Saadat Hasan Manto occupies a unique position in literature. Born on May 11, 1912, the author’s influence not just remains untainted, but in many ways, is renewed with every passing year. The author who predominantly wrote in Urdu, steadfastly refused to celebrate Independence in 1947. Instead, he weighed the costs we incurred on account of it: a nation torn apart.
Manto documented Partition excessively, all the while placing the misery of losing land and lives at the centre of his narrative. He was also one of the most empathetic documentarians of women’s plights. On his death anniversary today, three authors — Natasha Badhwar, Saikat Majumdar and Priyanka Dubey — recount the ways Manto helped them (un)learn.
It is interesting that over the years one has read and watched more about Manto than one has read Manto. To that extent Manto is one of those legendary writers whose lived story has as much to offer to future readers as the stories, plays and essays he left behind as remnants of his times. As a young reader, the vivid horror of Manto’s stories both gripped and overawed me.
In the last decade, as one has witnessed the crumbling of our delusions about civilisational progress, Manto’s writings have become increasingly relevant and yet harder for me to read without flinching in pain and despair.
Manto’s fiction pushes me to the edge of hopelessness, yet Manto, the writer, offers me a reason to hope. He bore witness to dark times, he wrote unflinchingly about the trauma of individual victims, he remained fearless of a state that had the power to crush him. His addictions ultimately consumed him, yet his creative resistance continues to resonate in the land he could neither belong to, nor abandon.
(Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and author of My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment)
My master of unlearning
Writing is something, the novelist John Updike once said that requires more unlearning than learning. I did not understood this advice before I read certain Indian writers in English translation. They included UR Ananthamurthy, Premchand, and crucially, Saadat Hasan Manto.
The moment of that understanding was quite an experience. My British colonial education in India ran its full course in the United States, where, recovering from intense training in literature and creative writing, I started to obsess about craft. One day, reading UR Ananthamurthy’s novel, Samaskara, in AK Ramanujan’s translation, I felt disappointed, a little confused. This seemed to be a strangely, badly written book. It was the beginning of a radical unlearning. By standing out as alien, literary craft in a local Indian language pointed me to my own deification of a narrow, western vision of it, something that possibly ran alongside the principles of New Criticism.
But there were forms of aesthetic, which, when captured in English, came alive in their clumsiness and took apart my professional training in craft. This was something that never struck me while reading Bangla literature in original, while the appearance of Kannada, Hindi and Urdu literature in English always evoked my western-trained craft expectations, only to frustrate them delightfully.
Teaching Manto’s story Peerun at Stanford, I took much pleasure in my sincere students’ confusion at Brij’s aimless sexual diffidence. Here was a character who frustrated not only the MFA norms of motivation but in fact the motives of eros and labour as understood in the larger context of Western individualism, and specifically, the Protestant work ethic. How did Brij love his ‘bad luck’, and his charming source of misfortune, the inscrutable Peerun! Here, too, was a feminist to confound western feminism, its quick and sharp assertion of agency – a quotidian chronicler of the psychedelic terror of the Partition.
Who can forget the shocking horror of Khol do (Open it), the story of the death-struck woman who, after going through countless rapes, understood only one meaning of the word “khol” – to take off her clothes, whenever she heard that word. Like Mahasweta Devi’s Dopdi, who challenges her rapist to clothe her after the violation, Manto’s Sakina is a unique force of feminism. But just like the aesthetic of his sentences, Manto’s characters, too, make for rich and glorious unlearning – not only for the westerner, but also the western-educated Indian writer who has been trained in a dominant form of politics as well as syntax.
(Saikat Majumdar is an Indian novelist. He is the author of three novels which include most recently The Scent of God (2019)
Along with my writer self, the citizen, the journalist and the lover selves in me also keep thinking of Manto often. And often, his memory crops up at such unusual cross-roads of the political and personal that it becomes difficult for me to pinpoint one central nucleus of his impact on my life.
I feel as if the shadows of the characters of his stories are all around me. And with them, Manto, too, is omnipresent. For instance, while trying to make sense of the current surge of violence around me, I often go back to his piece titled ‘News of a killing’, originally published as ‘qatal-o-khoon ki surkhiyan’. Devastated by the unending spree of killings and destruction in the then newly-found Pakistan, the writer urges people to dive deep into own selves and think. Instead of endorsing more violence by state as form of legal punishment, he talks about reforming human by educating the soul.
This compassion is spread across all his oeuvre. The way he stands with the victims who were left out on the margins of the bloodied Partition in his stories had deeply impacted my heart. Be it innocent children or old lost men searching for their homes, or women who suffered sexual violence, Manto’s writing stood with them with such integrity and empathy which is unparalleled and inspiring.
Also, his humour never leaves me. I often see him in my dreams, holding a cigarette in the middle of his fingers, looking around for a light while cracking some dark joke. And sometimes, standing in a witness box defending his works against a barrage of moralist attacks: a defence that has always been a torch bearer of sorts for writers like me.
His writings have not only helped me in searching my own humanity, but they also nourish the root of the spine that I try to hold today as a writer and citizen.
(Priyanka Dubey is the author of ‘No Nation For Women‘)