I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.
I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.
“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.
Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.
Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.
But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.
Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.
For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.
I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.
Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”
Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.
Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.
Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”
Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.