Manto: A Story Teller or a Shattered Mirror of the Human Soul?
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
“Behold, We created the human in the most noble of molds”, declares the Qur’an. “Then, do We abase him to be the lowest of the low”. Many are the writers through the centuries who have written about the best that is in humankind: love, chivalry, valor, sacrifice, forgiveness, compassion, wisdom, forbearance and courage. There are only a few who have walked into the dark side of man, looked at it straight in the face and have described its contorted, ugly image to the rest of the world. Sadat Hassan Manto was one such writer. And that is the secret of his distinction.
Asked to explain why he wrote, Manto said: “First, I write stories because I am addicted to it the same way as I am addicted to drinking. If I do not write, I feel as if I did not put on my clothes, take a bath or had a drink. It is not I who writes a story. The reality is that the story writes me. I am not a very educated man even though I have written more than twenty books. I sometimes wonder who it is that has written such beautiful stories against whom so many law suits have been filed. When the pen is not in my hand, I am only Sadat Hassan Manto who does not know Urdu or Farsi, English or French. The story is not in my head; it is in my pocket about which I am not even conscious of. I strive with my mind to extract a story. I even try to be a story teller. I smoke cigarette after cigarette but the story does not come out of my mind. At last, I get tired and fall asleep….”
Manto is not for the timid or the weak of heart. His writings are not for the squeamish. He jabs his sharp needle deep into the recesses of your soul until you scream. You want him to stop but he does not stop. He is like the doctor who is out to perform catharsis on every evil dot in your heart.
Manto has been called a Nafsiyati Afsana Nawais (story writer of the soul). This description does not do justice to his genius. The soul has many stations. It can be inclined towards the good as well as the evil. Manto was most properly a story writer of Nafs e Lawwama (the dark side of the soul). Even this description falls short of capturing the essence of his writings. He was most properly a mirror of the hypocrisy that surrounds the evil in society. His sharp pen does not spare anyone, the high or the low, the left or the right, the ruler or the ruled, the capitalists or the communist, the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or the Christian. He is a humanist par excellence, secure in his perspective from a high plateau that transcends race, religion or national origin. Writing about the partition, he observes: “The locality wherein I live has many Christians. They are of many shades of color, from white to totally black. I have seen black skinned Christians who consider themselves conquerors of India along with the white British…
During the Hindu-Muslim riots, whenever we stepped out we had two sets of caps. One was a Hindu cap and the other one a Muslim cap. When we passed through a Muslim locality, we put on a Muslim cap. And when we passed through a Hindu locality, we put on a Hindu cap. During those days we also bought a white Gandhi cap which we carried in our pockets. Whenever we felt the need for it, we would hurriedly put it on. In times bygone, religion was in the heart. Nowadays it is in the caps. Politics also has descended into these caps. Zinda bad topiyaN (long live the caps).
In his drama As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote: All the world is a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
History is not merely an edifice chiseled out by great men and women. Even human being who walks on earth chisels out a portion of it and is a contributor in the grand struggle of man on earth. As the Qur’an puts it: “God does not cause to be forgotten the movement of an ant on a rock in the dead of night”.
Manto’s characters are not the heroes who won great battles or performed earth-shaking deeds but the despised and forgotten of the earth, the murderers, rapists, prostitutes, dhobis (washermen), street vendors, the obscure, unrecognized, discarded players who walk on the canvas of history unnoticed. They loom large in his stories as life-sized characters, no less heroic in their ignominy than the great heroes who fill the pages of history books. If life is an ocean, Manto does not write about the depths of the ocean but about the debris that the ocean washes out onto its shores. He portrays the scum of the earth as legitimate characters on the stage of history.
And Manto makes you, the reader, a partner in his story. By reaching out to the hidden recesses of your soul, he makes you, the reader, a character in his story. You cry as do the characters in the story; you suffer as do the men and women who grace his novels. He is a grand director of a movie in which the audience is as much a part of the story as the actors in the movie.
The partition of India deeply affected Manto. He migrated from Bombay, the city he loved, to Lahore in 1948. Three of his masterpieces, Thanda Gosht, Khol Do and Toba Tek Singh were cast against the horrors of partition and the bestiality that accompanied it. Recently, I watched a rendering of Toba Tek Singh and it brought tears to my eyes. It is the story of partition as seen through the eyes of a Sikh farmer in West Punjab who loses his mind at the thought of separation from his land and is thrown into a mad house (pagal khana). I recalled a novel Khoon ke aNsooN that I read as a child during the partition era. It was the story of a young Muslim woman, abducted, abused and raped but who ultimately triumphed and succeeded in breaking away and crossing the border. It is immaterial now as to which side of the border it was. It was a deeply human story.
As with many other books, Khoon ke aNsooN was later banned in India so as not to add to the communal passions already inflamed by the partition. Manto brings out the madness that had overtaken Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike. But even in the midst of such inhumanity, he does not lose hope in the common humanity that binds us and animates our higher self. He makes this observation: “In reality these people were the product of a peculiar circumstance. They were not used to killing and murder but the circumstances made them so. They loved their mothers. They had compassion for their friends. They were aware of the honor of their daughters and daughters-in-law. They were also God fearing. But all of this was destroyed by a circumstance. It was a circumstance that perhaps the heavens have never seen. It is futile to comment on what is past. But it is necessary that we reflect on its results, understand the subtle things that have arisen since. This is not something that critiques or courts can do. It is something that the experts of the soul can tackle, those who can dig into the depths of the issues and come up with solutions.”
