• Manto in My Court

    Mehdi Ali Siddiqui

    September 24, 2018

    Image Courtesy: Amazon

    The year 1953 had just been rung in and I was busy with work. The court was teeming with people when my reader came up to me and said, ‘This gentleman here wants his case to be heard without delay.’

    I lifted my head and looked up. I saw a man of average height and good looks. He looked somewhat unwell but more than that, he appeared harassed. The top buttons of his sherwani were open and he had a scarf wrapped around his neck. Addressing me in a voice that seemed to be broken and trapped in his throat, he said, ‘I am Saadat Hasan Manto. I have come from Lahore. I am very ill. I confess to my crime. Kindly announce your judgment without any delay.’

    One other person stood right behind Manto, as though it was he who had taken him into custody. He was the guarantor or somebody deputed by the guarantor; he must have assured the guarantor that he would get Manto absolved of all charges and ensure his freedom.

    ‘Do please first take your seats,’ I said.

    ‘Ji,’ Manto responded.

    ‘Please do sit,’ I repeated.

    Manto looked distracted. He sat down on a bench behind the reader, looking preoccupied all the while. I picked up his file and started studying the case.

    Manto was charged with writing and publishing ‘Upar, Neeche aur Darmiyan’. I already had some knowledge about his case and had prepared myself for it.

    I had never been completely disconnected from literary activities but my knowledge of Urdu short stories was limited.

    I had decided to remedy this shortcoming and had therefore read a number of short stories in the preceding three or four months. I had read as many of Manto’s articles, stories and critical essays as I could lay my hands on. I had read them all with great care and attention. I had diligently avoided reading that story for which he had been charged, as well as all the criticism that had followed the story. I did this to keep myself free of any prejudice. After having learnt of his writing and, through it, his personality, you can well imagine what I felt when Manto confessed his crime to shield himself.

    I tried to look at Manto out of the corner of my eye but discovered that he had vanished from his seat.

    He had gone out to the verandah and was walking around restlessly.

    He soon walked in and said, ‘Close my case, now.’

    I said, ‘Very well… But do please be seated.’

    And I immediately started working on the legal formalities connected with the case.

    Manto continued sitting but looked very uncomfortable and kept shifting on the bench.

    I made an entry and wrote down his confession according to the rules. Everybody had anticipated that I would impose a hefty fine. When I did not do that, and instead told Manto, ‘Manto-saheb, I will give my verdict tomorrow,’ he looked very disappointed.

    Manto started insisting that the judgment be pronounced immediately. In his opinion, not doing so would imply an undermining of the importance of his confession as well as compromise the stature of the magistrate. I, however, wanted to read the story first and reflect on it. I wanted to closely scrutinize it to see if it ought to be considered obscene or not from the legal point of view. Believe me, sincerity and attention to detail play a very important role in dispensing justice. Inflexible personal opinion and a blind, unthinking implementation of rules and regulations go against the basic spirit of justice and fair play. Nonetheless, this timeless convention is repeatedly sacrificed when petitions are filed in court.

    Anyway, what eventually happened was that despite being reluctant to do so, Manto had no option but to wait.

    At the session the following day, I wrote down my opinion in brief. Just like the previous day, Manto was there with his companion and was impatient to hear my judgment.

    ‘Manto-saheb, how is your financial condition?’

    ‘Very bad.’

    ‘What is the date today?’

    Somebody else responded, ‘Twenty-fifth’.

    ‘Manto-saheb, your fine is twenty-five rupees…’

    To begin with, he did not grasp what I was saying and, turning to his friend, asked, ‘Is he asking for the date or announcing his judgment?’

    His guarantors were much more alert. They immediately went off to pay the fine and Manto started walking around in the verandah.

    After some time Manto and his friends came to my room once again.

    ‘Yes sir,’ I said, ‘what can I do for you?’

    Manto’s friend said, ‘We have come to invite you.’

    I immediately accepted their invitation. One finds no occasion for even a brief, formal exchange in the court. A casual discussion is of course out of question. Moreover, I too was keen to meet Manto informally because it was my firm belief that after Premchand, it was Manto who was the finest writer in Urdu.

    The following day, I went to Zelin Coffee House straight from office. The coffee house was chock-a-block with people. I stood near the steps and Manto and his friends soon arrived. Manto had been drinking but was in his full senses. He would sometimes pause during the conversation but the flow of the discussion remained unbroken. He sometimes addressed me directly and, at other times, he would turn to his friends and make critical comments about me. Nonetheless, every word he uttered was entirely sincere. There was no duplicity nor was there any hint of vacillation or confusion. All through the discussion, there was absolutely no attempt to impress or to create the notion of being impressed. There was no hesitation in criticizing the bad and commending the good.

    Manto had constructed a standard norm for assessing the good and the bad. The norm he had established was free from every constraint and convention and it did not change with society. In short, that was the day when, for the first time in my life, I came across an outstanding artist who was ruthlessly truthful, completely forthright and free of deceit. This image of Manto is intact in my mind even today and will remain so as long as I live.

    The discussion was long drawn out but extremely interesting.

    He asked me, ‘You don’t drink?’

    ‘No.’

    ‘Are you a mullah?’

    ‘No, I am a Muslim.’

    He started laughing. His friend ordered a coffee for me.

    I then discovered that these people had left an interesting discussion at a gathering to come and meet me at the coffee house. I apologized for the inconvenience and said, ‘Actually, I am the one who should have invited you because I am the local person…’

    Manto said, ‘You seem to be an immigrant.’

