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Uncle Saadat and the Great Manto

by Michael K. Iwoleit

In his moving memoir „Uncle Manto“ Hamid Jalal draws a distinctive line between the private man he knew and the public figure Manto.

Manto – that was one of the most famous and most controversial of modern Urdu writers, six times accused of obscenity before and after the partition of India; in the early stages of his career best known as a reliable screen writer and film critic with a surprisingly pragmatic approach to the glamor world of Bollywood; a fiercely productive professional who could work almost everywhere and hack out a new story stante pede if required to earn a quick buck; an incorruptible observer whose respect-less portraits of politicians, musicians or actors are as full of admiration for their accomplishments as they are scathing about their human flaws; a kind of diva among the Indian men of letters, a man of refined tastes and unpredictable outbursts of arrogance, sometimes embarrassingly vain with regard to his own work and jealous of the success of others, more often than not a pain in the ass for even his closest friends; a humorist unforgotten for his „Letters to Uncle Sam“ with their iconoclastic view of US American politics; and most of all: a writer who came very close to achieving his goal of being remembered as the greatest short story writer in history; a story teller whose merits include much more than the blunt cruelty and absurdity of his partition stories and sketches that became kind of his trademark (the best-known of these, „Toba Tek Singh“, may be the most-reprinted short story in Indian/Pakistani literature). For fear of religious outrage his family refused to put an epitaph on his gravestone that Manto had written himself: „Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and the mysteries of short-story writing… Under tons of earth he lies, wondering who of the two is the greater short-story writer, God or he.“ It may sound megalomaniac but there’s some truth in it. Not since Maupassant has there been a writer who could accomplish so much with such a clear and concise prose (a style living on today in the Indian short story anthologies edited by writer and scholar Khushwant Singh). He was a master of form, precision and sketching characters in a way few writers manage in whole novels. Presuming a stricter definition of short stories (let’s say stories of less than ten printed pages or 3.000 words), at least a dozen of his tales are among the best ever written. His work may be South Asia’s greatest contribution to the art of short fiction so far.

Manto the writer as seen by the public was an artificial figure, created and staged by himself. The private Saadat Hasan, however, was an altogether different person: a loving family man and a deeply troubled human being, always agile, restless and never really satisfied with anything, least of all with himself and his writing; a loyal friend and generous host of his fellows but also an imperious and selfish man, fair and square to a degree that he used to speak out what he regarded as the truth without much consideration of the consequences, with a tendency to take up controversial positions just for the sake of being on his own and feeling superior; a neat and tidy man who loved his home and workplace clean and in perfect order; an almost aristocratic character who expected a sense of style and etiquette from his fellows but nonetheless frequented red-light districts and felt best among whores and dropouts; a man who, by Indian standards, earned a fortune during his film years in Bombay but didn’t provide for the future, always living for the moment and not much interested in what was and what will be; a man who finally fell victim to an inner demon when after India’s partition he never found his place in Pakistan’s society and felt as alienated from his surroundings as he has been alienated from his family in earlier decades, thus missing the strength to decisively fight his alcoholism. It’s known that there’s a long sad history of unlucky musicians from Mozart up to Jimmy Hendrix and Jaco Pastorius who changed the course of music forever but died young, making their achievements even more impressive. Few know that there is a similar line of genius short story writers who peaked in their art as much as they failed in life, among them O. Henry, Fitzgerald, Ryunosuke Akutagawa or Sait Faik. Monto, too, was in the end a miserable figure who knew he was about to drink himself into an early grave but couldn’t stop himself from destroying his family, his prosperity, his career and, ultimately, his life. He died in early 1955 with just 43, beyond the zenith of his art at an age when many other writers just start to reach maturity.

By today’s standards some of his most notorious stories such as „A Wet Afternoon“ or „Odour“ are rather modest with their suggestions of budding sensuality and sexuality. Others such as „Colder Than Ice“ and „The Return“, that depict sexual violence as a symptom of the dehumanization during India’s partition, can hardly be accused of arousing the reader’s voyeurism. I may be mistaken but I suspect a deeper reason for the controversies around his work in stories such as „The Gift“, also among those Manto had to face prosecution for. It is in the shape of the unlucky but pragmatic Sultana that Monto’s readers first meet a type of character that clearly has his sympathies: the steadfast, honorable whore. In „A Woman’s Life“ the docile whore Saughandi, despite being habitually deceived by her lover, still proves capable of defending her honor and dignity. The whore in “The Room with the Bright Light” rejects the main character’s courtesy. Despite her grim situation she doesn’t accept money that she hasn’t earned. In „Siraj“ the stubborn young whore who Manto (a frequent protagonist in his own stories) wants to engage in a red-light district in Bombay, turns out to be a strong woman who takes revenge in her own way. For the Nautch dancer in „The Girl from Delhi“ the red-light district of Delhi is a rather safe and stable place compared with the marriage hell she is planed to be sold into. In „It Happened in 1919“, finally, whole India seems to be represented by two proud defiant sisters who are misused as whores for the British rulers.

