Manto: A Whistle-Blower
Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
Pittsburg, CA

“You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies and the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it.” - Gustavo Flaubert

Some 1,400 million people live in the Indo-Pak continent, of which about 3.5% are in the age group of 70 or above, and fortunately I am one of them. People of our age group were not just spectators, but actual participants, and in many cases the victims of the Great Divide that took place in 1947. We hold the answer to that most enigmatic question that relates to the senseless bloodshed that took place at the time of Partition of India in 1947. The question is: “Why do people, otherwise so normal and decent, become so un-imaginably inhuman and barbaric in so easy a manner at certain points of history? Intellectual Iqbal, who like me had witnessed the bloodbath that the people on both the sides of the border took, gives one answer, “Witnessing the Partition of India had a lasting impact on me. What I saw then was the ease with which humanity, perfectly good humanity, descended into barbarism.” Great legendary actor Shayam, a close friend of Manto, and a resident of the town I come from, Rawalpindi, and also a graduate of my alma mater, Gordon College, furnishes another answer.

Manto in his sketch of Shyam in “Muli Ki Dhun” records Shayam’s answer. One day they, Shyam and Manto, were sitting in the house of a Sikh family in Bombay and were listening to the depressing stories of human carnage. While listening, Manto says, he observed that Shyam had not remained unaffected, and he could understand why. Later, he asked Shyam, “I am a Muslim. Don’t you feel like killing me?” Shyam replied quite seriously and in a matter-of-fact manner, “Not now… but when he (the Sikh) was telling me the atrocities committed by Muslims on them, I could have killed you.” This shocked Manto and he thought over it afterwards by putting himself in Shayam’s shoes, “May be at that time even I could have killed him (Shyam)... “Not now… but at that time, yes. ..But why? If one closely follows he can find the true answer to the nature of human beings behind this problem.” Humans habitually experience such fits of madness. Gifted with a sharp wit and deep insight Manto had discovered that deep down the civilized surface of humans, there always lurks an unavoidable savage instinct, which sporadically manifests whenever circumstances make a call.

Manto in his short stories tried to find those motives and attitudes which normally facilitate that formidable “ease” that benumbs people’s humanity and awakens the hidden monster in them. Dr. Ernest Jones called this approach “psycho-analysis”. In this effort he discovered, as Mumtaz Shireen puts it, that human beings can be defiant and inhumanly sinful, but they can never get completely lost forever. Humans cannot be absolutely Nouri (Angelic), nor totally Khaki, or (Diabolical). They may have the inherent tendency to indulge in mischief or bloodshed, but they do also carry the option of redemption. Manto strongly objected to such statements as, “Hundred thousand Muslims have been killed, or hundred thousand Hindus have been killed. Why don’t you say, ‘Two hundred thousand human beings have been killed.’” Manto’s humanism did not fit well in Pakistan, and he soon got dubbed as anti-State and anti-Islamic in Pakistan, one who lacked nationalism and patriotism for such statements.

The amazing thing about Manto, like Shakespeare, has been that in the process of graphically recording the macabre and dark side of human beings, he artfully maintained a neutral position. He does not pass judgments on his characters; nor does he put them to shame. He just lets them speak for themselves. Manto’s characters by name are Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Jews and Jains, but in essence, they are ordinary human beings, embroiled in some unfortunate situations and predicaments that force them to act the way they do. Manto ideologically did not subscribe to the Kantian logic that human beings are inherently evil and that nothing good can come out of them, nor does he like Kafka let his characters live with a sense of guilt. He, unlike both, refuses to believe that people are like the twisted timber which can never be straightened out. Notwithstanding his personal dejections, humiliations and sufferings, Manto remains optimistic, always busy in excavating hope and courage in those whom society had dubbed as the scum of the earth. As one writer puts it, “Manto wrote realistic tales of the great drama of Partition that brim with his own generous, forgiving embrace of sinners and saints, but in comprehension is the telling note of his Partition stories”. Partition for him was a period of total madness and absurdity which transformed friends of decades into instant enemies.

Manto’s mantra in his so called six sex-stories, namely, Bo, Dhuan, Kali Shalwar (of pre-partition era), and Thanda Ghost, Khol Do and Uppar Nache Aur Darmiyan (he penned in Pakistan), has been that man by nature is manipulative and is hypocritical. Man shamefacedly denies the importance of human emotions, especially sex, and deems these vital life-forces as something sinful and evil, but is always prone to indulge in them madly in private and in secrecy. Man also manipulates his masculinity and often uses it as a tool in order to harm, humiliate and hurt those who are weak and helpless. Short story was a perfect genre for him that ideally suited his genius.

