Americans, it would seem, can never read Ernest Hemingway's fiction without a picture of Hemingway the man in mind; the writer's mythology threatens to supplant the force of his work. If there is a comparable figure in Indian literature, it is Sadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), whose centenary is May 11. Manto, who wrote in Urdu, was both the enfant terrible of his literary milieu and the sharpest and most disillusioned observer of the extraordinarily fascinating political currents of his age.
These currents had their origins in the Hindu-Muslim tension that prominently marks (alongside a parallel history of coexistence and communion) the history of the Indian subcontinent. They culminated in Manto's lifetime in the creation of the nation-states of India and Pakistan in 1947, based on the "two-nation theory," and in the terrifying bloodbath and religious rancor of Partition, an event that might be seen as the subcontinent's equivalent of the Holocaust. In the six decades since, it has been most unusual for India and Pakistan to agree on anything. But all this year, the literary cultures of both countries have been united in marking the memory of Manto, whose life story -- the first 35 years spent in a colonial India, one year in independent India, and the final seven in the new country of Pakistan -- so vividly mirrors the dreams and fractures of his age. Among the events celebrating Manto's life and work this week will be one in New York.
A native of the north Indian city of Amritsar, Manto began his in letters in the 1930s as a translator of Russian and French literature into Urdu. In 1936, at 24, he moved to Bombay (now Mumbai), where he found his entire range of talents accommodated and made his mark both as a writer of vivid, lancing short stories in Urdu and of film scripts in Hindustani. He lived -- and his stories are often set -- in the cacophony and ethnic and linguistic diversity of Bombay's famous chawls, the one-room tenements (often shared by several working men) with communal facilities that housed scores of migrant workers (in 1931, as much as three quarters of the city's population). In their essay "Manto's Life In Bombay," Aftab Ahmed and Matt Reeck wr0te:
Bombay’s working world was almost exclusively a male world. [...] Prostitution developed out of these conditions, and did so on a scale unlike anywhere else in India, as the migration of unaccompanied males to the city met with destitute women forced to earn money by any means possible. In 1921, there were an estimated thirty to forty thousand prostitutes in the city. Manto saw how the unique social conditions of the city bred prostitution, and the figure of the prostitute became of considerable interest to him.
Another striking feature of Bombay was its ethnic diversity. One gauge of this would be Manto’s enumerations of the ethnicities represented by prostitutes: in his story “Mammad Bhai” he claims that in the city there were prostitutes “of every sort — Jewish, Punjabi, Marathi, Kashmiri, Gujarati, Anglo-Indian, French, Chinese, Japanese.” In the same story, Manto mentions Arab pearl merchants and Chinese restaurateurs. Other stories have characters who are Punjabi, Kashmiri, and from Mangalore, Karnataka. Yet others feature Anglo-Indians, Dravidians, characters from Andhra Pradesh, Pathans from the Hindu Kush Mountains and, in one instance, a pedophilic Bengali musician.
Manto's stories were immediately noted, in a conservative culture and a literature awash with euphemisms, for their candid treatment of lust and sex and their interest in fallen, or falling, men and women. Many middle-class readers thought his work positively obscene, but at its heart was a powerful vision of a society distorted by a combination of hypocrisy and repression (the writer Nighat Gandhi makes a powerful case for Manto as "a spiritual feminist writer"). The political scientist Ishtiaq Ahmed recalled:
Like many other youngsters initially I read his so-called sex stories primarily in search of salacious excitement, but sensed immediately that far from providing entertainment he was exposing in a shocking manner the misogynist culture and hypocrisy that pervaded South Asia. Some of his stories set in the background of the partition on sexual violence against women are masterpieces.
Among the qualities of Manto's work that have stood the test of time is its signature combination of detachment, irony and concision -- a willingness to withhold judgment while studying the passions and frailties of human beings. Here are the vivid, silver-quick opening paragraphs of his essay on Ashok Kumar, one of the many Bombay film stars whom he counted as his intimates -- an opening in which, while Kumar appears not at all, a whole world is realized through the narrator's coolly amused gaze:
When Najmul Hasan ran off with Devika Rani, the entire Bombay Talkies was in turmoil. The film they were making had gone on the floor and some scenes had already been shot. However, Najmul Hasan had decided to pull way the leading lady from the celluloid world to the real one. The worst affected and the most worried man at Bombay Talkies was Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani's husband and the heart and soul of the company.
S. Mukerjee, Ashok Kumar's brother-in-law, who was to make several hit movies in the years to come, was at the time sound engineer Savak Vacha's assistant. Being a fellow Bengali, he felt sorry for Himanshu Rai and wanted to do something to make Devika Rani return. Without saying anything to Rai, he somehow managed to persuade her to come back, which meant that he talked her into abandoning the warm bed of her lover Najmul Hasan in Calcutta and return to Bombay Talkies where her talents had a greater chance of flourishing.
After Devika Rani came back, Mukerjee convinced the still shaken Himanshu Rai to accept his runaway wife. As for Najmul Hasan, he was left to join the ranks of those who are fated to be deserted by their beloveds for less emotional, but weightier political, religious or simply material considerations. As for the scenes he had already done, they were trashed. The question now was: who was going to be his replacement?
