Monday, October 20, 2008


Manto: Messiah or madman?

Nirupama Dutt
on Saadat Hasan Manto, the wild child of literature.

A month before I was born here in Chandigarh, there died a man called Saadat Hasan Manto out there in Lahore in 1955. He was just 43 and he had challenged God in his own epitaph that is written on his grave_ "There Saadat Hasan Manto lies buried…and buried in his breast are all the secrets of the art of story writing. Even now lying buried under tons of earth he wonders whether he or God is the greater writer of the short story."
For the likes of me who grew up without knowledge of Urdu, the language Manto wrote in, he remained a much-talked-about yet obscure litterateur and my first introduction to his stories was through a special issue of Sarika, a literary monthly that used to be brought out the by Times of India group long ago, sometime in the 1970s.
This issue carried some of the Partition stories for which Manto is so famous. However, for a teenager brought up on a not so merry mix pulp fiction in English, Hindi and Punjabi via Devanagari these stories were difficult and somewhat remote.
This seems a rather strange confession from a member of a family that had migrated from Lahore in the bloody 1947. The only alibi that I can find for it is in the ‘conspiracy of silence’ that was to be found not only in politics, history but even within homes. It took me many years to know which aunt had been abducted and then rehabilitated or which relatives had slaughtered their daughters as they migrated from one part of the Punjab to the other.
Saadat Hasan Manto was of Kashmiri origin born at Padaudi village, near Samrala, in 1912.
He studied in Amritsar but dropped out of college before completing his graduation.
Working for All India Radio during World War II, he was a successful screenwriter in Bombay before moving to Pakistan at Partition.
Manto published 22 collections of short stories, seven collections of radio plays, three collections of essays and a novel.
In recent years he has enjoyed a cult status with many of his stories staged as plays.
A Manto theatre festival is being organised by Madeeha Gauhar of Ajoka theatre group at Lahore in November this year.
Publishers are rushing in to print him anew as the copyright on his works ends this year.
Anyway, Manto was not a name to be mentioned too often in middle class homes, specialise as he did in tales of pimps and prostitutes. He was a drunk and had been an inmate of lunatic asylums. What had we, the new breeds of Independent India, have to do with the likes of him?
Glimpses of him came in snatches from my mentor, Mantoesque poet of Hindi called Kumar Vikal. I recall him saying, "If one is to write of red-light areas in present times, one should be able to transcend a Manto who seems to have said it all." Vikal with Hindi as the medium of his expression and Left-wing politics as his inspiration seemed to dismiss Manto such.
Those were still days of ‘Laal Salam’ and Manto was also a deserter of sorts who had chosen to migrate to a country that was formed on the basis of a particular religion.
It was only in the late 1980s when Baba Laali, the Savant of Patiala, allowed me into the ranks of his disciples, who could be talked to, that I heard him referring to Manto, his writings, and also using him as a symbol for humanism amidst the dark days of militancy in Punjab. I recall some quotable quotes by Laali uttered on the bench outside the cafeteria of Punjabi University at Patiala and I gobbled these remarks with the enthusiasm of a slow learner. So said Laali: "That was 1947 and now it is AK 47." "The urinal is the only secular space. Manto has said it all in the symbol of the urinal."
In the early 1990s I actually entered that pre-Independence urinal in Bombay of old where the graffiti debated, in unprintable epithets the treatment meted out to the mothers of the two communities. For mothers and sisters are the first to be targeted in any battle that men fight and so it was with the names of the two countries that were replacing female genitals. This was when Rajkamal Prakashan published five volumes of Manto’s complete works in Devanagari. Of course these were not so complete as what would be unpalatable to the popular opinion in Hindustan was edited out. Nevertheless ‘Mutari’ (urinal) and other stories that make Manto compete with God were there and also my slowly acquired understanding to receive them.
That was a time when 50 years of Partition were approaching and so was a revival of interest in this madman and messiah called Manto who had intervened in spaces into which historians social scientists failed to reach. That was a time when progressive historians accepted their failure. Mushirul Hasan aptly says: "The fact is that to me and many other historians like me, Manto and many other creative writers expose the inadequacy of numerous narratives on Independence and Partition, and compel us to adopt new approaches that have eluded the grasp of social scientists and provide a foundation for developing an alternative discourse to current expositions of a general theory on inter-community relations."
Manto’s nephew Khalid Hasan, to whom goes the credit of translating much of Manto into English for Penguin, wrote some time ago wondering if Pakistan would pay adequate tributes to Manto on the 50th anniversary of his death. Tributes to Manto? What tribute can one pay to a writer who at the cost of his sanity, health and well-being paved the way for the preservation of essential human values. And it is to Manto and his kin that we today think of a sub-continent that will shape up differently for the positive. Manto Mian, I would like to tell you of some graffiti here in this Chandigarh of ours.
As I take a lift in some office in Sector 34 during the India-Pakistan cricket days, I find a heart with an arrow piercing it drawn by some youth of the MTV generation with the words ‘I love Pakistan’.
It has been a long and painful journey since the two governments of India and Pakistan divided their madmen and the protagonist of your Toba Tek Singh breathed his last on the no-man land. But we seem to be moving on and there are more choices before us than banishment, madness or death. Perhaps, there was a method in your madness.

