Around the time of the centenary of Manto’s birth, a major seminar to commemorate the author’s writings was held at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. At this event, scholars and writers from across South Asia paid tribute to the enfant terrible of Urdu letters, including Intizar Husain from Lahore. Thus we had the rare chance to hear the then perhaps greatest living Urdu writer reminisce about his predecessor, whose style was in many ways Husain’s antithesis. If Manto was predominantly a realist, unmercifully unmasking the rot in society’s underbelly, Husain strove for a different tone, drawing on memory and symbolism as well as varied strands of subcontinental mythology to structure his narratives. The contrast became clear in Husain’s account of Manto’s critical appraisal of one of Husain’s early short stories at a meeting of the Halqa-e-Arbab-Zauq (‘gentlemen of good taste and leisure’) in Lahore, when Husain was just beginning his own career.
In this short story, as recounted by Husain, a young man assembles his friends at a window on the day of the Muharram procession to get a glimpse of the girl he has set his heart on. Manto, it seems, was not happy about the idealization of the female character in Husain’s story; she lacked flesh and blood, in his view. Manto was disappointed as well with the story’s ending, with its deferral of the longed for possibility of seeing the beloved during the procession (she remains unseen). For Manto, the notion of waiting till the next year, as articulated by the love-stricken protagonist to his friends (‘Agle saal zaroor ayegee’, as shared by Husain) seemed a cop-out. However, the young Husain (unlike Ismat Chughtai in the case of the last line of ‘Lihaaf’) refused to change his storyline at the time. For Intizar sahib, waiting perhaps had a philosophical import not to be cast aside lightly.
I begin with this anecdote (a memory of a memory) to underline the importance of the context of dialogue and critical discussion for a writer like Manto, who despite the relative isolation he suffered in Lahore after migration from Bombay, did derive some support from the Halqa group (who believed in threadbare discussion of individual contributions at their meetings). This was at a time when Manto was going through a troubled relationship with the progressive writers in Pakistan (in particular, Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi). Indeed, a full-fledged literary history of the Halqa group (led by Muhammad Hasan Askari to begin with, and often dismissed by their opponents as rajatpasandi or reactionaries) remains to be written.
My Name is Radha: The Essential Manto Muhammad Umar Memon’s collection of translations of Manto’s stories, a play and some related essays does give us an indication of the reasons for Manto’s quarrel with the position adopted by the Progressives as regards his work (often condemned as obscene). The editor mounts a stout defence of Manto in his concluding essay, also revisiting the trials for obscenity faced by Manto in Lahore. Memon also includes a translation of a statement about Manto’s supposedly obscene writing (in this case ‘Upar, Neeche aur Darmiyan’ tr. ‘Upper, Lower, Middle’) by Mehdi Ali Siddiqui, the judge who fined him 25 rupees (all other cases against Manto were dismissed). However, the absence of a historical account of the aesthetic and literary ideals that animated the Halqa group and the socio-cultural basis for Manto’s radical upending of sexual conventions (centred on the critical questioning of inherited notions of sharam and izzat) mars the account. It is especially surprising that Memon, after rebutting the case against Manto as an obscene writer, takes it upon himself to label Manto’s interest in writing about prostitution and defending the profession as ‘almost pathological’ (on the grounds of the number of his stories and articles ‘fixated’ on the figure of the vaishya, p. 462). Such a pseudo-clinical description is at variance with the otherwise sympathetic tone adopted by Memon. After all, it was society’s pathologies (almost in Freudian terms, as Leslie Flemming pointed out long ago, in Another Lonely Voice, Lahore: Vanguard, 1985, esp. 32–33) that Manto tilted against, albeit without resorting to the clinical language of the psychoanalyst.
Indeed, the polemical slant becomes apparent in the preamble, where, in the name of literary autonomy, Memon seeks to refute the perception among social scientists that Manto wrote primarily about 1) Prostitution and 2) Partition. He makes this claim on the basis of a rather ahistorical view of the aesthetic and the imagination, despite the citations of Kundera and Llosa. While it is Memon’s view that a writer’s personality and individuality should be deemed more important than historical context (a point of view that he is entitled to), this certainly impoverishes our understanding of Manto’s importance as a writer about the traumatic violence during 1947. It is as if Memon has skirted important and rigorous readings of Manto by amongst others, Ashis Nandy and Veena Das (‘Violence, Victimhood and the Language of Silence’, in Veena Das ed. The Word and the World, New Delhi: Sage, 1986), subaltern historians and literary critics, who have grasped well the salience of Manto’s fictive unearthing of the psychic debris left behind by Partition era violence. Apart from a stray reference to feminist scholarship (Menon and Bhasin’s study of the reality of abduction and forced repatriation in East Punjab, cited in the preamble, p. xvii), it is surprising to note the disregard of this crucial context which generated some of Manto’s most compelling short stories.