Bombay in the 1930s and 1940s was a hotbed of nationalist politics, and of competing visions of what kind of state and society would emerge from the agitation for independence. But no one, it seemed, could predict the mass killing, rape and looting that would flare up in 1947 among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs as the boundaries of colonial India were reorganized into India and Pakistan.
The subcontinent's spiral into atavistic violence and chauvinism inaugurated a new phase in Manto's work, one in which his disenchanted characters now enact in streets and killing fields the brutality and irony released by the forces and fault lines of history. In great stories such as "Toba Tek Singh," "The Dog of Tetwal" and "Sahay," the horrors of the age aren't so much decried as simply described, without recourse to caricature or stereotype. Alok Bhalla, one of Manto's many translators, put it well:
The importance of Manto's stories about the partition lies in the fact that he is neither a moralist nor an ideologue, neither a sermoniser nor a nationalist. Like a good fiction writer, he refuses to turn his gaze away from what he sees, even though he is bewildered and shocked by the pain human beings, in their frenzy of small claims and neurotic resentments are willing to inflict on each other. The best of his partition stories surprise one by bringing together, in darkly illuminating moments of existential understanding, terrible violence and the beauty of the human yearning for sex, children, home and community which refuses to yield its instinctual energy to the death-traps religious fanaticism and extremist politics lay for us.
Among the many tragedies of newly independent India and Pakistan that Manto observed closely was his own. In 1948, a year after Partition, he decided to leave his beloved Bombay and move to Pakistan, where his wife and children were already resident. Why would such a man, in spirit one of the city's first citizens, leave behind a world that he had so memorably brought to life in his fiction? Because, terribly enough, he had begun to feel uncomfortable as a Muslim in the tense and scarred world of post-Partition India, even in a city as cosmopolitan as Bombay. In a recent symposium on Manto published in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, the Pakistani writer Fahmida Riaz speculated:
If I am living in India and Hindus and Sikhs, brutalised at the hands of Muslims, are constantly coming from Pakistan, I will feel very insecure. Regardless of how practicing I am, I will identify with my community and I will feel guilty that my community is responsible for this massacre. This is why Manto came to Pakistan, because he didn’t have the heart to stay behind.
In Pakistan, Manto soon fell into trouble of all kinds, even as he wrote some of what were to become his best-known stories. For his story "Thanda Gosht" ("Cold Meat"), he was prosecuted for obscenity by the over-sensitive establishment (he is still published in bowdlerized versions in Pakistan). He fell into debt, and his love of the bottle, which in Bombay had seemed to enable his work, turned into a debilitating alcoholism. Work for the Bombay film industry had paid his bills, but Pakistan's film industry was still nascent. (This is what gives Manto's splendid essays about the Bombay film world, first written for a Pakistani magazine in 1950, their poignancy: They are not pieces concurrent with the events which they describe, but rather attempts to fix in memory a world which had been left behind forever.) In a postscript to Yazid, a collection of stories he published in 1951, Manto wrote nostalgically of Bombay:
It was a blow to have to leave Bombay, where I had lived such a busy life. Bombay had taken me in, a wandering outcast thrown out by even his family. She had told me, “You can live happily here on two paise a day or on ten thousand rupees. Or if you want, you can be the saddest person in the world at either price. Here you can do whatever you want, and no one will think you’re strange. Here no one will tell you what to do. You will have to do every difficult thing on your own, and you will have to make every important decision by yourself. I don’t care if you live on the sidewalk or in a magnificent mansion, I don’t care if you stay or go. I’ll always be here.” I was disconsolate after leaving Bombay. My good friends were there. I had gotten married there. My first child was born there, as was my second. There I had gone from earning a couple rupees a day to thousands -- hundreds of thousands -- and there I had spent it all. I loved it, and I still do!
Having attained great fame in Bombay, Manto then, writes Supriya Nair, became "even more famous for having left Bombay than having lived there." Manto died of cirrhosis of the liver in the Pakistani city of Lahore in 1955. His reputation today probably stands higher than at any point in his life or in the decades immediately after. Perhaps the people of India and Pakistan needed to first come to terms with Partition in order to come to terms with Manto. In the Dawn, Zaheda Hina observed:
Manto internalised the pain of Partition, not as a Muslim, Hindu or Sikh or as a speaker of Urdu, Punjabi or Marathi but as a human being, and was shattered in the process.
If Manto stands out among the short story writers of that time, it is because he was against any partition of the subcontinent on the basis of religion. He failed to understand how culture, civilisation, art, music, dance and architecture could be partitioned. Perhaps that is why he could write a great story like “Toba Tek Singh.”
Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, all can see the images of their own savagery and barbarism in Manto’s ruthless writings. “Khol Do”, “Thanda Gosht”, “Woh Larki”, “Mozail”, “Sahaey”, “Ram Khilawan”, and “Gormukh Singh ki Wasiyat” are stories which put many questions to our collective conscience. Manto has been rightfully called the creative conscience of the subcontinent.
By bringing brightly observed human beings (especially women), candor about sexual desire, an unflinching gaze before violence, swiftness and lightness of style, sympathy for the lives of alienated figures, biting irony about the shibboleths of nationalism and religion, and skepticism about ideologies of all kinds into one literary matrix, Sadat Hasan Manto will always be real and relevant.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
To contact the author of this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at email@example.com