    ‘Still,’ I replied, ‘I am the one who lives in Karachi…’

    He then asked, ‘Why did you ask me to be seated during the session in the court? No other magistrate has ever treated me like this.’

    ‘I don’t consider discourtesy to be part of the protocol of court proceedings.’

    He immediately broke into a smile and said to his friend, ‘He seems to be a decent man.’

    After some time, he said, ‘I have not read your judgment. What have you written?’

    I handed a copy of the judgment to him. He read through it very attentively, then turned to his friends and said, ‘He is an educated man… Highly educated.’

    He spoke as though I did not exist.

    Then he turned to me and asked, ‘So then, how much have you studied?’

    I told him about my education and my degrees.

    He laughed again and said, ‘See, did I not tell you he is highly educated? And he writes English very well… Really well!’

    He then asked, ‘Ji, sir, why? Why did you punish me?’

    It was then that I realized that Manto was a true artist. He had absolutely no idea that he had created something which was considered obscene by some. All he had done was written a story.

    He told me that the story was based on a true incident. He also added that he had little control over the fact that the story was considered obscene since that is exactly what had happened in real life.

    ‘Even today,’ he said, ‘society itself is obscene. All I do is represent its essence. It is entirely understandable that people with ugly faces vent their anger at the mirror.’

    The fact is that he did not use even a single vulgar or obscene word during the entire conversation.

    I was totally unprepared and could not have responded to him with the same ardour and frankness. In an attempt to sidestep the issue I said, ‘Obscene words are not the only grounds.’

    ‘Is there any other option?’ Manto asked. ‘Should the truth be hidden? You punish me for telling the truth.’

    I did not consider it proper to give a direct and upfront response at that time but I do believe that there ought to be some difference between reality and its representation. If not, then the whole point of clothing our naked bodies becomes redundant. Why is it that people look for privacy for sex? Why are symbolism and connotation considered important attributes of literary aesthetics? A writer is a painter, not a photographer. Even photographers do not photograph the sexual act or the sexual parts of the body.

    I evaded the issue again. ‘I will discuss my reasons for punishing you some other time.’

    ‘Give me your word.’

    ‘I promise.’

    I could not fulfill my promise in Manto’s lifetime. I am doing that now.

    The intention of law is not to obstruct literature from fulfilling its objectives and expectations. Law only requires that these objectives be beneficial for human beings. If the sole purpose of writing is not to benefit humankind but only to titillate and sexually excite, and the vocabulary and content are such that they will entangle the weak-willed in the mesh of sexual gratification and degeneration, the law will brand such writing as obscene.

    There is mention of the sexual act and some of its other aspects in the story ‘Upar, Neeche aur Darmiyan’. It includes details about the differences that exist in the sexual act across different classes of society. In the opinion of the law, this subject is not beneficial for society, despite it being factually correct. Law also recognizes the fact that instead of appreciating the beauty and nuances of differences that creep into the sexual acts of people from different classes, the majority of people would distort it so such an extent that it would degenerate into mere sexual gratification.

    Surely one cannot find fault with this opinion, this apprehension of the law. It is possible; in fact I am certain, that writers will have serious differences of opinion with me on the issue. I can, however, not think of a better rationale for the legal yardstick to assess obscenity. Neither can I think of a better way to express the issue or to establish the relevance of this legal provision.

    The truth is that I used to consider ‘Upar, Neeche aur Darmiyan’ obscene even from the literary perspective but that was not the time to go into details.

    We sat there, in the coffee house, for a couple of hours. While it is true that Manto had made me promise something, it is also equally true that he too had made a promise to me. And like me, he did not find the time to fulfill that promise either.

    This was my first and last meeting with Manto. After that, I received two or three letters he wrote to me from Lahore. I tried my best to do whatever he had asked to be done. It is also important to state that none of his letters carried any request for himself. He was an ideal friend who valued and cherished his friends and his letters were mainly concerning them. The last letter he wrote to me was on 17 January 1955, a day before he passed away, and I received it the day after his death.

    However, it is something else that is a very loved and special symbol of my brief but completely sincere and genuine attachment with Manto. He had begun to write a series of articles under the title ‘Panchva Muqaddma’ (The Fifth Lawsuit), about the events leading up to the lawsuit in connection with ‘Upar, Neeche aur Darmiyan’ in the journal Naqoosh. The first article was the only one that was published. It deals with some of the events that occurred till he reached the court. I am not sure if he was able to complete the other articles in the series. I am, however, quite certain that had he written the second article, he would have expressed some opinion about me. I had read the first installment and was waiting for the next one. The wait just kept getting prolonged.

    It was around the end of 1954 that I found out that Manto had published a collection of short stories with the title Upar, Neeche aur Darmiyan. I was surprised as well as overjoyed when I was told that Manto had dedicated the collection to me. It is difficult to find more compelling evidence of the sincerity of his love and undemanding faith. I am more or less an obscure person and am pleased that my name will perhaps live on for some time in the world of literature.


     

    Mehdi Ali Siddiqui was a poet, author and judge. Some of his works include Qurbani, a translation of Charles Dickens' A tale of two cities and his autobiography - Bila kamo kaast . Siddiqui died in 2004.

    This is an extract from the book Manto Saheb: Friends and Enemies on the Great Maverick published by Speaking Tiger and is republished with permission from publishers.

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