Whenever it seems impossible to make sense of the actions and events around me, I take refuge in the verse of Mir Taqi Mir and the words of Saadat Hasan Manto.
The two are not simply classics of Urdu writing, but hold sway over the sensibility of a culture and civilisation within which Urdu is one language. Mir and Manto, in their own unique ways, have this unusual ability to weave together the inner turmoil of an individual with the shared suffering of the collective. There is no competition between great artists and, therefore, the idea is in no way to diminish the value of other giants of poetry and prose, from Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib to QurratulainHyder and a few who may come close, if not fall in the same league. However, while Ghalib elates and humours your angst and your suffering, Mir first makes you cry your heart out loud and then elates you. Hyder makes you understand the human psyche and critiques the human condition, while Manto dissects the human psyche and satirises the human condition.
In this age of alienation and indifference, myopia and deceit, it is comforting to find others who feel the same way you do. I’d like to mention two people and their recent work. One is a celebrity, the other not so well-known. SarmadSehbai’s creation, Mah-i-Mir, a film released in 2016, and Tahir Asghar’s project of publishing six books on Manto in 2016 by Bookage, Lahore, brought back to me what the Italian maestro Italo Calvino said about the classics: “A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.”
I have been an avid watcher of Urdu-Hindi cinema, but make no claims to being a film critic. I am devoid of the idiom required to describe and review this medium. However, Mah-i-Mir provokes me to say that it is an experience of emptying yourself during the course of watching it and finding yourself filled with a belief in the prevalence of art over any other physical phenomena or human experience. The anxiety and loneliness of a modern poet in the urban wilderness of 21st century Karachi, and the fretfulness and madness of Mir in the decadence of 18th century Delhi and Lucknow, come to one. The innate tension between verse and bread and the inherent friction between art and power has existed forever and will remain as such. It is a continuum in which we are born, make choices and take positions and then go beyond our own choices and our own positions. We wish there could be closure, but there is none.
Manto brings no closure either. On the one hand, he ruthlessly exposes the social and cultural oppression of both the sexual and intellectual being of a person; on the other he is the principal narrator of the suffering of people at large caused by violent and destructive politics of the colonial and postcolonial elites. His rootedness in his time (the first half of the 20th century) and his locale (first undivided India and then Pakistan) do not restrict him from pushing the frontiers of time and space further to universalise his expression. Asghar’s collection of books includes one in English, The Great Manto, edited by Shahzada Irfan. The five in Urdu include three of Asghar’s own compilations, and one each by Danish Ali and Faisal Sulehria. Except for one dedicated selection of Manto’s short stories, five out of the six books showcase the choicest of writings on Manto’s work in Urdu and English — with an occasional piece in Punjabi — by leading writers, scholars, critics and academics, with Manto’s own work appearing in instances. The whole set of six comes packaged in a box.
In Pakistan, perhaps like elsewhere, the insanity of the powerful can only be challenged by the lunacy of the artist. There is little choice, but to keep rereading Mir and Manto.