The Meaning of Manto

The Meaning of Manto
May 11 was the birth anniversary of Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the famed literary figures of the subcontinent. We reproduce an article first printed on his centenary, in 2012
By Najeeb Mubarki
Why is it necessary to remember Saadat Hasan Manto? As his centenary is being celebrated both in India and Pakistan, the air thick with laudatory adjectives, there is a danger of losing perspective, of not realising in full measure what Manto ‘means’. It is just too easy and obvious, for example, to cast him as the chronicler of the pain of Partition or representing him as an alcoholic mascot of some sort of imagined south Asian bonhomie.
Manto would, in all likelihood, have actually turned his scathing, slashing pen towards many of those very Indians and Pakistanis celebrating him. And he would have done so to expose the hypocrisy of these sections who forget, condone or even surreptitiously support the violence inflicted on other sections in the subcontinent — be it the people living on the margins, the poor, the tribals, or those living in Kashmir, the North-East or Baluchistan. One can always quibble about literary worth and greatness. Even question the very notion of those categories. But one can, even if for the sake of argument, say that Manto was not a great writer — if one were to employ a certain , contested, definition of ‘intellectual literariness’ .
Manto was a stunningly powerful writer. But, what he wrote about was powerful enough by itself. Then again, Manto is powerful because he stared into the abyss, and reported it in bare terms. Manto ‘means’ that violence. By temperament, perhaps even political conviction, one can call Manto a secular humanist. The interesting thing to imagine would be Manto if Partition hadn’t happened. If it hadn’t, left to himself as it were, Manto could possibly have been more like someone often compared to him: Malayalam’s literary ‘sultan’ Vaikom Muhammad Basheer.
Stylistically, the similarities are clear: a lack of flourishes, almost a narrative-journalism style and tenor while being impressionistic, the understatement, the sense of irony, quietly adding up to the ‘big’ realisations and insights, if one can call them that, about life, about desires and disappointments, beauty and baseness, about humanity. Basheer, of course, had a bigger range. But then, he wasn’t circumscribed by the sheer shock of the kind of violence Manto witnessed. As has been noted by some, if one were to think in terms of rasas, what also is shared between Basheer and Manto is that the dominant rasa is ‘karuna’ — mercy , and the sense of consequent empathy.
 What distinguishes Manto is that he retained that mercy, that empathy, even while writing about the horrors and bestiality he saw and wrote of. Again, if Partition hadn’t happened, perhaps Manto would have further developed his sense of the macabre. By that I mean his faint Marquis de Sadeanism. So, sans Partition, Manto would probably have gone on, in the larger context, stripping bare layers of elitism and hypocrisy, writing about the marginalised, the subcontinental life of small towns and mofussil denizens, the interstices of cities where the poor live and work. He would have captured, in moments, their lives, fears, loves and desires as mirrors of wider humanity, but yet, with his penchant for turning over love on to its smelly underbelly, his fascination for probing the disgust that lies in a corner of desire — the smelly, hairy armpit of the longed-for woman; the rotten gums of a girl revealed when she finally is alone with her lover and speaks for the first time. There is, of course, slight (Sadean) violence in this. And that makes us turn to Partition again. It becomes a sort of circle, where it is tough to establish whether that Sadean Manto came first or the Partition Manto, or how both in some ways dovetail. What Manto does when writing about that violence is write about what happens to humanity, human beings and their bodies and minds when violence happens. When the bestial in us comes out. And the degradation this entails, both for the victim and the perpetrator. He speaks of how, despite savagery, human-ness can reassert itself, but while it does so, it also redoubles the sense of insanity, the sheer unnaturalness of that violence taking place, having occurred.
 Manto’s style, the understatement, can be better understood if one remembers what WG Sebald, the German writer, said in an essay on another writer, Jean Emery, who wrote of his torture by the Nazis. Sebald says this is a moment when language begins to comprehend, is aware of, the limits of what it can say. How, exactly, can you convey torture and horror? How can a reader, far removed, understand what it means? This is when language tightens, restrains itself. And Manto is sparse, the tone level, the details precise as he relates horrors. Manto means remembering that violence and its presence in south Asia. Manto is important because we live in nation-states steeped in that violence, where lives of many people are, literally, governed by violence. Not for incomprehensible reasons, for example, did a writer comparable to Manto arise in Kashmir. The short story writer Akhtar Mohiudeen, though unknown outside Kashmir, is shockingly resonant of Manto when he writes of what happened in Kashmir post-1989. Both aren’t just observers of violence, but fundamentally a human scream against the normalisation, even trivialisation, of violence.
—Courtesy: The Economic Times

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