Manto was the greatest flagbearer of freedom of expression

Nandita Das on why Manto was the greatest flagbearer of freedom of expression
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Saadat Hasan Manto (1912–1955) is celebrated as one of the greatest modern-day short story writers of South Asia, and as the most controversial and provocative one. Manto had no regard for authority nor did he respect imposed rules. Known for his irreverence and satire, he had an irrepressible desire to poke a finger in the eye of the orthodoxy.

He set himself apart from other writers with his relentless observations of the wretchedness of life around him, and through his candour about sex and sexuality. Since he set out to be a thorn for the establishment and the conservatives – and was good at being one – it was hardly surprising that he often suffered the consequences.

Not only did he lose friends and patrons, he was also tried for obscenity by the state on six different occasions. Yet, he remained defiant. “If you find my stories unbearable it’s because we live in unbearable times,” he said.

A Kashmiri by birth, Manto was raised in Amritsar in a relatively impoverished household. His mother and his sister were both strong influences in his life, and were fond of telling stories, perhaps nurturing the future writer within him. A truant and nonconformist from an early age, Manto performed poorly in school, but received his education on the streets from varied characters, including photographers, writers, drug addicts, and revolutionaries.

Under the mentorship of Bari Alig his restless spirit found solace in literature and writing. He sought to escape his hometown and after some wandering, landed in Bombay to take up a job as the editor of a film weekly.

Manto’s days in Bombay turned out to be very productive, both in terms of his life experiences and his writing career. Bombay of the 1930s and 40s was the centre of India’s cultural avant-garde, and Manto was one of its most prominent figures. A large part of his years in the city were spent as a screenwriter for Hindi cinema. He knew the Bombay film industry intimately and wrote about it with an insider’s eye.

Many of the prominent film-makers and actors of the time appeared as characters in his writings, and provided fodder for his sharp pen. His essays on famous film stars ruffled many feathers, but despite alienating much of the industry in which he worked, he also succeeded in it.

While he chronicled the glitz and glamour of the city, Manto continued to be fascinated by its underbelly, and wrote about it with unprecedented bluntness. His protagonists came from the lanes he walked, and the slums he inhabited. They spoke the language of the street. The women in his stories were complex and richly developed. They were neither cardboard cut-outs seen in popular culture, nor were they mere foils for moral sermonising.

He revelled in writing about the starkness of lives, but he neither judged nor pitied his characters.

He simply wrote with unadorned honesty about the world he shared with them. “I am no sensationalist,” he said. “Why would I want to undress a society that is already naked? Yes, it is true I make no attempt to cover it but that’s not my job… my job is to write with a white chalk, so that I can draw attention to the darkness of the board.”

After Partition, Manto moved to Lahore, driven perhaps by an inability to come to terms with the violence of the time. His years in Lahore were difficult, and he struggled to earn a living, but he wrote some of his finest stories in this period including masterpieces such as Thanda Gosht, Khol Do, and Toba Tek Singh. He also wrote evocative sketches of the Partition, compiled as Siyaah Haashiye and his satirical political commentary, Letters to Uncle Sam.

Manto died tragically at the young age of 42, leaving behind a large oeuvre of stories, essays, plays, film scripts and memoirs. It was very Mantoesque to compose his own epitaph: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him are buried all the secrets of the art of story writing. Under mounds of earth, he is still wondering which of the two was a greater storyteller: god or he.” While this epitaph was not used, Manto, the storyteller, lives on.

Excerpted with permission from the Prologue to The Armchair Revolutionary and Other Sketches, Saadat Hasan Manto, Translated by Khalid Hasan, Edited by Ali Mir and Saadia Toor, Leftword Books.