Manto, like Bhagat Singh and Mirza Abrahim, was disowned for his anti-imperialism
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).

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