A fitting tribute

I saw an interesting movie this week, made by Nandita Das on the writer Saadat Hasan Manto. He was an unusual man, who had a brief writing career and was forgotten for decades. Manto was of Kashmiri origin but from Punjab. He was a college dropout (having failed in Urdu) and came to Mumbai where he was a film journalist.

He also wrote movies, I think 11 scripts in all, but none of them was a hit and none of them has survived even as a cult classic. By all accounts this is not the career of someone special. It is his writing of non-cinema material, which made him significant in his time. Manto came to Mumbai in the 1930s, when the British empire was in full ebb and a new and uncertain India was coming into being. At that point there had just begun talks of Pakistan but nobody quite knew what it was and what it would ultimately look like.

What was clear, and Manto understood this immediately, was that Hindu-Muslim relations on the subcontinent had shifted. Manto wrote three sorts of things mainly. The first was his short stories in the pre-Partition period. This was material that was centred around the human condition. Manto’s stories usually eschew big plots and dramatic developments. He brings instead a close-up view of a character or two. He was especially interested in what society would see as its seamier side. Because of this interest in what was then considered to be prurient, Manto frequently angered people. Since he wrote in Urdu, these angry people were the moralists among the Muslim community. They often sued him for obscenity and during the period that the British ruled over India, Manto went to court four times and was acquitted four times. (To me, the most interesting thing about this is that courts in those days were able to finish four separate trials in a short period of time. What on earth has happened to our justice system since?)

The second was his short stories in the Partition and post-Partition period, when he had moved to Lahore. This is his great material. He is able to look at the communal question without any shade of his own identity. He is a balanced, neutral observer. This is what makes him credible. What makes him compelling is his ability to cut directly through and address the banality and the ordinariness of the hatred. And his ability to still discern the underlying humanity in all of us. This period of his writing is quite extraordinary and justifies all of his fame today. As Das shows in her movie, by the end of it, Manto was focussed on only individual moments that revealed the absurdity of the communal divide. Absurd because we have a billion and a half people on the subcontinent today, of whom half a billion are Muslims. There is no possible way in which communities of this size can live in perpetual hostility. Manto understood that and he was able to express it better than anyone else.

Manto was able to observe Indianness with a bystander’s eye | Photo: Sanjay K Sharma
This is one reason why he remains relevant today. His daughter Nighat says that she did not know till she was in her 30s that her father had once been a famous writer. This is because Manto fell out of favour in both India and Pakistan after the 1950s (he died in 1955 at the age of only 42). Pakistan did not like him because he was neutral and did not buy into the two-nation project. India stopped reading Urdu and Manto’s works were just left unread.

The question is why did he come to life again. There are no movies on Munshi Premchand or Krishan Chander or Firaq Gorakhpuri or Faiz Ahmed Faiz or any of the other famous writers of their time. There is hardly any interest in them either. Faiz survives because of the sheer beauty of his wonderful poetry in highly Persianised Urdu, but not because his material is relevant or insightful.

Manto alone survives the decades and his writing even today is as fresh as it was when the ink was not yet dry. The tensions and problems of our society were not different from the ones in his society. And he was able to engage with them ina way that has not been bettered even today.

V S Naipaul, who died a few weeks ago, once said that fiction (more specifically the novel) was dead. This was, in his opinion, because of two reasons. First, modern media had evolved and so the written word was no longer the primary form of communication. Second, reportage and non-fiction could do the job of telling people about their society much more efficiently.

Perhaps this is true and personally I do not have time for much fiction. But it is also true that the absurdity of Partition and its fallout and its continuing poisonous role in our society could only have been captured by non-fiction. And it could only have been captured by someone who was unique, as Manto was: at once both fully Indian and at the same time able to observe Indianness with a bystander’s eye.

I said that there were three sorts of things that Manto had written and I did not mention the third. It was his non-fiction, which had remained untranslated for the most part. It had descriptions of Mumbai during the riots, particularly the Mahim and Bhendi Bazaar areas. It had some humourous pieces and some sketches about the life of a writer. I translated these a few years ago, and it gave me the opportunity to engage with a writer that all people on the subcontinent should know about. 

This movie by Das and starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Manto gives more people that opportunity and I hope they use it. They will be rewarded. There is a reason Manto has survived the decades intact.


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