Waiting for Manto’s epitaph
WRITERS who have swum against the currents of their time have often been made to suffer for the indiscretion by the state or the clique that rules it.
Just before Saadat Hasan Manto was persecuted for departing from conventional literature in India and later Pakistan, Yaas Yagana Changezi, his face blackened by Muslim peers whom he mocked in his poetry, was paraded astride a donkey in the heartland of Urdu literature.‘Sab tere siwa kaafir, akhir iska matlab kya?
Sar phira de insa’n ka aisa khabt e mazhab kya!’
(‘Everyone is a kafir except you, does that make any sense at all?
What is it if not bigotry, that revels in your rise and the other’s fall?’)
On the publication of the verse, Sunni and Shia Muslims of Lucknow ransacked Yagana’s house and he took refuge in the house of a literary colleague. Yagana’s unpublished work was set on fire. Since he was a senior contemporary of Josh Malihabadi there is a small chance Manto and he may have crossed each other.
Manto translated Oscar Wilde’s play Vera, or The Nihilists, probably at the behest of his mentor Abdul Bari Alig. It was curious that the play had elements of a hostile blood-and-gore situation once confronted by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Given the level of political and social trauma that Wilde and Dostoyevsky endured in their times and contexts, Manto’s persecution would appear a tame affair. Ghalib too spent six months in prison, not to speak of Faiz, Sardar Jafri and Habib Jalib.
In 1849, several Russian dissidents including Dostoyevsky became victims of a now famous case of a mock execution; the pardon of the czar, against whom they had been caught conspiring, was not read to them until the moment when the firing squad was already aiming their rifles at them.
This terrifying experience shows up in Dostoyevsky’s literary works. The legendary writer was transported to Siberia in lieu of not being executed.
Manto’s numerous court cases are cited as a grave injustice to his freewheeling genius, which they no doubt were. However, Wilde, Manto’s hero evidently in so far as he, like his Urdu-speaking admirer, supported and also questioned revolutionary fervour, suffered far more for his quaint though, for his period, questionable moral precepts.
Manto’s respect for Bhagat Singh was of a piece with his choice of a particularly romantic tragedy he chose to translate from Wilde’s works.
The story is about Vera whose brother is arrested for scheming to overthrow the czar. The brother pushes Vera to join the revolutionaries. She does and falls in love with one of them except that he turns out to be the heir apparent to the throne in disguise. She has to slay him but she can’t and kills herself with the dagger instead.
She throws out the bloodstained knife from the window, a signal to the revolutionaries that she had fatally stabbed the prince, and thus saving her love from certain death. If the story gives a clue into Manto’s own romance with revolutionary idealism, it could indicate why the more dogmatic communist writers shunned him and he them.
It could be something about the almost ritualistic way we celebrate anniversaries of dear departed writers that perhaps prompted Sahir Ludhianavi to write an obituary to his hero, Ghalib that he dipped in acid.
‘Ikkees baras guzray aazadi-i-kaamil ko
Tab ja kay kahi’n hum ko Ghalib ka khayaal aaya
Turbat hai kaha’n us ki, maskan tha kaha’n uska
Ab apnay sukhan-parvar zahno’n may sawaal aaya’
(‘Years after Independence it was Ghalib’s turn to be remembered We scurried to find his grave, his home, his services rendered.’)
I can’t say what he would make of it, but celebrating Saadat Hasan Manto’s birth anniversary to my mind underscores our impotence more than it shines the light on his acerbic pen — impotence to learn from or do much about the soul-killing ‘mishtakes’ he had listed in his hair-raising short stories and essays, which men of piety or deified nationalists allowed to be committed in their pursuit of religious and temporal illusions.
Manto has thus become a hero for far too many self-absorbed liberals because of his trials and tribulations at the hands of religious bigots. He was also tormented by neo-nationalist judges and journalists who revelled in Pakistan, their newfound home, if only because he didn’t.
The nationalist bone was missing in Manto. This was more than evident not only in the popular short story Toba Tek Singh but from his description of anti-nationalist graffiti he discovered in a filthy Bombay urinal in his story about the mootri.
The question before his doting admirers is, therefore, essentially simple. Manto died a hounded man when he was 43. What have the revellers done to do him proud over the remaining 57 years since he shuffled off this mortal coil? How many ‘mishtakes’ have they allowed or watched being carried out?
Of course, there’s nothing unique or exclusive about the insults and humiliations that Manto had to endure, not only in Pakistan whose purpose for existence defied him, but also in India where it disturbed him to see a narrow-minded dispensation taking power from its colonial masters. His relevance to Indians and Pakistanis goes beyond their quest for ‘peace and harmony’ to quote official and NGO-inspired clichés.
Manto obviously has greater relevance for the larger brutalised world we live in, from Palestine to Afghanistan, from Iraq to the newly armed killings fields of Africa. But when bets were being taken in Gujarat about where the next massacre might occur or how many would be impaled, there too Manto’s insights into the perverse human mind become instructive.
Ditto with the story of Mukhtar Mai or the rape of helpless Hindu girls in Sindh. They mock the impotence of his revellers.
It is this collective impotence and possible collusion too by his feigning admirers that has prevented his family from planting the plaque on his grave that should say, and I quote an excerpt from Khalid Hasan’s superb translation:
“Under tons of earth he lies, wondering who of the two is the greatest short-story writer: God or he.” Can we postpone the celebrations till we are capable giving him back his epitaph?
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.