Thursday, July 5, 2012

Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955): on His Three short Stories 

Year 2012 is the birth centenary year of Saadat Hasan Manto, the great Urdu short story writer. Born in pre-partition India in a village close to Samrala  in Ludhiana district  of Indian Punjab, he migrated to Pakistan in 1948.

I had the occasion to read on the Internet a few write-ups on him by Indian admirers of Manto,  and one written by SarmadSehbai a Pakistani poet, playwright and drama director. SarmadSehbai's write-up, The Politics of Exclusion, published in The Dawn, Lahore on 14 May 2012, was forwarded to me  by  a well-known Punjabi poet (once associated with the Naxalite movement in Punjab in the 1970s), Amarjit Chandan, now settled in UK, one of  my valued Internet acquaintances.

After reading that write-up I recollected my brief encounter with Manto’s works in the late 1970s when I was working on my M.Litt dissertation on the Indian Partition: The PartitionTheme in Hindi and Indo-Anglian Fiction. It was then that  I had read a few short stories by Manto, including the three most famous ones: Thanda Gosht (Cold, Like Ice), Khol Do (Open It) and Toba Tek Singh, all the three about the Partition.

After reading the write-up I re-read these three stories once again, in translation as well as in the original, and given here is my reaction.

The write-up by SarmadSehbai suggests how Manto, well known in Bombay’s film world, decided to migrate to Pakistan after he had been ‘betrayed’ by some of his friends, and how in Pakistan he was denounced and sidelined because  neither the newly created Pakistani state nor the Progressive Writers’ branch (PWA) of Pakistan  and nor many other  Pakistani writers  were willing to  endorse his unorthodox and subversive portrayal  life. He was accused of and tried for obscenity, though without success. However, one of his staunch supporters was Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Publishers and newspapers and journals refused to publish him, and he died an admired but a broken man, destroyed by financial difficulties and drinking.

The three stories named above would be rated  as classics  in any literature. They demonstrate what shaped Manto’s perception of the contemporary reality. Around the time  of the Partition,  parts of the Indian sub-continent had undergone  a metamorphosis; it was as if the human subconscious -  its corner that is the repository of fear, anger, hatred, revenge, brutality, aggression, sadism, greed and lust - had turned inside out; as if  the real and the surreal had interchanged their locations. What was prohibited,  hidden and  repressed, buried deep in the darkest recesses of the mind, had become manifest not in a dream or a nightmare but in real life; and what was on the surface, rational and civilizing,  was buried deep under, almost effaced from the memory. It was a long dark night when the Superego had gone to sleep and Id had risen like a monster to roam freely.

In these three stories, the spine-chilling horror of the first two and the surreal absurdity of the third arise out of Manto’s confrontation with this dark spectacle of the times. Perhaps his critics were shocked not because they saw something obscene and socially and culturally unacceptable, but because they were made to confront their (and our) hidden selves, as SarmadSehbai’s article seems to suggest. We must admire the way Manto constructs the three stories, each unique in its own way. In Thanda Gosht (Cold, Like Ice) Iswar Singh's frozen libido could perhaps be unravelled only in this way. His confession comes out  after his sexually virile wife’s (and Iswar Singh’s own) playful and elaborate attempts to arouse him fail, and she inflamed by her unfulfilled passion, suspicion and jealousy stabs him with his kirpan ( the same with which he had killed six Muslimsand forces the confession out of him, which leaves Iswar Singh cold like the  dead girl he had abducted after killing the six men  and tried to seduce. The whole movement of the story is so skilfully crafted towards its inevitable climax, the revelation of  Iswar Singh’s ‘ice-cold’ libido and finally perhaps his body. In Khol Do (Open It) the enormous gulf between what the reader knows and what the girl’s father, Sarajuddin, does not know and which makes him, in all innocence, shout with joy that his sexually ravaged daughter is ‘alive’ creates a dramatic irony (so carefully built up) that reminds one of Sophocles’ Oedipus, and its surprise ending of Maupassant’s The Necklace. Sarajuddin’s fate is as terrifying as that of Oedipus. The third story, Toba Tek Singh reads like a literal transcription of the surreal and absurd tragedy of the Partition, in which  one day a person wakes up to discover that the place  where he was born  and had lived his whole life,  where his forefathers had lived for centuries, is not his home but an enemy country, and he must leave it and flee with his life to an alien land about which he knows nothing, and he is, like Bishen Singh in the story, neither here nor there. If these three stories bring out the darkness within the human soul, we cannot blame Manto for he showed what he saw and what others were unwilling or unable to see, or at least with the same intense and ruthless gaze. And the interesting thing is that Manto only shows, and everything is self-evident.
These stories remind me of another story, Kafan, (The Shroud) by Prem Chand, published in 1936, the year of his death. Here Prem Chand is able to discover in everyday life the debasement and dehumanization that Manto saw in that sub-continental conflagration just a decade later.  Prem Chand’s story is not merely about two dehumanised individuals, it is a surreal image of the rural India of his times (may be of our own too) where generations long poverty, and hunger, exploitation and marginalisation have emptied the human heart of all feeling. In this story Prem Chand, like Manto but unlike himself, only shows. If anything, his sympathies include the seemingly debased father-son duo, Ghisoo and Madhav. 

These stories still make great reading.