Life on the edge: Manto in these turbulent times

As we human beings essentially need air, water and food to survive, a writer’s essential food is writing and free expression. It keeps him intellectually alive and kicking. However, the prevailing scenario in India is not conducive to free thinkers.

Of late, many nefarious episodes of quelling the voices of intrepid authors have disenchanted discerning citizens. India is thus no more a land habitable for iconoclasts, mavericks, renegades and rebels like Saadat Hasan Manto.

If Manto had been alive and writing in his characteristic acerbic style, it is most likely that he would have been lynched for unmasking the truths casting aspersions on the establishment.

Time testifies that in the last one decade many free spirited intellectuals like M. M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh have been slaughtered for airing their radical and soul stirring ideas.

Manto was revolution personified. Born with fiery spirit he left no opportunity to expose the sordid underbelly of the crumbling socio political structure of his times.

He was the most eloquent and shrill voice of the socio literary feminist movement in the sub continent. Manto indubitably holds the fort of feminism with his gut wrenching stories like Thanda Gosht and Kali Salwar.

The way he depicts the savagery of monster men with morbid psyche certainly gives cold shivers down the spine. Many of his stories are centered around the women involved in flesh trade.

Unlike many prudish moralists, Manto does not view prostitution as one of the cardinal sins. According to him, prostitution is in a way indispensable. Throughout the ages, a prostitute has been considered the most shameful of creatures.

But have we ever spared a thought to the fact that it is this same degraded individual whose doors many a man often knocks at. Don’t we ever think that this makes us equally shameful creatures? He once quoted Rashid Jahan:

Jo jismfaroshi ko gunaah kahte hain

Raat andhi galiyon mein panaah lete hain

(Those who condemn flesh-trading as a sin/Often the same guys visit those alleys surreptitiously at night.)

No one could ever succeed in muzzling the voice of Manto. Society had developed a two-fold relationship with him. He had a large number of fans and friends on the one hand and on the other, there were many people who lived under the fear of Manto mania and thus antagonised him.

Now comes Manto's craftsmanship and his relevance in today's context when we are standing at the crossroads of baffling pathways leading to a state of incertitude.

Like all great writers, Manto's works have an everlasting appeal and his concerns are germane to all ages. “A writer should always be judged through the overlapping ages,” observed Maxwell Triance.

From that perspective, Manto's works can be judged through all ages and readers of all hues will find echoes of empathy in his heart piercing stories. His stories like Tamasha and Toba Tek Singh hold a crystal clear mirror to society and its ills, idiosyncrasies and intricacies.

Manto was a nominal Muslim. In fact, his contemporary poet and friend Ali Sardar Jafri was of the view that Manto was an atheist. Could be. He was certainly an unconventional Muslim who detested the trappings of the faith he was 'accidentally' born into.

In one of his letters to Sahir Ludhianavi, Manto called himself a humanist or ek aisa insaan jiska dil mara nahin (an individual whose heart is still alive).

This humanistic attitude and approach to life and fellow humans made him write stories that are palpably poignant and seem to be directly speaking to the readers in their own day to day language.

This 'creative literal familiarity' makes him stand out among his coevals. Manto didn't balk or flinch when it came to speaking out the bitter truth. He was like: Main jhooth ke maahaul mein sach bol raha hoon/ Duniya se kahi sar mera neze pe uchhale (I proclaim the truth without fear/ Impale my head on your spear).

His creative sensitivity was at its sharpest when his protagonists had to face the hypocrisy of our Janus-faced society and its thekedar (custodians and contractors).

Nothing could unnerve him. In other words, he was unflappable. Manto needed good translators to translate his stories into English, retaining the pain and angst of the original stories in Urdu.

Somewhere, I feel that he has not been truthfully translated into English. Manto is all the more relevant in these precarious times when mankind is at the edge of the precipice.

Manto passed away on January 18, 1955