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Comrade Mantoo

By Raza Naeem

Though Manto had begun writing short columns and commentaries after his association with Musavaat, he wrote his own first original essay on Maxim Gorky with the title Maxim Gorky – the Eminent Thinker of the Red Nation. This was published in the December 1934 issue of Humayunwhen Manto was merely 22 years of age. Then the second essay was on Pushkin, which was published in the Russian Literature Number in May 1935. The same year, Manto compiled the Russian Literature Number of Alamgir and wrote a lengthy introduction to it. Before and after it, his essays Socialist PoetryRed RevolutionPeasant Worker Capitalist Landlord, etc. were published, reading which one of the great left-wing luminaries of the period Ferozuddin Mansoor confessed:

 

“Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Maxim Gorky are familiar to Indian readers to an extent. Mr Saadat Hasan Manto and his other friends are doing admirable work in transmitting Russian thought into Urdu.’

(Alamgir, Russian Literature Number)

Maxim Gorky watches revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin playing chess

The essay written on Maxim Gorky begins with a description of the conditions prevalent in Russia. It explores the idea that within Russian language and literature, the two artists who have sketched effective portraits of these conditions and the social system – according to Manto – are Chekhov and Gorky. The essay itself is on Gorky, so while mentioning his school of thought, Manto writes:

“In the school I am referring to, the name of Gorky is especially important, because we find the effect of his thought on the writings of most of the members of this school. The absolute reason for this entire effect is that Gorky indeed is the first person who all at once removed soft and pure elements from Russian realism.”

Then he writes about Russian realism:

“Russian realism was always soft and delicate about morality. Russian writers refrained from the raw materiality and unnecessary plain talk of French novelists. The Russian literature of that time to some extent resembles the English Victorian novel. Ugliness, filth and the sensual aspect of gender relations has always been a forbidden fruit for the Russian writer.”

These lines make clear how closely Manto had studied Russian literature at a young age. No doubt this was Bari Alig’s generosity, but Manto’s personal knowledge and wisdom, too, advanced rapidly towards world literature and was – consciously or otherwise – leveling the path for his thought and art. Eventually his work advanced to a new chapter of savage and complex realism, and he writes directly about Gorky thus:

“Maxim Gorky’s name carried the highest status in the rebirth of Russian literature. In modern writing, only Gorky is world-famous like Tolstoy. His fame is not like the popularity of Chekhov, which is limited to the educated classes of a few countries of the world.”

He continues:

“Gorky’s character is really very bewildering. Born in a poor family, he dominated Russian literature at only 30 years of age.”

And see also this line:

“He was desirous of giving radiance to the blind flame of Russian literature with his liberating thought; wanted to create an agitation for rebirth in dead, yellow and lifeless skeletons.”

Manto goes on to explore the circumstances, actions and dynamics of Gorky’s life in detail. After all, Manto passed through a period of poverty, want and worry exactly like Gorky.

Gorky met an old soldier who developed his habit of reading books; and Manto met an old communist editor and thinker – both also did translations and wrote short stories during days of real distress. Perhaps these, indeed, were the elements which brought Manto closer to Gorky. Moreover, Gorky remained in a battle with life by confronting all these adverse circumstances and harmonizing his pen and step. Then a time came when in 1895 Gorky’s first collection of short stories appeared which created his national identity; his stories were at once distinct from the traditional fictional style of Russian literature. This is the reason why Marxist writers of the period extended a most warm welcome to his work. Afterwards Gorky himself became a Marxist and was internationally recognized as a very great name of Russian literature. His writings became a staple of every Russian household. Indeed they became a headache for the avenues of power.

Manto writes:

“Gorky fully participated in the first (Russian) revolution. He was arrested in January 1905. This arrest led to the creation of new lovers of Gorky around the world.”

In this long essay Manto has also pointed towards a few personal weaknesses of Gorky, but nevertheless allows for the following:

“Though his fame fell in literary circles in this manner but on the other hand, his thought began to find favour with the hearts and minds of Russian workers. The mentality of Russian workers that we find until 1917 was actually thanks to the writings of Gorky. Russian civilization is actually obligated for receiving the sincere activities of Gorky. Every effort between 1918 and 1921 that was put into practice to save Russian writers and other journalists from starvation was only the result of Gorky’s attention.”

Manto analyzes Gorky’s literature as follows:

“In the realism of the initial writings of Gorky, romanticism of the highest order is present. This same element of romanticism proved the reason for his popularity in Russia; but on the other hand, in foreign countries it is his realism which made him famous. The freshness of his first short stories was his young and bold thoughts in the eyes of the Russian reader, but the foreign reader felt the freshness in the raw and oppressive narrative style through which he has depicted his hell-like world.”

The depiction of a hell-like world is also seen in Manto, about which the general opinion is that he indeed took this influence from Gorky and Chekhov.

 

Then we find a detailed overview of Gorky’s short stories, due to which the essay has indeed become lengthy but at least one can guess that Manto studied the creative literature of Gorky in minute detail and was influenced by his revolutionary ideology. In between, with reference to Gorky, he mentions the following lines from Gorky:

“Life as it is, rather than as it should be, can be imagined or will be…this is Gorky’s art and the secret of Russia’s other short story writers.”

Now let us observe the following lines of Manto, too, which were said afterwards by way of some reaction:

“Life should be presented in a colour as it is, not as it was or will be and should be…”

You will clearly hear the voice of Gorky in these lines. Not just that, he writes in another place about the short story, and especially about Gorky’s work:

“Russian short-story writers have nothing to do with fake humanity or the fake traces of fake life. For them, only the structure of a story could be imaginary, and that’s it! It is necessary for all the rest of the characters to be real.”

 

Manto, too, adopted the same path in his short stories. This was so especially after he reached Bombay, as there was a lot of fakeness in this great city – even some Progressives who were regarded as less than genuine in their convictions and practices.

Manto, it could be said, learnt this honesty and realism from Gorky, Chekhov, etc. but presented it absolutely in his own distinct manner.