With Manto through forbidden streets

Telltale balconies, bead-curtained doorways and carpeted halls lit by a single chandelier… Nirupama Dutt re-reads vignettes of a wayward world from the pen of a master storyteller

Narrow streets with sleazy paanwallahs and vendors hawking gajras, glass bangles, ittar and henna. Drowsy streets awakening alive at dusk to the strains of a thumri wafting own a dark staircase.
This is no scene recaptured from old Lucknow. Such forbidden streets with their telltale balconies, bead-curtained doorways, and carpeted halls lit by a single chandelier were very much a part of the towns of East Punjab. Although the ``entertainment’’ capital of Punjab was Lahore’s Heera Mandi, other towns such as Patiala, Ambala, Malerkotla, jalandhar, Amritsar had glittering retreats that were nearly as well populated and ``professional’’. Even little waystations like Balachaur could boast of a few houses.

Come Partition and these streets ceased to be for these were the first to be attacked. The kothas were burnt down and the tawaifs who provided comfort to any man with money irrespective of his caste, religion, mother-tongue or place of origin became the victims of communal fury. Many of them were abducted. The entire bazaar of Amritsar was burnt down and so also many buildings in what today is known as the Dharampura Bazaar of Patiala.

It was a nightmare for the girls of a famous kotha, ironically named Befikr manzil, in Patiala. “Yet, another kotha, recounts an old Patialvi ``was converted into a religious place with the original name plaque whitewashed. But when the paint would come off, devotees could read that this place of worship was once `Nissim manzil’ – a byword for nautch-gana wagera. Finally, the plaque was removed with the brick and all and now one finds there a gaping hole.’’ Although the tawaifs of Malerkotla migrated to Pakistan long ago, that town is a good place to see what the old kothas looked like – at least from the outside. Malerkotla saw neither killings nor arson in 1947 so many of the old buildings with their ornate iron railings and carved wooden awnings still line a street in the very centre of town. The ladies of Malerkotla were particularly prosperous as much of their clientele before 1947 were British troops. In fact, the town was unofficially designated for a ‘rest and recreation’.

Stories of these forbidden streets are now relegated to the memories of old timers. An aged jeweler of Amritsar recalls ``Once a week, my father would take with him a jewel or two and visit his favourite tawaif. He would return home late humming a ghazal.’’

The most vivid account of this world is to be found in the stories of Sadat Hasan Manto, the famous writer of Urdu fiction who prided himself on being the ‘best informed on the pimps and prostitutes.’
To journey with Manto through the forbidden streets is not merely to seek out the ambience of a long forgotten world but to glimpse the reality of life on the fringe of society and fathom the inner truth of the men and women who were condemned to live on that margin.

He was a writer who wrote not from flights of fancy but chronicled with great felicity what he saw, heard and experienced.
Most of the stories pertain to the late thirties and forties when the courtesan and the culture she represented had fallen on sad days. The reason was not any sort of revolution in public morals but mainly because British rule with its large military population reduced women who combined easy virtue with various kinds of cultural attainments to women who’s only commodity was flesh.
One story which he did write from hearsay recounted the tale of two famous courtesans of Amritsar and their brother who got mixed up in a revolt against the British. Called 1919 ki ek baat, it is told to the narrator by an old man in a train.

It dates back to the time when, following a ban on Mahatma Gandhi’s entry into Punjab and arrest of Congress leaders, a revolt broke out among some of Amritsar’s not-very-respectable citizens. One of them was Thaila kanjar, brother of two famous courtesans Shamshad and Almas. He attacked a British soldier, killed him and was killed in return by another soldier. The two sisters wept for their brother who had died a hero’s death. Sadly, the two sisters had to perform a mujra that evening for the officers. Here the old man broke down, saying that instead of refusing to do so they actually sang and danced.

With this denouement, Manto mocks society for casting some men and women beyond the pale of humanity, regarding them with contempt and loathing – and at the same time expecting patriotism and noble deeds from them.

Then there is the delightful story Kaali Salwar with Sultana of Ambala as the heroine. Manto describes how Sultana, with the gora soldiers of the cantonment as her customers, had picked up a dozen or so phrases in English. When business would be poor she would say ``this life is very bad’’. And she would amuse herself by lovingly hurling the choicest Hindustani abuses at the goras who, taking them to be endearments would laugh and receive a giggling ullu ka pathas from her in return.

Sultana later moves to Delhi and falls on hard days. The story ends with her pimp, Khudabakhs, obtaining the black salwar which Sultana so badly wants for Moharram from another courtesan in exchange for Sultana’s silver ear-rings. Finally the two women come face to face.

And so one moves from street to street with the Sultana’s and Alma: heroines whom Manto delineates not as debauchees but as women with dreams, hopes and fears. There is the young girl from Lahore who cannot enter the trade until she has gone back to her city and left her lover asleep in a hotel, as he had done once after eloping with her. Then there is the honourable ``Mummy’’who runs a house of entertainment but will not allow advances on a girl too young… and the girl who shivers in her kotha in Delhi as the riots begin.
The greatest of them is the story of Saugandhi, a ten-rupee woman of Bombay who is fleeced by a policeman who poses as her lover and protector. She plays along game until one Seth refuses her as she goes out to earn some money for a girl-friend in need. With the refusal, her dreams shatter. She throws out the lousy lover and picks up her shaggy diseased dog and sleeps with him.

Not only does Manto portray the women of the forbidden streets as women first but he also exposes ``respectable folk’’ for their hardness of heart in comparison to the sadder but kinder whores and pimps. These women who trade their bodies for daily bread emerge as a shade less mercenary than those who come to buy them for a night or just half a night.

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