He used it as a mirror of reality, and reality often is ugly and unpalatable. He contended that he could not compromise on this issue by being nice and polite. For him a breast is a breast. People deliberately misunderstood him and dubbed him as one obsessed with female physicality. Accused of obscenity, he once said, “Assuming that I am inclined towards perversion, a breast is still a breast… how else should I describe it”. In his famous Dua, he once wishing for death said, “Take him away, Lord, for he runs away from fragrance and chases after filth. He hates the bright Sun, preferring dark labyrinth … is fascinated by the naked and shameless… hates sweetness, but will give his life to taste bitter fruit. Where others weep, he laughs; and where others laugh, he weeps…” Conventional people hastened to label him as one who willowed in filth and felt happy in the hedonic world.

Professor Amardeep Singh is right in his assessment of Manto when he says, “Manto was not particularly obsessed with prostitutes. It might be more accurate to say that he was part of a broader movement in modern literature to depict sexuality more honestly and sincerely than earlier generations had done.” Manto’s Khol Do is not about sex, it is a case of inhuman sexual violence taking place in our streets every day; Sakina, the victim, was gang-raped by none else but by her own co-religious rescuers till she lost her senses. The doctor’s words “Khol Do” were meant for opening the window, but her mental state dictated her to open her shalwar. For her unfortunate father, Sakina’s reaction to these words had a yet another kind of message. He cried, “Thank you, Doctor, my Sakina is alive”. Manto’s Uppar Nache Aur Darmian is also not all about sex, it is a minor farcical projection of the mentality of the married people and their attitudes about sex.

Manto’s most unforgivable sin, however, was his attempt to burst the bubble of sex taboo, and to make people realize that sex matters in life, and it matters quite seriously. Shelving it in the closet as something sinful or shameful and not dealing with it as a vital force in life was not the solution. Like Lawrence and Flaubert, sex for him is not just a pro-creative biological impulse; on the contrary, it is energy, a most self-fulfilling phenomenon that plays a real and central role in human lives, and that substantially governs human behavior as well. In his stories like “Bu, Dhuan”, “Nangi Awazai”, “Khol Do”, “Thanda Ghost”, “Khushia”, “Sughal”, “Khurshut”, “Allah Rakha”, to name only a few, Manto artistically presents how lack of fulfillment can result in various kinds of emotional and behavioral disorders and stresses, holding the victims in its grip and forcing them to indulge in as grave a sin as incest as in “Allah Rakha”, breeding in them trends of suicide and deprivation as in “Aulad”, turning them into sex engines as in “Khol Do” and “Thanda Ghost”.

Manto almost re-echoes Gustavo Flaubert and Lawrence in his story “Bu”, a story for which he got tried for obscenity when he says that fulfillment essentially is connected with nature, and is co-mingled with the elements, with water and earth and the winds. In “Bu”, Manto tells us how the wedding night of a well-to-do bridegroom and the daughter of a rich family gets spoiled by the artificialities of life. The bride is smothered in gold and expensive French perfumes, and the bridegroom, instead of being with her mentally and emotionally, is distracted enough to remember a poor Ghatan, a working-class Marathi woman he once had bedded, and whose soiled blouse and the flesh underneath still exudes the scent of rain-soaked earth. The story is a slap on the face of the modern trend in which the obsession is with make-up, with the wedding “Lainga” or wedding-cloak, and with ornaments, and little attention gets paid to the real, and natural feelings involved in the institution of marriage. Bertrand Russell was right when he once defined most marriages that are devoid of love as “living in sin.”

The truth is that Manto was deliberately misunderstood by those who would approach him with closed minds. The spirit of his collective works had been not the projection of sex, but to capture a far wider range of issues, and sex was just one of them. His major concern had been to keep alive the spark of life in human beings, the basic creative spark of individuality that is the hallmark of humanity, and that urges all kinds of people to break free of the exterior taboos and constraints at least once in life, and to listen to their unique inner voices. Once he said to this effect, “It does not touch my heart at all if a woman among my neighborhood gets beaten by her husband every day and still she keeps polishing his shoes. But when a woman in the neighborhood quarrels with her husband, and threatens him to commit suicide, and then goes out to watch a movie while I see her husband writhing in mental agony for two hours, then that is what makes me sympathetic to both of them.” In the absurdity of life often it is this element of creativity that becomes the first casualty.


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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