How Sadaat Hasan Manto is relevant to our times

I wanted to write today about why it is important that the non-fiction of Manto be translated as it has been in this Firstpost series, of which only six pieces remain, for the last few months. Some may wonder why it is that this is being done, and this is by way of justification.

Saadat Hasan Manto was an Indian trapped in Pakistan.

This was his misfortune, and it was ours too. His identity didn't come from religion. It came from his belonging to our culture, about which he wrote with great skill.

Saadat Hasan Manto.

Saadat Hasan Manto.

He reluctantly fled his beloved Bombay at Partition, complaining all the time against Jinnah's stupidity, but worried for the safety of his three little girls.
His observations of Mahim and Bhendi Bazaar while the violence was on have been reproduced in these pieces. We can no more blame him for going than we can our grandfathers for staying.

Manto was not particularly educated, and had dropped out of Aligarh Muslim University after being an indifferent student. From a migrant Kashmiri family, he lived in Amritsar in those days, and came to Bombay after his father's death to make a career as a journalist. Sleeping in the office of the paper he worked for, he got occasional work writing scripts for Bollywood (which wasn't known by that name then).

As a writer of films, he was not very good. Certainly he was not successful. There are no great hits to his name, and in fact the big movie that he wrote was a massive flop. However, his talent and charisma attracted some of the big names of the film industry, such as Ashok Kumar, to him. While only in his 20s when he was a junior writer, many of them attended his wedding in Mahim. Legends connected to the industry such as the journalist Baburao Patel, were fond of Manto and helped him along in his career.

This talent is what produced his short stories, which made him the Maupassant of India.
The liberal environment of Bombay and its mixing of many cultures produced the fertile material that Manto needed for his writing, particularly his short stories. His outstanding talent was for grasping Indianness. Stories like Bu, about a bachelor in a flat who seduces a peasant woman and is intoxicated by the aroma of her armpit, represent the high watermark of Hindustani writing. It is not easy to think of better literature in our languages than his. This is the reason why, in his dismissal of Indians writing in languages other than English, Salman Rushdie made Manto the exception.

Living and working in Bombay was the happiest phase of Manto's life. If it had not been for Partition, he would have lived here till he died. But he recognised the viciousness that had been unleashed by the Muslim League, and though he disliked it and was dismayed by it, he surrendered to its inevitability.

Like the best of us, Manto accepts the fault and the culpability of his co-religionists first. This is something very few of us can do on the subcontinent.
It isn't surprising that he left Bombay, given his young family and the barbarism of those days, but the story of why he didn't return remains a mystery.

He died in Lahore at 42, having written the best critique of the creation of Pakistan and the lunacy of its puritanical state.
One thing that came from Manto's migration is his transformation as a writer. The playfulness of Bombay is gone. His darkest pieces were written here, and some absurdist ones. Often, it is said, he scribbled them standing up in newspaper and magazine offices, took his money and went off in a tanga to get his fix of alcohol.

Manto is thought to have drunk himself to death. However, in his writing one can find references only to beer, and his consumption of it during his years in Bombay was moderate. In fact only a bottle a day, as he reveals in the essay on his wedding. In another of the pieces here, Paanchvan Muqaddama, he refers to downing 15 bottles of beer on a train journey, but he brandishes the figure as a threat to fellow passengers.

Manto is seen as a Pakistani writer because he wrote in Nastaliq, a foreign script in India now but the standard one then used by Punjabis and even in the Bollywood of the 40s. Those who have read him in the original, or even heard his words recited by Naseeruddin Shah's magnificent troupe which performs his works, will know Manto's language as that of Bollywood's simple Hindustani. He is an easy writer to translate in that sense.

And so, this is why: He is a great Indian writer, who wrote in an Indian language to an Indian audience about his Indian experiences. This is why he should be read, in any language he can be accessed in.

Updated Date: Apr 04, 2013 16:44 PM