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Discovering Manto

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By Linda Waldron

In Lahore in early December, I met Toni Usman, a Norwegian actor of Pakistani descent working in Pakistan for a month to produce a special edition of the left-wing newspaper Mazdoor Jeddojuhd (Workers’ Struggle). This January 13 edition was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of the most gifted, popular and notorious short-story writer in Urdu, Saadat Hassan Manto (1912-1955).

Manto wrote about anti-imperialism, religious oppression and social misery. The horrific madness caused by India’s partition and the creation of Pakistan inspired many celebrated works such as Toba Tek Singh, Naiya Qanun (New Law) and Babu Gopinath. A fine example of Manto’s ironic wit is in his description of a communal riot in The Garland:

“The mob suddenly veered to the left, its wrath now directed at the statue of Sir Ganga Ram, the great philanthropist of Lahore. One man smeared the statue’s face with coal tar. Another strung together a garland of shoes and was about to place it around the great man’s neck when the police moved in, guns blazing. The man with the garland of shoes was shot, and taken to the nearby Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.”

Manto’s protagonists are prostitutes, mentally insane inmates, criminals, poor people and beggars. His works evoke a great love for humanity and a sharp analysis of contemporary crises. According to Usman, Manto’s characters “belong to a working-class world. His prostitute can be pious. His pimp can be honest. His street tough has a kind heart. His factory workers are revolutionaries. But at the same time, he is a realist. He can show the worst crimes and can immortalise the bloody partition of India in his writings.”

Manto’s personal life was one of sadness and struggle. He never recovered from the death of his first child, he had a tempestuous home life and he died at 42 from alcoholism. His fractious relationship with his wife largely stemmed from his sensitivity to women’s oppression. His wife objected to him meeting “whores” from the red-light district to write of their exploitation. During one such argument, Manto shouted back at her: “Don’t call them ‘whores’, it is the situation that has turned them to what they are doing.” Many women from Lahore’s red-light district came to Manto’s funeral.

In 1998, Usman’s theatre group in Oslo, Kultur Kompaniet, adapted Toba Tek Singh for theatre. According to the Norwegian daily Klassekampen (Class Struggle), “To broaden our cultural horizon, Norway needs such plays.”

Toba Tek Singh is about a Sikh, Bashan Singh, who lives in the Lahore Mental Asylum until partition, when the authorities decide he must be moved to India. Unsure how partition will affect his home town of Toba Tek Singh, Bashan asks the other inmates whether the town is in India or Pakistan. No-one can help him because the inmates do not understand the concept of Pakistan. At the frontier, Bashan learns from a Pakistani official that Toba Tek Singh is in Pakistan. He cries, “Toba Tek Singh is here!” and collapses on the border, “on a piece of land that had no name”.

According to Usman, Manto’s appeal is his internationalism. “Toba Tek Singh is about India-Pakistan partition. But it is true for Yugoslavia. It is true for Eritrea and Ethiopia. I mean wherever you go, you find such traumas.”

The special 100-page edition of Mazdoor Jeddojuhd reprints his famous five banned stories. The edition includes new interviews with two of his sisters-in-law and first-time interviews with all three of his daughters. There is also a debate about Manto’s left credentials, discussing his radio play Karl Marx. His most famous short story Toba Tek Singh is given central prominence.

The editorial team was unable to win funding from any Pakistani organisation, so the paper was funded by Usman, along with donations from supporters of Mazdoor Jeddojuhd in Canada and Norway.

No state function marked the anniversary of Manto’s death. No officials laid wreaths on his grave at Lahore’s Miani Saab cemetery. Yet Manto himself would probably have preferred his works to be discussed in a workers’ paper rather than from an official platform. Usman believes that Manto “wanted to belong to the working classes and not the state — even after his death — let alone a religious state like present-day Pakistan”.

Manto’s eldest daughter, Nighat Patel, told Usman that “Manto used to say his spirit will not find peace if his grave becomes [a] tomb”.

The official apathy is no surprise for a writer whose life was a constant battle with the British and Pakistani ruling classes. Due to his subject matter and disreputable characters, his works were banned under “obscenity” laws, both before and after partition. Today his works are still banned on Pakistani radio and TV.

Manto offended the establishment, not by giving voice to prostitutes and beggars, but by writing of anti-imperialist struggles, by refusing to endorse partition, and for demanding a secular and humanist society. He exposed the exploitation of the Pakistani people by a new ruling class and he polemicised against Western imperialism.

Manto wrote in his First Letter to Uncle Sam (1951): “That section of my country’s population, which rides in Packards and Buicks, is not really my country. Where poor people like me and even poorer people live, that is my country.”

His witty and roguish Letters to Uncle Sam are a prescient analysis of the role of US imperialism in the Muslim world. Two decades before the US armed the “mullahs” of Afghanistan, Manto wrote some advice for the US government in his 1954 Fourth Letter to Uncle Sam that perhaps it took too seriously:

“Regardless of India and the fuss it is making, you must sign a military pact with Pakistan because you are seriously concerned about the stability of the world’s largest Islamic state, since our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism. Once military aid starts flowing, the first people you should arm are these mullahs. They will also need American-made rosaries and prayer-mats, not to forget the small stones that they use to soak up the after-drops following a call of nature.”

Manto’s works are politically relevant and insightful today. And as Usman points out, “Manto is a living history, a cultural reference for the Indian sub-continent. What Chekhov is to Russian literature or what Maupassant is to French literature, Manto is to Pakistani/Indian literature.”

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