January 22, 2020
On Saadat Hasan Manto’s death anniversary, Newsclick.in re-pubublished an article on the writer that reinforces his importance in turbulent times such as ours.
In today's world of uncertainty, violence, and fear, the story of India and Pakistan keeps us engaged. They are like old lovers quarrelling and loving. Whatever the level of hatred, in moments of peace, India and Pakistan have shared many memories, music, art and culture. We have fought wars and soon after talked about unifying our cricket teams. This ceaseless love-hate relationship gathers many a thoughts. At the present moment in history, it becomes important for us to see our story tellers as social theorists. Saadat Hasan Manto was one such writer.
Manto appeals to all of us, because his stories (especially on Partition of 1947) disenchant us with the apparent truths of our own times. Manto, to assert again, is especially relevant at the present moment in history because our society is plunged into sectarian and communal killings, against which Manto wrote vehemently. One idea that Manto tried to rescue and which we must rescue today was the idea of secularism. He saw secularism not as the patent of the state, but as work of a culture. The power of religion to pervade all categories was the reason that it was supposed to be kept away from politics. For India and Pakistan, this notion of secularism could never work. The need to go beyond secularism as a form of political correctness has to be explored.
One begins to question whether being religious prevents one from being secular. Bismillah Khan, the great musician, once said that he wanted his Shehnai to smell of Banaras. Why then, can't we have our secularism to touch upon our memories, our stories, our myths? Manto was writing these stories, trying to find the secular in the work of a culture. He goes beyond Gandhi's ethics, beyond Nehru's science and rationality, and beyond the mannerisms of Jinnah. Manto wrote history of the everyday in the extraordinary.
His Partition stories treat Partition as a human event, a psychological event and a continuous process, rather than an event in history or a political occurrence unified over and above personal experiences. Fischer had once said that in a decaying society, art, which is truthful, will also reflect decay. Manto's stories did the same. At one level these stories make one paralysed. For example, how is one to make sense of the lines "don’t kill my daughter in front of my eyes" from a story titled Riyayat. Alright, alright, peel off her clothes and shoo her aside.
Manto first expressed his shock regarding the violence that took place during Partition in some of his short stories in Siyah Hashiye or Black Margins. There are thirty two stories in this collection. As an introduction to this collection, Manto wrote:
"For a long time I refused to accept the consequences of the revolution, which was set off by the Partition of the country. I still feel the same way; but I suppose, in the end, I came to accept the nightmarish reality without self-pity or despair. In the process I tried to retrieve from this man-made sea of blood, pearls of rare hue, by writing about the single-minded dedication with which men had killed men, about the remorse felt by some of them, about the tears shed by murderers who could not understand why they still had some human feelings left. All this and more, I put in my book, Siyah Hashiye."
Partition lives on in the consciousness of people, across borders, in its division and contradiction. Manto's stories remind us that the humanity has been assaulted and violated; there are only victims whose trauma go beyond the physical pain and loss of life, but remain scarred both in mind and soul. Manto's stories have offered a different kind of language which goes beyond fixed categories of good and evil, victims and perpetrators, and a narrow minded focus on the insanity and barbarity of Partition. The human dimension of Partition which was lost in only capturing the political developments that led to Partition is noted by Manto in his stories. He has noted the human aspect dealing with loss and sharing, grief and joy, friendship and enmity. These stories provide insights into relationships between two communities, a struggle, a resistance coloured with trauma, violence, pain, and suffering. Two line vignettes in Manto's Siyah Hashiye speak of the kind of weariness that filled the air because of religious differences, where killings took place and people forcibly converted to other religions. A story called Determination reads, "Under no circumstances am I prepared to be converted to a Sikh. I want my razor back." Another powerful story, which also reminds one of Gujarat riots and callousness (or helplessness) of police, is Prior Arrangement, it reads:
"The first incident took place near the barricade. A constable was immediately posted there.
The very next day, another incident took place in front of the store. The constable was shifted to where the second incident had taken place.
The third incident happened near the laundry at midnight. When the inspector ordered the constable to move to the new place, he took a few minutes before making the request: "Please depute me to that spot where the next incident is going to take place."
Sometimes in Manto's stories when characters confront the ruthless violence and inhumanity, it seems that their only conceivable response is madness. His stories like Khuda ki Qasam depict that. Physically, Partition may have divided people, but psychologically India-Pakistan remained connected intimately. Manto's greatest story, as considered by many, Toba Tek Singh, uses madness in the story as a metaphor for sanity. Like other stories, this too renders pain and trauma of the experiences of the Partition with great sensitivity, it questions the wisdom of Partition and the madness it unleashed. Another story, Khol Do, records the cries of pain, vile sexuality, violation and pleas of mercy and also hope. Stories like Thanda Gosht and Mozelle address issues of rapes, mutilations and violations of body, they ridicule religion, and also discuss how even after disappearing in the depths of depravity some human aspect remains.
Manto has been considered a humanist and rightly so. Many of his stories find the concern for humanity at the centre and themes of friendship, hope and love emerge too. Manto's Ek Akhri Salute is about two friends Ram Singh and Rab Nawaz on the opposite sides of the border who suddenly meet in the middle of the battle. They are delighted to listen to each other’s voices. They had grown up together and their fathers were childhood friends too. Ram Singh gets up to show himself to Rab Nawaz from the across the border, Rab Nawaz shoots in that direction for fun and realises that he has actually shot his friend. Upon seeing blood on his friend, he feels as though he had been shot. In that dire situation, Ram Singh asks, ‘do you really need Kashmir?’ To which Rab Nawaz replies, ‘Yes’. Rab Nawaz sits next to him till his last breath. Throughout the story these two friends are calling out to each other by shouting across the dividing line, recalling old times, cracking jokes, but their reunion ends in tragedy. It shows the dilemmas of pre-Partition friends having become enemies post-Partition, because a line was drawn. It also shows how people remained friends despite the animosity between countries growing. Manto recognises the Kashmir conflict and with the growing worsening situation of Kashmir one only sees blood and tears in the valley, no humanity; and hence the need for us to reflect.
Swaraj Ke Liye is another story where the scene is set in post Jalianwala Bagh Amritsar which is highly charged with political activity. When Ghulam Ali becomes the leader of the local branch of the Congress party, he gets drunk on patriotism and becomes a sort of dictator (does that remind us of groups high on nationalism today?). When he gets married, he is asked not to have sex until India gains independence. After eight months of repressing his sexual urges he returns to normal married life and has children. Manto blends politics and sex, questioning the validity of the two institutions marriage and nationalism or patriotism, which becomes useless when they curb peoples natural impulses.
Manto’s stories relate not just loss of moral senses, of life, of home, of tradition, of integrated community but place us in the midst of a depraved, absurd universe. One cannot help but ask, will I be courageous enough to be essentially human to bring down the senselessness and brutality of violence? The full value of Manto's humanism and secularism would only be realized when the white chalk with which he wrote on the blackboard to enhance its blackness becomes a catalyst for reassessing our selves across borders, in different territories and write a new narrative of shared history, culture, pain, fear, love and hope in our various spaces hope that will avenge itself on history.
First published in Newsclick.
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