The Enigma of Storytelling: Revisiting Saadat Hasan Manto

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Saadat Hasan Manto , a name entangled in controversy throughout his lifetime, is regarded as one of the finest storytellers of the preceding century. Sadat Manto never spoke of himself as a writer whose works fiddle with abstruse philosophical discourses. Instead, Manto’s finesse lay in his unique ability to express reality under the veil of fiction. Manto’s narratives grow organically, omitting grandeur and stylistic elements. Manto was nothing short of a foreteller, who could visualize in his brief life, the fates of the country he had to leave and the country he emigrated to.

A Kashmiri by birth, Manto was born in Amritsar on the 11th of May 1912. Manto’s literary career came to prominence in Bombay prior to the partition of India. Manto left his hometown and roamed about for a few years until his bohemian life came to a halt in Bombay. He started working for the All India Radio. A few years later, he became the editor of a film weekly which paved the way for him as the main screenwriter for Bombay Talkies. Apart from screenplays, he wrote a series of intriguing essays on the Bombay film industry from an insider’s perspective. The story titled My Name is Radha, gives a firsthand account of the dark side of the film industry, loosely modelled on film personalities of the time. Bombay initiated a new chapter in Manto’s life and the city would later become his inspiration for writing fiction. His Bombay came alive in the slums and dingy lanes of the city, the narratives springing forth from the lives of the subalterns.

Manto with his wife Safia
Manto with his wife Safia

 

 

Manto had been an active member of the Progressive Writer’s Association (PWA), which included illustrious writers like Ismat Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and others. Writers associated with the PWA attacked social conservatisms and championed radical thinking in their writings. The unending communal tensions in India reached the climax in 1947, giving birth to two nations pitted against each other. A year later, Manto was coerced into leaving India and accepting a new life in Lahore. The emigration to Pakistan greatly affected Manto and the trauma of partition came to light in most of his stories.

I chanced upon Manto in my early teens, when I began intruding into the restrictive realm of the so-called adult fiction. My first read was a short story, The Dog of Tithwal, which I later came to know is one of the prized writings of Manto. What struck me was the way the narrative captures the futility of war through the death of a dog that roused suspicions on grounds of political affiliation. My fifteen year old, impressionable mind was stirred by its uncomplicated depiction of the man-slaughtering device called war, summoned by people who wield power and political authority. War amounts to needless rivalry and paranoia, which become evident in the preposterous attitude of the war commanders towards the dog. I couldn’t possibly comprehend the deeply rooted sardonic voice of the writer, but I got hold of the multiple implications of the word partition, which is not exactly limited to barbed wires and separate colour codes in geographical maps. The story is set in the context of the armed conflict between India and Pakistan over the inconclusive fate of Kashmir. Squeezed in the fragmentary space between the newly segregated countries, the dog fades into nothingness, like millions of citizens who became geo-political entities called refugees. When I read Toba Tek Singh later on, it occurred to me that Manto had an obsession about the threshold, which in this case is the fractional space between India and Pakistan, where national identities are irrelevant. Both Toba Tek Singh and the Dog of Tithwal sacrifice themselves within that space.

Manto with his daughters
Manto with his daughters

 

 

 

Manto never compromised with artistic freedom in spite of being labelled as a writer who preferred obscenity to decency. He was a valiant critique of society who moulded fiction out of commonplace events. ‘Why would I want to undress a society when it is already naked?’ remarked Manto when he had to endure scathing attacks from the conservative sections of the society. Another noteworthy aspect of his fiction is the way he portrayed women, with an effort to minimize the gross inequality between men and women. Manto’s female characters often dissociate themselves from patriarchal roles, even subverting them completely at times. His intrepid depiction of female sexuality allured widespread protests and criticisms. Neither did he comply with conventionalities, nor did he part with his artistic self. As Manto said, he didn’t write with a black chalk on a blackboard, he wrote with a white one, to highlight the sheer blackness of the board.

Manto met an untimely death owing to alcoholism, which he somehow anticipated as he wrote his own epitaph a few years ago. He left behind a large oeuvre comprising short stories, plays, essays, political commentaries and a novel. Like Toba Tek Singh, Manto might have wished to limit himself within ‘a nameless piece of earth’, where he would have been free from social and political constraints- ‘There, behind barbed wires was India and here, behind barbed wires was Pakistan, in the middle on a nameless piece of earth, lay Toba Tek Singh’[i].

[i] From the English translation of the story by Aatish Taseer

Written  By: Samyabrata Das

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