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There are writers who run amok, and their stingy criticism is deployed to devastating effect which shames societal practices and exposes the dim realities of life we so much try to avoid. Manto is amongst those rare breeds of writers, whose stories evoke and stigmatize societal hypocrisies, lays bare the truth and makes it evidently difficult to absorb.

A column published in a leading weekly magazine in March, the writer said, “Exquisite short stories are mixed in with works that are at best hurried and slapdash, at worst incomprehensible.” He goes onto add, “Most of this is, no doubt, a result of the life that Manto lived: a life marred by poverty, alcoholism and mental illness.”

The columnist is a much-respected psychiatrist who has also done an exegesis on the famous Urdu short-story writer entitled “The Touch of Madness: Manto as a Psychiatric Case Study.” The writer seems to have stumbled upon Manto as an exhibit of mental psychosis and eccentricity for his research purposes and stamped his opinion about him being mentally ill.

He further stated: “In and of itself, this is of no moment. After all, an artiste is free to create and propagate his or her work any way he likes. But the continuing attention on Manto has had the result of perhaps diverting attention away from a number of other gifted writers some of whom were his contemporaries and some who came later. Writers like Upendranath Ashk, Krishan Chander and even the great Munshi Premchand. In addition, later writers like the exquisitely subdued Ghulam Abbas and Muhammad Hasan Askari have not received the kind of attention or accolades that have accrued to Manto.”

Interestingly, much to my consternation, a column about Manto and Faiz’s connection had an apparent disconnect to it, why would the contributor raise questions over his alcoholism and then express his apparent jealousy as to why he seems to be center of attraction and be so much in the mainstream? As per my observation, the interest Manto has garnered since his post-centenary celebrations is largely a consequence of his fanbase which has grown organically and keeps on increasing.

Is Manto to be blamed for the aforementioned literary luminaries not getting the accolades or attention reserved for Urdu’s greatest short story writer? Has anyone stopped people from exploring the writings of Krishan Chander, Munshi Premchand or Upendranath Ashk and researching about them? No one has cajoled people into reading Manto since his works aren’t for everyone to read, he is still ostracized by many and retains that aura of controversy that plagued him when he was alive and continues unabated to this day.

Manto’s repertoire and skills were unparalleled as a writer, his intellectual arrogance a well-known fact. He made more friends than enemies during his lifetime and never minced words. The spectre of Manto’s presence bears an overlying reality for his critics; they tend to fear him even six decades after his demise.

The movies made in Pakistan and India by Sarmad Khoosat and Nandita Das respectively were due to their love for Manto, the theatre plays, translations and other research are a consequence of his writings evoking the human sensibility. His popularity isn’t a result of marketing machinations or outpouring of investment but largely because of Manto’s loyal fanbase which has ensured that his legacy and works live on.

According to Mujahid Eshai, who has translated several works of Manto in two volumes published by Sang-e-Meel told, “The writer does not quote an example of such works. Again, no reference to any of Manto’s essays and Letters to Uncle Sam has been provided. The writer seems to have been impressed by Khoosat’s travesty of Manto’s life as reflected in the so-called biopic”.

Manto’s daughter Nuzhat Manto refuting his father was mentally ill-explained, “After his migration from Bombay (now Mumbai) in January 1948, the opportunities available for writers were limited. In the aftermath of partition, Lahore’s film industry was in shambles and had been ravaged by the exit of leading Hindu and other investors, which deprived many writers of earning a livelihood.”

She elaborated, “The conditions in a newly-formed state were minuscule, my father didn’t write for many months after his arrival which he mentioned in one of his write-ups. Also, his outright refusal to be associated with any movement, whether the progressive writers or others landed him in trouble with his fellow peers”.

“It is pertinent to note; my father wrote openly about his chronic alcoholism and his nephew’s sketch Uncle Manto shares the ignominy of those struggles and how it distressed the family. Court cases, his avenue to earn a livelihood shrunk as his peers boycotted him out of spite and growing societal opposition to those short stories on partition which drew the ire from all segments of society,” adds Ms. Nuzhat.

“To this day, the profound hatred continues. However, my father irrespective of all his flaws and intellectual arrogance, was not mentally ill. He himself requested his nephew Hamid Jalal to have him taken to the mental asylum for rehabilitation and get cured of his alcoholism,” she said.

Unfortunately, most of the focus on Manto has been surrounded around his penmanship of what transpired during partition were masterpieces. Ironically, his satirical pieces like Hindustan ko Leaderon Sai Bachao, Shaheed Saaz, Dekh Kabeera Roya, Upar Neechay aur Darmayan, Mootri, Mujhay Shakayat Hai, Letters to Uncle Sam and many other eminent works remain unexplored.

The writer has termed Manto’s stories at best ‘hurried and slapdash’. This is irreverently an indication that he hasn’t explored the iconic Urdu short story writer works in full and is at best a halfhearted attempt to malign Manto’s reputation. Irrespective, such efforts have not stopped people from reading his works or neither will it deter them now much to the dismay of his critics and those jealous of him.

In a session at the Lahore Literature Festival (LLF) in February, eminent historian and his niece Dr Ayesha Jalal said Manto was a social critic and a walking spectator to history. She stated the reason for Manto being a constant source of irritation was due to him writing about things which one isn’t “supposed to write or talk about”.

Manto remains a paradox sixty-four years after his death. Moral policing in a society polarized by opinions and influence will continue unabated and in case of Manto, such regressive measures will only elevate his status further considering that his works have reached as far as Croatia, in whose language his stories were translated in 2016.

“People call me black penned, but I don’t write on the blackboard with black chalk; I use white chalk so that the blackness of the board becomes even more evident,” said Manto in a lecture at Jogeshwari College, Bombay in the mid-1940s.

 

 

 

 

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