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Posted at: Sep 6, 2015, 12:35 AM; last updated: Sep 5, 2015, 11:11 PM (IST)

Manto’s undivided people & divided us

Like his immensely emotive symbol of Partition Toba Tek Singh, Saadat Hasan Manto could not divide his heart. The master storyteller’s soul belonged to Pakistan and India. He had no religion, he believed in humanity. And yet, almost seven decades after 1947, we continue to fall prey to the propaganda to divide us on religious lines
Manto’s undivided people & divided us
Hindustan had become free, Pakistan independent soon after its inception, but man was still a slave in both the countries — slave of prejudice, of religious fanaticism, slave of barbarity and inhumanity Saadat Hasan Manto. —Illustration: Sandeep Joshi

“Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing… under tonnes of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greatest short story writer; God or he.”

This is the epitaph he wrote to mark his grave on August 18, 1954, a few months away from his death. He was only 42 when he passed away in Lahore. He was a writer who could not be “divided”.  Intellectual partition is not something which happens to writers. It took 57 years after his death before Pakistan would confer Nishan-i-Imtiaz on the man it had chosen to forget. He was the undesirable progressive. His ideas would often embarrass the conservative government. A man who could weave a pattern of life with varied hues, the colours of human persona. Of evil and good. Satan and God existed side by side. Often mocking each other. Manto was way ahead of his times. 

He dared to write about the times he was living in, and they were not easy times in the history of the sub-continent. Too often he held the “mirror” to your face to see the real you. There were no layers to hide you from you. You stared back stark naked. Manto was an astute observer of the human condition. He knew better than any one that politicians were forever transacting business in which morality and ethics played a marginal role, if at all — not unlike the prostitutes he took to writing about, as a metaphor for the exchange of commodities in the bazaar.

The story of life begins from home, and Saadat’s home was our very own backyard, Samrala in Ludhiana district. That was in 1912. In a short span of two decades in his literary and journalistic career, he wrote 250 short stories, a large number of plays and essays but it is the stories he wrote pre and post-Partition that gave him the reputation of a “master” storyteller. He was one of the language’s great stylists. Manto was seven when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar. His poignant story It Happened in 1919 is based on this tragic event. Punjab and Amritsar, where he went to college, were in political turmoil. Rage and hope were interwoven and a nation of people was embroidering a path towards “swaraj”.

It is ironic that in times of extreme transition, great fiction and cinema are produced. History is replete with examples that mankind often looks back in retrospective mood on the profound portrayals of populace at those times. Charles Dickens was one such genius who wrote David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. He was writing about England in change and decadence at the same time. Manto, when he wrote Toba Tek Singh or Mozail, knitted the tragic but true nature of human emotions. The geographic boundaries were easily drawn, it seemed; all it took was a pen and a map and a Sir Cyril Radcliffe. 

A people who for centuries had lived together were divided on a map and the sectarian riots started. But Tek Singh could not divide his heart, his soul belonged to Pakistan and India.  He fell in the genre of undivided people. How could this simple Sikh decipher the intricacies of States? It was complex, too complex and only a master storyteller could write about the people of those times. Manto’s negative view of politicians who peddle religion for self-glorification drew on the philosophy of life that firmly rejected deception and hypocrisy. He wrote feelingly on the issue of ‘abducted’ women and their rehabilitation. ‘When I think of the recovered women, I think of only their bloated bellies — what will happen to those bellies?’ he mused. ‘Would the children of their misery belong to Pakistan or Hindustan? And who would compensate these women for their nine-month burden, Pakistan or Hindustan?’

Blending hard facts with the shards of realistic fiction, Manto was able to document the multifaceted nature of human suffering at the time of Partition that had eluded professional historians. That is the methodological limitation of their craft. So, was Manto a better historian then?  After all, a historian is confidently endowed with the professional ability to record and narrate the past in a way that stands the test of time. And was Manto aware of his role as a witness and maker of history? He crafted stories that gave more immediate and penetrating accounts of those troubled and troubling times than most journalistic accounts of Partition. He excelled in capturing the human dimensions of a nation being butchered in the name of religion.  If you killed a Muslim or a Hindu or a Sikh in the name of religion and nationhood, for Manto you were a “murderer”, not a “hero”. Not many know that in his house in Amritsar, a bust of Bhagat Singh adorned the fireplace mantle.

Manto had a reputation of becoming bolder as a story writer as his career advanced, but prejudices caught up and he was tried on an obscenity charge for his story Colder Than Ice. In all, he was tried six times for his stories which were considered ‘obscene’ by the State. The governments on both sides have the same myopic vision. And governments are never considered progressive anyway. They have a history of persecuting writers and artists. Manto had no religion, it was only humanity for him. It did not matter which god you prayed to, you were a human being for him first and last. His philosophy is apt today also as after 68 years, we continue to fall prey to the propaganda to divide us on religious lines.  

For 12 years Manto lived in Bombay, where he wrote Mozail, the story of a Jewish girl Tarlochan Singh fell in love with. That Bombay, now Mumbai, has disowned his genius. And not just Bombay, even Punjab, the land of his birth and formative years, has forgotten Manto today. He was not a Muslim, Sikh or a Hindu, Saadat Hasan Manto was Toba Tek Singh who could never understand the division of people.  

Ironically, his family, afraid of the conservative mindset, changed the epitaph he wanted. They chose a milder couplet written by Ghalib:

“Dear God, why does time erase my name from the tablet of the living? I am after all not one of those words that is mistakenly calligraphed twice, and on detection removed.”  

The writer is an occasional contributor

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