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Why Manto's stories ring true in India and Pakistan today

Nasreen Rehman, the translator behind ‘The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto: Volume 1’ talks about the three-volume project and Manto himself

Writer Saadat Hasan Manto (left) and his grave at Miani Saheb graveyard in Lahore.
Writer Saadat Hasan Manto (left) and his grave at Miani Saheb graveyard in Lahore. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Writing is my inheritance, Urdu writer Manto once said, and it is a statement that rings true in each of the 54 stories in The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto: Volume 1, translated by award-winning writer and translator Nasreen Rehman. The first of a three-volume series, published by Aleph Book Company, the stories are about his time in Bombay and Poona in colonial India, before Manto made his home in Pakistan post Independence. The anthology also includes two essays, My Marriage and My Sahib, distilling the “aura that Manto creates of a time, a place, and a moment.” Manto’s work lays bare much of the hypocrisy, which literary theorist Aijaz Ahmed described as ‘cultures of cruelty’, in South Asian milieus.

In an interview with Lounge, Nasreen Rehman, who was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and now divides her time between South Asia and the UK, talks about how she came to select stories for this volume, and Manto’s continuing relevance in present-day India and Pakistan. Edited excerpts:

You write in the introduction that “Manto’s world, including his humour and warmth, is dark and suffocating. The resonance with the present times is terrifying”. Could you elaborate?

Manto focused his lens on violence and sexuality. With his incisive vision and will to strip naked and expose the systemic hypocrisy in the world around him, including the colonial state, Indian nationalists, the bourgeoisie, and the family, he holds up a mirror to the grotesque communitarianism, the misogyny and entrenched patriarchy in the post-colonial, so-called free nation-states today. He remains a quixotic figure for me, particularly because he confronted violence yet dreamt of redemptive humanism.

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Manto cringed at violence against women and girls, and the sexual exploitation of women. As a child, he had witnessed the less than equal treatment of his mother, Bibi Jan, who was his father’s second wife. In a clan proud of its Saraswat Brahman roots, she was not a Kashmiri. He knew how his beloved sister, Bala Ji put up with a philandering spouse because she had no formal educational qualifications or a private income. Not unlike millions of women across South Asia and the world, she was a prisoner of systemic patriarchy.

Manto said, ‘If you find my stories unbearable, it means our times are unbearable’. Would you consider Manto’s writings on patriarchy, gender and sexual violence, prescient?

Manto witnessed how many women without education or property sold their bodies, often to support their families, or simply to stay alive. In many stories in this volume, such as Fobha Bhai, women ply the trade and send money for a child, or their family. In Hamid’s Baby, when Hamid finds out that Tara is pregnant, his only concern is that he might be the father of a child (and worse, a daughter) born to a harlot. He sees no irony in the situation, just fear of shame. The end of the story is a horrific repudiation of self-centred libidinal masculinities. Such concerns and contingencies have not changed for the majority of women in South Asia. We remain misogynistic societies with systemic discrimination against women. Communal interpretations of religious law continue to oil the wheels of violence and injustice against women and girls, and minorities, and those lower down the social caste or class hierarchies.

The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto: Volume 1: Bombay and Poona, translated by Nasreen Rehman, published by Aleph Book Co., 560 pages, Rs. 999
The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto: Volume 1: Bombay and Poona, translated by Nasreen Rehman, published by Aleph Book Co., 560 pages, Rs. 999

Merely a fortnight after the 75th anniversary of colonial India’s emergence as India and Pakistan, I read of the release of 11 men found guilty of the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her family. Why do you think there is no outrage?

I could not stop tears of anger and shame: Who are we? To what depths have we descended? As I tried to find answers, I went back to Khol Do. I recalled that there too, the men who raped Sakina were flag bearers of nationalism, their crime concealed, and their freedom assured by their allegiance to a flag and an ideology. It is the lightness of touch with which Manto inserts this fact into the story that is hair-raising. As Veena Das has written, this is about the descent of violence into the quotidian. It is a part of our everyday lives. This is that ‘blemished dawn’ (daagh daagh ujaala) that Faiz writes about in Freedom’s Dawn (Subh-i-Azaadi), which for too many Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, has turned into a nightmare.

Manto had a profound empathy for progressive ideas and admired Marx, but he was not a member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, arguably, the dominant Urdu literary movement of his time. Furthermore, the Progressives dismissed Manto as obscene. He writes about the ‘ungrievable’, all those who seem less deserving of sympathy or justice, because they are weaker or on the margins of society.

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Similarly, across the border in Pakistan, when the former Punjab governor Salman Taseer spoke up for Asia Bibi, a Christian accused of blasphemy, one of his bodyguards killed him. When the killer, Mumtaz Qadri appeared in court, a group of men showered him with rose petals. The courts, mercifully, found Qadri guilty: he faced capital punishment as per the law in Pakistan. But, why was there no tsunami of disgust when Asia Bibi was accused, or Taseer gunned down?

Identity politics and violence prompted Manto to leave India for Pakistan post Partition. What was his experience of living in Pakistan in his later years till his death, which also happened to be his most productive years as a writer? Did he regret leaving India?

Although Manto has written about his decision to leave for Pakistan, three stories in this volume, Mozelle, Ram Khelawan and Sahai, shed light on what he lived through. He is matter-of-fact about going to Pakistan—his near and dear ones were there, and Bombay was marred by communalism. He regretted the depravity of the human condition on both sides of the border.

Manto was not a nationalist, and he was most productive in Pakistan not because he was comfortable. On the contrary, he lived a tortured life, unable to earn enough to feed his wife and three daughters, and his dependence on alcohol escalated. In colonial India, his work for the cinema subsidised his literary output. In Pakistan, the old Lahori cinema had faded away, and a new Pakistani cinema had barely emerged. He had invested his money in a film called Beli, which bombed at the box-office and left him penniless.

He begged, he borrowed, and even stole from his wife’s housekeeping money. His family, ill-equipped to manage an alcoholic, admitted him three times to the local lunatic asylum (pagal khana). He wrote, wrote and he wrote – short stories, essays, sketches – he has said that writing was his inheritance, and it is what kept him alive.

Through his stories we are made aware of his concerns about the direction Pakistan was taking. His understanding of how past and present actions shape the future reveal his understanding of history. In Manto’s nine Letters to Uncle Sam, he outlines the future when as a frontline ally and a buffer against communism in the US-Afghan jihad against communism, Pakistan set out on the perilous road to several current woes.

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Manto missed Bombay and his friends, but he expressed no regret at leaving India. In an open letter to Nehru, he accuses India’s first Prime Minister of ‘occupying Junagarh illegally; and you attacked and invaded Hyderabad, and caused the blood of thousands of Muslims to flow. Haven’t you overdone things?’ He continues, ‘I have heard that you are stopping the waters of our rivers, and in an act of mimicry your publishers are pirating my books.’

Once again, it is important to reiterate that he did not think that all was well with Pakistan. After 75 years of independence, it is important to ask why in both countries Manto’s stories ring so true today.

Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist

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