In Manto’s stories true morality is rather encountered in the substrata of society than in upper-class families and marriages. One of the most interesting characters in his short fiction, “Babu Gopi Nath” in the story of the same title, lives according to a very personal moral code: He knows that he is exploited by the people in his surrounding but he doesn’t take it personal. Although he’s aware that their relationship is solely based on money, he feels a strange responsibility for his lover Zeenat. The mysterious underground king Mammad Bhai in “A Question of Honour” shows more character and sense of honor that most law-abiding citizens. As a kind of bawd the heroine of „Mummy“, maybe Manto’s best fictional account of the film people, is an outsider of society but nevertheless a role model of gallantry and loyalty. Whenever his stories turn towards seemingly normal and decent people, Manto’s readers meet an altogether different breed of characters: religious bigots as in “A Man of God”, sexual bigots as in “An Old-fashioned Man”, “Khushia” or “Harnam Kaur” and, not least, married couples whose love has turned into cynicism and pointless quarreling as in “Green Sandals”, “Night Whispers” and, especially effective, in „Sonoral“, one of Manto’s best stories.

A whole book could be written about Manto and the women. As few other male writers he wrote against the exploitation and abuse of females. In „The Wild Cactus“ the naive but inexperienced Nawab is sold by her own mother and actually eaten up at the end. In “The Woman in the Red Raincoat” a famous artists whose paintings the main character copied in school falls prey to his male selfishness and cruelty. “By the Roadside” is a small masterpiece in this line of stories: the cyclically told story about a woman abandoned by her lover who leaves her newborn to die a the roadside is almost a prose-poem about the disturbed relations between men and women. Manto’s ideal, it seems, was the strong-willed, independent woman, sure of her strengths and sensuality, as depicted and varied in the many femme fatales of his short story work. In maybe the best of these stories, and one of Manto’s greatest at all, “A Woman for All Seasons”, his swansong of the illusory world of Bollywood, men find themselves victim of a cold and calculating woman. In one of his statements against obscenity charges Manto made a strong point against writing in service of the reader’s erotic desires but to the attentive reader this statement may seem a little dishonest. There’s a strong undercurrent of sensuality in his work, not just in his femme fatale tales but also in stories such as „The Blouse“ with their subtle evocation of desire and sexual attraction. Manto detested bluntness and vulgarity of any kind but the passionate man in him can easily be recognized.

Manto is best-known as the writer of Indian partition, an incomplete but well-deserved image. There was probably no other writer so obsessively concerned with India’s partition and its tragic human and political consequences. Let’s for once not talk about „Toba Tek Singh“ and the sad as well as hilarious exchange of lunatics between Indian and Pakistani mental hospitals. Many of Manto’s stories are about the absurdities that occurred during India’s partition, about former allies who suddenly find themselves fighting on different sides (“The Last Salute”, “The Dog of Titwal”), about small human tragedies during partition (“The Dutiful Daughter”) and about the deplorable state of India after gaining independence (“The New Constitution”). Manto’s about thirty sketches (or cameos, as they are sometimes called), ranging from sick jokes to full-fledged mini-stories, are masterpieces in the genre of microfiction that gained much popularity in the Internet in recent years, depicting cruelty and dehumanization during the partition riots often in less than five lines. It’s almost a sacrilege but I dare to claim that most of his partition stories that so much rely on provocation and shock effects are not among Manto’s best works and that he may be another case of a writer who became famous for the wrong reasons. His women-centered stories, I think, are much better.

Regarding the mode of writing, Manto mostly remains within the boundaries of down-to-earth, scene-driven story-telling, clearly influenced by his work for film and radio play, and in this he reached a level of distinctness and precision that can hardly be surpassed. In stories such as “Bribing the Almighty” and „The Wild Cactus“ he shows a certain tendency toward punchlines that are rather at odd with the story’s general tenor. In only a very few stories he abandons the realistic story-telling mode in favor of a more surreal and lyrical prose – e.g. “A Strange Tale” or “On the Balcony”, a recreation of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet – and here his writing can slip into the sugary and sententious. However, Manto wrote at least one masterpiece in the non-realistic mode, „The Angel“, a dreamlike, hallucinatory tour de force and another proof of his outstanding skills as a short story writer.

Even in the rich and diverse story telling traditions of the Indian subcontinent there has never been a writer quite like him again, a monument of modern world literature. As long as people write stories, Manto will be remembered one of the all-time greatest.

And one of the most tragic.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Michael K. Iwoleit


English translations:

Bitter Fruit. The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto, edited and translated by Khalid Hasan, Penguin Books, London 2008.

Selected Stories, translated from the Urdu and with an introduction by Khalid Hasan, Penguin Books, London 2007.

German translations:

Blinder Wahn, Bibliothek Indischer Erzähler 1, Lotos Verlag Roland Beer, Berlin 1997.