Manto was a keen observer of the global political currents of his times. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the British Empire collapsed and two new empires arose: a land-based Soviet Communist Empire in Eurasia and a Global Capitalist Empire led by the United States. The divide between the two empires was ideological. An iron curtain went up around the Soviet Empire, erected in part by a capitalist West that was concerned about the possible contagion of communism and in part by Stalin’s Russia, fearful of the onslaught of Western laissez faire capitalism. Pakistan, a poor, newly emergent nation, struggling with an enormous refugee burden, found itself locked in perpetual disputes with India and sought refuge with one of the superpowers. After flirting a little with the Soviet Union under Liaquat Ali Khan, the Pakistani establishment settled for protection from the United States. In the pact mania that characterized the Dulles era (1953-59), Pakistan joined CENTO, SEATO and other pacts and received a heavy dose of military aid from the United States.
Manto saw the societal risks in this military reliance. With a combination of satire and cultivated humor, he expressed his views on the potential impact of these alliances on his own corrupt society. In “Letters to Uncle Sam from your nephew Manto” he wrote: ”Dear Uncle! I had suggested to you that in answer to the cultural delegation from Russia you should dispatch a delegation of ‘pin up girls’. Spring is around the corner. Our people (in Pakistan) become extremely romantic during this season. In my opinion, if your delegation arrives during this season, it would be great ... My dear uncle! I have heard the regretful news that your trade and industry is going through hard times. You are, by the grace of God, full of wisdom. Nonetheless, please do listen to the opinion of this foolish one. The trade and industrial contraction came about only because you stopped the Korean War. That was a big mistake. Do consider this. Where will you sell the tanks, bombers, cannons and guns? ... What is past is past. Start a war between India and Pakistan. If the benefits of the Korean War did not pale before this war, I am not your nephew. Do consider…India will buy your armaments and so will Pakistan ...”
His focus on the dark side of man and his outspoken exposure of the hypocrisy that pervaded society earned him the wrath of the mullahs and landed him in hot water with the political establishment. Many were the law suits that were filed against him both in pre-partition Bombay as well as post-partition Lahore. He was accused of being a communist, which he was not. “I was upset with armchair communists and I could see through them”, wrote Manto, “Those who sat on their soft cushions and talked about striking with the hammer and the sickle”. As for the religious establishment, Manto himself visualizes a conversation between two mullahs about him.
“Where does he bring in all this dirt from?” says one Mullah to the other.
“I do not know”, answers the second one, “He digs it up from somewhere, dives as he does in oceans of dirty water”.
“Come, let us pray that God deliver us from his accursed existence. There is deliverance in it for Mantoo himself”:
“O God! Cherisher of the worlds! The Merciful! The Bountiful! The two of us (Mullahs), sinful servants, pray with utmost humility that you take away from this world Sadat Hassan Manto, son of Gulam Hassan Manto who was a good, pious, God-fearing man. He leaves aside the sweet smells of the world and goes towards the foul odors. He does not open his eyes to light. He trips and staggers in darkness. He is not interested in a person who is clothed. He wants to see the nakedness of humans. He is not inclined towards sweetness. He gives his life for bitterness. He does not even lift his eyes towards married women but he holds intimate conversations with prostitutes. He refuses clean water but bathes in filthy water. Where there are tears, he laughs. Where there is laughter, he cries. Those who blacken their faces with charcoal, he rubs them off and he shows them to us. He forgets You and follows around Shaitan who had refused to follow Your commandment.
“O Cherisher of the worlds! Lift this trouble making, dirt loving and mischief making man from this world where he is busy erasing the dark ink from the chronicles of evil doers. O God! He is a real trouble maker. The verdicts of courts are evidence for this. But these are only earthly courts. You lift him up and make him face the heavenly court and give him definite punishment. But do listen! He knows many tricks. Let it not be that You fall for one of his tricks. But You know everything. Our only prayer is that he should not be in this world. If he should be here, he should be like the rest of us who cover up each other’s sinful inadequacies.”
Manto offered a portrayal of humanity as it is, not as it ought to be. His was a mirror not of others but of ourselves. The analogy of mirrors is fundamental to our culture. A Hadith of our Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) illustrates this observation:
Abu Jahal, a sworn enemy of the Prophet and of his Message, never missed an opportunity to annoy, insult or abuse him. One day, the Prophet was seated with the Sohaba (Companions) and was holding a Sohbet. Abu Jahal was walking by. Noticing the Prophet, he approached the blessed gathering and shouted aloud to the Prophet: “O Muhammed! We the men of Quraish are endowed with good looks. But I do not see those good looks like you.” The Prophet said, “You have spoken the truth”. Abu Jahal departed. A few minutes later Abu Bakr (r) came in, sat down with the Sohaba and said to the Prophet. “O Messenger of Allah! I have never seen anyone more beautiful than you in all creation”. The Prophet said: “You have spoken the truth”. The companions asked: “O Messenger of Allah! When Abu Jahal said he did not see good looks in you, you said he spoke the truth. And when Abu Bakr said you are the most beautiful of creation, you said he spoke the truth. How can both be correct? Whereupon the Prophet said: “I am the mirror of creation. You see in me what is in your own soul.”
Such was the legacy of Sadat Hassan Manto who was born in Papraudi village, East Punjab in 1912 into a Kashmiri family and made his home at different times in Amritsar, Bombay, Delhi and finally, Lahore. From the publication of his first short story Tamasha (1931) in Amritsar to his masterpiece Toba Tek Singh in Lahore he left a trail which in its piercing analysis of the dark side of the human soul is unmatched in any language. Fewer yet are the writers who have exposed the hypocrisy that surrounds the evil in their societies. Manto did this with honesty and integrity but never lost sight of our common humanity in the process. He was a citizen of the world, transcending race, religion and national barriers, the voice of the truly voiceless. Urdu literature is richer because of this genius.
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