“If you want to read Manto, you will find him”

“If you want to read Manto, you will find him”
In discussion with Ayesha Jalal: Sayan Bhattacharya (left) and Aakar Patel, author of "Why I Write: Essays by Manto". Photo: Abhishek Chamaria

Eminent historian Ayesha Jalal at the Kolkata Literary Meet Kalam talks about the relevance of Manto to India and Pakistan

By Ruchhita Kazaria

At the Kolkata Literary Meet known as ‘Kalam’, I attended an invigorating discussion on the importance of the legendary Urdu short story writer Sadat Hasan Manto and why his works should be read and taught in India and Pakistan.

Since Kalam’s very inception three years ago, this annual event has included sessions focusing on Manto, bringing up his relevance even after decades. The first two years, well known Indians spoke about the legendary writer, the Urdu poet Javed Akhtar the first year, and the actor Naseeruddin Shah on ‘Toba Tek Singh’ the second year. This year, the featured panelist was none other than Dr Ayesha Jalal, the well-known Pakistani-American historian and Manto’s grandniece.

Dr Jalal commented that since Manto wrote in Hindustani, neither India nor Pakistan can claim his works as their own exclusively. On his writing style, she remarked that he was a ‘clean writer of prose’, who wrote in ‘short sentences’. She spoke about his fictional character ‘Salim’, based upon Manto himself. Salim features in a short story about plotting the downfall of the British Empire, reflecting Manto’s anti-colonial streak.

“Manto simply saw himself as a vehicle of perception of the society,” she remarked before voicing one of his famed lines, “Mein society ki choli kya utaaroonga, jo hai hi nangi. Main usey kapde pehnane ki bhi koshish nahin karta, isliye ki yeh mera kaam nahin …” (How can I disrobe our society when it’s already naked? But then, I don’t even try to clothe it … that’s not my job).

His lament reflects a situation in which members of society attack literature that highlights the horrors that exist, while themselves living in denial. Manto’s works depict and record the grim reality of humanity, something that “irritated the so called respectable people”. However, as Dr Jalal clarified, Manto was neither a misogynist nor did he promote obscenity. He was simply presenting human characters in their stark reality.

Manto wrote extensively and humanely about women, including prostitutes and pimps. He was tried for obscenity six times, though never convicted. I found it heartwarming that his funeral was attended by prostitutes and others from the ‘red light area’ even though many of those who had termed themselves his friends didn’t show up.

Introducing her book The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, Dr Jalal encouraged the audience to read Manto without the prism of India or Pakistan.

Jalal on Manto: empathy

Jalal on Manto: empathy

“Empathise with him. Get out of your comfort zone, and then you will understand your opponent’s point. If Pakistanis view Indians as a threat, fearing that they will stop water to Pakistan… had they been in India’s place, they would have done the same thing”.

Responding to a question on why Manto still thrives, she replied; “The absence of any kind of state sponsorship by either India or Pakistan has kept him alive. That is why he is read. The opposition to Manto remains and it’s good; this opposition made him flourish. Manto’s writings have been gaining greater recognition and a wider following. The trend is likely to grow as translations of his works become available in the different regional languages of the subcontinent”.

In response to a question on how to equate the Manto of Toba Tek Singh with the one who celebrated Pakistan Day, Dr Jalal traced Manto’s life in India, where he was a rising screenwriter in Bombay at the time of India’s partition in 1947.

He then migrated to Lahore, in the newly formed Pakistan and took to writing short stories in Urdu. Manto’s depiction of the partition and its consequences through his stories is evocative of the loss that both the nations suffered. He lets the modern-day reader go back in time to experience the six-decade-old massacre and chaos.”

She paused before she continued, allowing the audience a peek into his personal life: “Manto left India for family reasons. He had a daughter at that time. Instead of continuing to question his decision of leaving India, it’s time to rather accept his decision.

His mother was suffering and he didn’t enjoy very a healthy relation with his father. Manto’s fiction serves as a lens to understand the tragedy of partition. He felt there was a lack of definite logic behind the partition. However, he adopted Pakistan as his own.

Why shouldn’t he have celebrated Pakistan Day? And does his observing Pakistan Day make him less empathetic towards Indians or the horror of the partition? Read his nine letters to Uncle Sam … you will appreciate him better. Manto was one to continue with his life … such was his personality. So, that leaves no scope for any contradiction.”

“A lot of people don’t know about Manto. How do we develop a renewed interest in him?” asked my friend Saira Shah Halim.

Dr Jalal responded that for those who don’t read Urdu, transliteration to Hindi and translation into other languages is the key to read and understand Manto. Audio books are also an option for those who can understand, but not read the language.

“We cannot restrict him to geographical boundaries and hence, it depends upon you … what kind of a reader you are.”

“If you want to read Manto,” she added, “you will find him!”

The writer is a former journalist with The Asian Age and Times of India; Kolkata.
Email: [email protected]

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