By Farooq Sulehria
"Here lies buried Saadat Hasan Manto in whose bosom are enshrined
all the secrets and art of short story writing. Buried under mounds
of earth, even now he is contemplating whether he is a greater short
story writer or God".
His own epitaph. If one goes by it, January 18 will mark fifty
years since Manto set out on his contemplation. The 50th death
anniversary of, in Tariq Ali's words, Pakistan's 'most gifted
Urdu short-story writer' will come and go unnoticed. A 100-page
'Manto Number' by minuscule weekly Mazdoor Jeddojuhd may be the
humble exception. No state institution will mark January 18 as
Manto Day. No government dignitary will grace any seminar at some
five star hotel. The mainstream press will run no commentaries.
Nor will any 'official' floral wreath be laid on Manto's grave
at Lahore's Miani Saab graveyard. But that is not because his
epitaph would embarrass the faithful -- Manto's own sister removed
it long ago.
"Phuppo was religious minded. She found Manto's epitaph
provocative and replaced it," says Nighat Patel, Manto's
eldest daughter now living in Manto's Lakshmi Mansions' apartment
close to Regal Chowk, in an interview for Jeddojuhd's Manto Number.
Like her sisters Nusrat and Nuzhat, Nighat is not upset by the
official apathy. "Thousands of Manto- lovers have visited
me since I have moved from Defence to this place," says Nighat.
"Manto used to say that his spirit will not find peace if
his grave becomes Iqbal's tomb,"
Manto's grave became no tomb, and so perhaps he does rest in
peace. The grave was not converted into an 'Iqbal's tomb' because
Manto was disowned - but not because he was 'obscene'. Manto,
like Bhagat Singh and Mirza Abrahim, was disowned for his anti-imperialism.
He was disowned, like Ustad Daman, for not endorsing the Partition.
Like Sibte Hassan and Sajjad Zahir, he never conformed to the
official ideology. Therefore he was disowned by the establishment.
His Jurat-e-Tahkeek (courage to know) and Lab Azad (courage to
speak) pitch him against a confessional state born out of a bloody
Partition. Manto rejected both. The confessional state contradicts
his secularism. Partition negates his humanism. And the oppressive
ruling class of the new state infuriates Manto when it exploits
people hand in hand with imperialism. Manto stands for people:
the clerks, tonga-wallas, jobless, petty thieves, prostitutes,
pimps, pickpockets, peasants, factory workers.
"That section of my country's population, which rides in
Packards and Buicks, is really not my country. Where poor people
like me and those even poorer live, that is my country" (First
Letter to Uncle Sam, 1951).
No wonder the establishment refuses to own him.
But the state having disowned Manto, and the likes of him, is
not at ease with itself. In pursuit of heroes, the state creates
the Father of the Bomb as an idol for its ideological laboratories.
The trouble with state heroes arises when a September 11 compels
the undoing of a hero. Meanwhile, Manto's far-sighted 'Letters
to Uncle Sam' provide an interesting insight into this post- September
11 era. Coincidentally, Alhamra published an excellent English
translation, by Khalid Hasan, of Manto's nine letters few weeks
prior to 9/11.
"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 the 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. Cut-throat razors
and scissors should be top of the list, as well as American hair
colour lotions. That should keep these fellows happy and in business.
I think the only purpose of military aid is to arm these mullahs."
(Fourth Letter to Uncle Sam, 1954)
"American topcoats are also excellent and without them our
Landa Bazar would be quite barren. But why don't you send us trousers
as well? Don't you ever take off your trousers? If you do, you
probably ship them to India. There has to be a strategy to this
because you send us jackets but no trousers, which you send to
India. When there is a war, it will be your jackets and your trousers.
These two will fight each other using arms supplied by you."
(Third Letter to Uncle Sam, 1954)
His devastating wit and famous sense of irony go particularly
berserk when it comes to communal passions:
"The mob suddenly veered to the left, its wrath now directed
at the marble 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, then taken to the nearby
Sir Ganga Ram Hospital" (The Garland).
Manto died young, a few months short of 43. Born on 11 May 1912,
he breathed his last on 18 January 2021 - but he was a prolific
writer during his short life. In a literary, journalistic, radio
scripting and film-writing career spread over two decades, he
produced 22 collections of short stories, a novel, five collections
of radio plays, three collections of essays, two collections of
personal sketches, and many scripts for films.
During World War II, he worked for All India Radio in Delhi,
but the best years of his life were spent in Bombay where he was
associated with some of the leading film studios, including Imperial
Film Company, Bombay Talkies and Filmistan. He wrote over a dozen
films, including Eight Days, Chal Chal Re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib,
which was shot after Manto moved to Pakistan in January 1948.
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore, have published a series of Manto's works.
Manto has been translated in Punjabi and Hindi in India where
he is widely read. His plays have been adapted for stage plays
in Pakistan and abroad.
It was Partition that inspired Manto's greatest works -- Toba
Tek Singh, to mention just one, which gained him much posthumous
fame. India's Doordarshan television, as well as Channel Four,
UK, adapted this play as a telefilm, and it has been staged several
times, including in faraway Norway. And yet, during his lifetime,
he had to deal with much infamy. His unflinching realism and uncompromising
observations of life as he saw it led to Manto being tried for
obscenity half-a-dozen times, thrice before and thrice after Partition.
Partition also brought him great financial and emotional stress.
In the post-Partition period, his motive to write did not solely
emanate from the creative urge. He wrote for money, to look after
his family - and also to his habitual drinking which ate up last
couple of years of his eventful life. But perhaps it was not this
that cost him his life. More than this habit, it was a society-turned
-drunk that drove him to death. And on his 50th death anniversary,
the epitaph approved by his sister also makes for good reading:
Yahan Manto dafan hay jo aaj bhi ye samajhta hay kay wo loh-e-Jahan
per harf-e-muqarar nahi tha (Here lies buried Manto who still
believes that he was not the final word on the face of the earth).