Manto: The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living

Manto: The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living
Manto was a madman in the grip of the pen which he could not put down, which made all his demons come out. It is to his credit that he was living in a time and society which was less judgmental than the Indo-Pak reality of today, where his fanciful imagination could run riot and he could produce works as odious as Thanda-Gosht for which he was duly called to court. There, in Pakistan’s first court trial for obscenity, he was thoroughly denounced not only for using obscene expressions such as “choos choos kar sara seena thookon say lathairr diya” (he slathered her breasts with saliva) but for giving an utterly depraved background story for why Ishar Singh was rendered impotent.

He is the Kafka and Dostoevsky of Urdu literature who takes us into the deep recesses of our mind where devils reside, where irony is just given a hint of outrageousness, where there is love and tenderness so poignant but mixed with a bestiality equally depraved. In Toba Tek Singh, Manto comments on the absurdity of the Partition by talking about the plight of patients in mental asylums who too had to be shifted across borders – the Muslims to Pakistan and the Sikhs and Hindus to India of course. At that time, he was battling with his own psychiatric problems, and the story is an apt metaphor for him stuck in a no-man’s land, where he could not get India out of his head but could neither live in the country of his choosing: Pakistan. In stark contrast to the violence in Thanda-Gosht or the satire in Toba Tek Singh, in Kali Shalwar, we begin to find a hint of love aplomb in the otherwise dark world of Manto but here too the climax does not disappoint. Sultana is a struggling prostitute in a new city who is bewitched by the charming Shanker. Sultana does get her black trousers for Muharram but like in every other afsana of Manto, Shanker deceives not just Sultana but the reader.

Tolstoy did more justice to the Napoleonic campaign in Russia than did any historians past and present, because he captured the sentiments of the people at that time. Similarly, Manto was able to show Partition for what it was: a ghastly concurrence of bestiality and religious fervour. Khol Dou is perhaps the saddest tale of the horrors witnessed by the survivors of the ghastly Partition and a nauseating take on humanity, where the supposed saviours become the perpetrators in deflowering the outlandishly pretty seventeen-year-old with the “mole on her left cheek”. The father is happy because he finds his daughter alive. The saviours saved her from dying. In Aakhri Salute, Subedar Rab Nawaz is left bewildered because “dushman sei (jab) saamna hota, toh jaani pehchani soortein nazar aatein” (when he faced the enemy, he would see familiar faces). At the end of the story, the Pakistani Subedar manages to inadvertently kill the Indian Subedar Ram Singh with whom he grew up, went to the same school with and served in the Great War together. Manto is either taking us on a ride of pathos or maybe lamenting the futility of Partition and the resulting war over a strange land: Kashmir.

Amongst the uninitiated, there is a common misunderstanding that Manto’s short stories are a form of erotica - especially in a culture as religiously myopic as Pakistan. Feminists on the other hand accuse him of demeaning women, as if his shedding light on the 'ignoble' and the outcasts of society is a disservice to them. There is no doubt that he had a fascination with women, but his subjects of study should not be derided. There were and still are many other little girls who are forced into professions not of their own choosing as Sarita is in Das Rupaye, yet make the best of it. Should they not even be acknowledged? As Manto himself said, “Mein society ki choli kya utaaron ga jo hai hi nang [i…] mein issei kaprei pehnanei ki koshish bhi nahi kerta iss liye ke ye mera kaam nahi, darziyon ka hai…” (How can I remove the blouse or clothes of a society which is already naked […] I would also not try to clothe that society because it is not my job but that of tailors…)

While Saadat Hasan Manto is infamous for being an “Afsaana Nigaar,” what people do not know is that he had a deep understanding of international politics and his unpublished “Letters to Uncle Sam” are filled with a particular mixture of wisdom and satire. Saadat Hasan probably had a foreboding of what the new Pakistani state was going to morph into. His first letter is a diatribe on his own poverty and the poor economic situation of the newly created state, but with Packards and Buicks roaming the streets while the common man could not find enough to feed himself, which is not much different to the Pakistan of today. In his later letters, he suggests that the only way for the Americans to defeat the Communists was by arming Mullahs with American-made weapons - which is exactly what they did, albeit 30 years later in the Afghan Jihad.

From time immemorial, society has always railed against those who think differently. It is not a problem particular to Pakistan or to Islam but is universally applicable to wherever humans live together. There is a tendency to see the other or the more creative amongst us as suspicious because that is what ensured our survival as a species and now, we have evolved to believe that the majority is always the authority yet the part of us which is civilized does not wish to outright attack the other but merely shun them. The problem arises when the other becomes too influential, when their ideas and works gain popularity. Two millennia ago, Socrates was killed by the city state of Athens in a sham trial for corrupting the youth where he uttered his famous dictum, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Critics, those of the less intelligent ilk, often wonder why Manto wrote what he wrote. Socrates answers them perfectly.