Manto & His Madness that we still crave for

And it is also possible that Saadat Hasan dies, but Manto remains alive.

Manto & His Madness that we still crave for
- illustration by: Sharon Irani

As we celebrate Manto’s 108th birthday, the first recollection of what we had once read, comes to our sinful minds.

These words;

And it is also possible that Saadat Hasan dies, but Manto remains alive

Indeed, so true! When has Manto ever died? He perhaps never will.

Decades have passed since the legendary writer departed but his writings still haunt us till date, with uncanny fascination and wit to be ourselves, he continues to live in every one of us who is a little rebellious to this world of norms that cage individuals and society that judges humans when they themselves sin differently, and have no audacity like those individuals who are an anomaly to the society just because they do what they do with sheer audacity.

Manto’s epic writings revolved around sexuality, taboos, complexities fawned by dirty sectarian politics he witnessed, bigotry of religions and themes that remain relevant even in today’s world; discreet, unimpeded and unfathomed. In Manto’s own words:

If you find my stories dirty, then the society you’re living in is dirty.
~ Sa’adat Hassan Manto

Manto has often been called the Maupassant of Urdu literature, especially short stories. Being the realist that he was, he penned down the real life experiences through his imaginative world with the subjects being real people he knew one way or another who were in fact the unhappy victims of their desires, greed, lust, and vanity, who were real life strugglers and they themselves perhaps did not know but Manto could see through. The author Mohammed Hanif said about Manto:

Reading Manto makes you realise that literature does not always have to conform. It does not always have to tell polite stories
~ Mohammed Hanif

What is truly interesting is, that whether he wrote about prostitutes, pimps, thieves, gamblers or betrayers, he portrays their lives with most sordid details and yet without any sermonising, somehow being very sensitive and aware of their shortcomings as humans, he remains cruelly realistic but intricately objective in his narrative, weaving the element of humanism with sense of honesty and detachment both.

For instance, ‘In Ten Rupees’, the prostitute Sarita remains unaware of her bitter circumstances as entertaining her clients gives her the joy of riding in their fancy cars. In ‘Khol Do’ the violence is not merely perpetrated by Hindus or Muslims or ones divided as Indians and Pakistanis but mere human beings in their most barbaric selves. To add more, the trauma of partition has been best explained by in his short story that he penned down while he was in the asylum himself, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ in which a Sikh madman doesn’t know where he belongs anymore, he’s a patient in an asylum in Pakistan and keeps yelling he does not want to go to Pakistan or India, and keeps asking where is ‘Toba Tek Singh’ where he belonged. Manto’s crazy protagonist’s voice here is not only a mere coincidence but intentional with the Montesquieu knack of satirical humour. This story is considered by many to be Manto’s magnum opus!

Talking about capturing the insanely frenzied and cruel mass movement of the partition, no other writer has been able to match the oeuvre of Manto. But well, of course he was aware of the cost of such brutal honesty, and he had to pay the price, through criticism and multiple cases of obscene writing on him. That however, still could not stop him from writing. ‘The Dog of Tethtwal’, ‘Cold Meat’, ‘The New Constitution’ etc, portray such imagism so prevalent in Manto’s writings that it creates a great imagery whilst you read his work that you get transformed as if you were reliving the past he wrote about. In ‘The Dog of Tethwal’, He implies the indecisiveness of a dog as an allegory to communicate the irrationality of violence and conflict that he witnesses. The story that tangled him into many charges of blasphemy was ‘Thanda Gosht’ (Cold Flesh) in which he narrates the barbarity of a Sikh on a killing spree, who rapes an unconscious Muslim girl and later to his utter dismay gets shocked to death when he finds out she is dead. This keeps him unable to have sex with his wife who then persuades him to tell her the reason, listening to which she cuts his throat.

Stephen Alter writes in his article ‘Madness and Partition: The Short Stories of Sadat Hassan Manto’

No writer has been able to convey the violent ambiguities of communal conflict with as much force and conviction as Sa’adat Hassan Manto.
~ Stephen Alter

After publishing Thanda Gosht, Manto was to be thrown into prison and he criticised and accused of deriding the honour of the Muslim girls, to an extent that even Faiz Ahmed Faiz declared it ‘Unethical’ piece of writing stating that ‘it does not fulfil the standards of a literary text’, to which Manto replied, "You can comment on my work and criticise it, I won’t mind, but calling it not worthy enough of being labelled as a literary text is something I strongly disagree with" (Manto, 2018). Cold meat has however been considered as one of the most remarkable writings composed by Manto, reflecting the true incidents and accounts of the partition.

When feminism was not so acknowledged during the time of Manto, he voiced for women as their spokesperson through his fiction extensively. Especially concerning the matters of female sexuality, liberty and those whose bodies became battlefields for revenge against hate during partition such as the tales of unspoken pain and agony in the tragic forcing of Bismillah into prostitution or the cruel brutality done to Sakina or the dreadful death of Sharifan.

Manto raised the fundamental interrogations concerning moral and ethical values that regulated and affected the lives of women. He empowered his female protagonists in his stories and dived into complicated themes, especially ones considered taboo; related to gender or sexuality and hence injustice. In his story, Hattak, Saugandhi is a prostitute with a lot of pride who refused to be shamed by a client. In License, Nesti refused to earn her livelihood by selling herself and chose chastity. In Mozelle, the attractive, daring and free spirited Jewish girl sacrificed herself to save a Sikh man in the riots of partition.

In the words Fahmida Riaz, the great Pakistani feminist writer;

After Manto, there is none like Manto.
~ Fahmida Riaz

Sigh, Indeed!

Manto’s incredibly progressive, profound and compelling stories reiterate his credibility as the maestro of sub continental literature.

Saadat Hasan Manto was in fact and without a doubt a dauntless writer and his work is with no debate, absolutely phenomenal; realistic, nostalgic, addictive and so powerful. As stated by Manto himself, and engraved on his epitaph:

Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lies buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story writing… Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short-story writer: God or He.

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