lashing out at religious moralists and fundamentalists who had become increasingly intolerant about his sexually explicit stories, Manto snidely remarked, “Creation is the preserve of Allah … not the business of His servant, man.”
Manto was an artist supremely conscious of his art. “When the fountain pen is not in my hand, I am merely Saadat Hasan … It is the pen that transforms me into Manto,” he writes in his essay “Why I Write.”
Which is perhaps why Manto, the writer, managed to pull through four trials against him on charges of obscenity, and why Manto, the man, could no longer stand the utter depravity and humiliation he was being subjected to at the hands of “the New Pakistan.”
He, who was convicted in the fifth trial in Lahore for his essay Oopar Neeche aur Darmiyan, had become bitter and frustrated with the State and moralists trying to get at him, which, says Patel, was unusual for Manto.
Manto, in his essays, reveals how he had in fact, become paranoid about courtrooms and trials. “A court is a place where every humiliation is inflicted and where it must be suffered in silence.”
A harrowed Manto says he neither had the money to buy himself poison nor tickets to Lahore for the repeated court summons. He was immensely worried about the fate of his family if he were to be convicted and he began drinking heavily.
Manto’s life, after he died in 1955, came to be for Urdu literature what D.H. Lawrence’s had become to English in the 20th century—the elemental struggle between the Artist and the State. Which is what makes him ever so crucially relevant in our times and representative of the growing intolerance with art and literature.
“I am,” he poignantly writes, “…a teller of stories. My imagination soars, true, but it plummets in the face of reality and I think to myself…why was it that I even soared in the first place?” n
Sarah Hafeez is a Delhi-based journalist. She holds a post-graduate diploma in journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, India.