While Memon seems to be following Askari’s reading of Manto as a writer who engaged with the substance of human nature and its deformations in times of crisis, his rare ability to juxtapose opposites in distinctive, even grotesque, ways rather than merely portray the manifestations of communal violence, it seems a mistake to downplay the specificity of the cataclysmic rupture that occasioned Manto’s fictional excavations at this time (Memon has translated Askari’s essay afresh for this volume). While Askari’s attempted to take a detached and sharply critical view of especially the Progressive writers’ treatment of communal violence at the time (and the literary balancing acts attempted in the name of communal harmony), the Pakistani nationalist imperative did nevertheless come to the fore in Askari’s weighing up of the respective levels of violence in the two Punjabs, and his claim that East Punjab underwent worse massacres (p. 460). Ishtiaq Ahmad’s magisterial study Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed (New Delhi: Rupa, 2011) has disabused us of any illusions as regards the comparative extent of brutality on either side. Indeed, even the Muslim princely state of Malerkotla in East Punjab was not spared, as the borders of the state became killing fields even as people sought to find sanctuary there. While the task of the writer can never be the same as the literary critic or historian, what stands out about Manto’s work is the refusal to be drawn into the rhetoric of blame.
Fortunately for the reader, Menon does include translations of a fair number of Manto’s major Partition stories, such as ‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Khol Do’ (tr. ‘Open It!’), ‘Thanda Gosht’ (tr. ‘Frozen’), ‘Gurmukh Singh ki Vasihat’ (tr. ‘The Testament of Gurmukh Singh’), ‘Shahid Saz’(tr. ‘Martyr Maker’), ‘Yazid’ and ‘Sahae’. However, the absence of the entire ‘Siyah Hashye’ set of micro-fictions, as well as ‘Khuda ki Kasam’ (with its atypical rendition of an abducted woman’s situation) is notable. Manto’s fictive memoir ‘Savere Jo Kal Meri Aankh Khuli’ could have been translated afresh, given its importance in terms of depicting both the impact of Partition as well as its ironic look at the sense of triumphalism in the new Pakistan. Memon’s translations are accomplished as ever and will initiate fresh scholarly interest in Manto’s oeuvre. Old favourites such as ‘Kali Shalwar’ (tr. ‘The Black Shalwar’), ‘Mozel’, ‘Bu’ (tr. ‘Smell’) and ‘Babu Gopinath’ find a place along with somewhat lesser known stories like ‘My Name is Radha’, ‘Sharda’ and ‘Gilgit Khan’. However, while reading the translations of some stories one was reminded of Priyamvada Gopal’s observation that Manto’s oeuvre can be uneven and even simplistic at times (in “Bodies Inflicting Pain: Masculinity, Morality and Cultural Identity in Manto’s “Cold Meat”’, in Suvir Kaul edited The Partitions of Memory (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001, esp. 244–45). Manto himself does resort to sentimental stereotypes of femininity on occasion (think of Shahina, the vengeful wife in ‘Behind the Reed Stalks’ in this volume). At this time, with renewed interest in Manto in the domains of cinema and the stage, what is needed is further close and contextual readings of Manto’s narratives, with attention to influences such as Maupassant, Gorky and Gogol, besides Premchand and Ismat and later, the Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq group, to get a better sense of the emergence on the literary scene of Manto’s quirky sensibility and edgy take on interpersonal relations in a repressive society, as well as the openings and closures imposed by the disruption of his life and the world at large by Partition. This volume should prove a timely launch-pad.
Tarun K. Saint is an independent scholar. He is the author of Witnessing Partition (2010). He edited Bruised Memories: Communal Violence and the Writer (2002) and co-edited (with Ravikant) Translating Partition (2001). Looking Back: India’s Partition, 70 Years On (co-edited with Rakhshanda Jalil and Debjani Sengupta) appeared in August 2017.