Rushdie and Manto

One of the characters in Salman Rushdie's latest novel bears an uncanny resemblance to Manto, observes Momina Aijazuddin

Rushdie and Manto
Politics and Prose, one of the few bastions of independent book sellers left in the Washington DC area, is known for its book launches and events which always draw crowds. This month, it played host to the launch of Salman Rushdie’s new book Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights as well as Chelsea Clinton’s book signing.  Rushdie’s appearance was held in an iconic synagogue and drew a huge crowd.

Rushdie is a name we are familiar with of course, most notoriously through his novel Satanic Verses and the ensuing fatwa in 1989. Even though this was almost twenty-eight years ago, this episode still generates controversy even today. Iranis threatened to boycott the Frankfurt Literature Festival this month once they realized Rushdie would be a keynote opening speaker.
"He wished he had never become detached from the place he was born"

As children, he was a larger than life persona in our lives. Summers were often spent with my grandmother who used to take us for her nightly neighborhood walk around Defence in Karachi. Along the way, she would solemnly point out Rushdie’s mother’s house along the way and tell us of the powers of story-telling and his pen.  When reading his writing as an adult, I found it revealing that he always identified his city of birth as Mumbai, and not Karachi where his family had moved and lived. There lies the conundrum of being a Midnight’s Child.

It was this theme that Saadat Hasan Manto also explored in his writings: that of being born in one country, migrating to another and creating a world which was neither here nor there; a Toba Tek Singh of sorts.

Manto the movie was screened at an academic campus in DC this month. It  was done under the umbrella of the DC South Asian Film festival, a laudable group of mainly volunteers who had come together to showcase independent movies which would not otherwise be seen in mainstream America. Among other films, they screened Saari Raat by Aparna Sen, as her tribute to a Bengali playwright and Kadambari (about Tagore) which won the best film award during the festival.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

Manto the movie is about the life of Manto in his later years until his early death at age 42. It focuses on   his troubled life not only with peers and the writing fraternity but his family members who have to live with his moods, alcohol dependence and trysts with mental illness. The movie is harrowing in its depiction of alcoholism but also highlights how difficult it was for Manto to remain authentic to his inner voice and financially support his family through his struggles. Written by the prolific Shahid Nadeem, directed and acted by the Sarmad Khoosat, the movie had a packed house with one extra show added due to additional demand.

The screening in DC was followed by a conversation with Khoosat, the force behind Manto, who has managed to contemporize the writer and his story for modern day audiences. Khoosat communicated his vision very lucidly to the mixed audience, lapsing between English and Urdu to press his point and engaged in a lively dialogue. He explained that though he had done a lot of research, met with Manto’s family, but in the end tried to channel his own vision of the writer.

The dialogue with the audience showed how differently people can react to the same experience. One audience member, a young American woman, was so moved by the alcoholism that she had to run out of the theatre mid-way to stop crying and pull herself together before she could resume watching again.  Another Manto scholar was gratified that Manto’s life and poetry could come so vividly to life and celebrated that aspect.

Politics and Prose
Politics and Prose

I was moved not only by the graphic representation of the stories and writing, but also in the haunting and lyrical music which had its own story and was a who’s who of young modern Pakistani musicians and artists. The movie brought to life a celebrated author and scholar who is often known through books and studies rather than as a three-dimensional person. The fact that Khoosat has managed to bring this experience alive and resonate with younger audiences is no mean feat. As such he represents a voice of younger talent and creative thinkers in Pakistan, able to dabble in different mediums and languages and still remain confident in their own identities.

The movie deftly captured Manto as a person; be it the relationship he had with his three young daughters or with his friends and colleagues who realised his talent. His ever-patient wife is depicted as a saintly figure until finally, at her wits end, she sends him to confinement in the mental facility in Lahore, where he receives electric shock therapy. He is a charmer and this is evident with the exchanges with Noor Jehan whom he convinces to come and sing for his young nephew’s birthday party.

He lived life dangerously, without regard for censorship though in a politically charged atmosphere and fought for freedom of speech not only for himself but for his characters. At times; the movie is almost like a Pakistani drama. For Manto fans, Khoosat promised that the movie has been serialized into a 30 episode TV production which would do more justice to Manto and his writing. This will probably enable the audience to have a fuller picture of Manto’s writing and earlier life.

Manto is a testament to the vision of a young troubled writer, so moved by the world around him but battling demons that live within him. They fueled his creativity but also tortured him. His inner voice is interestingly a woman who encourages him to create even at times of adversity. His thoughts are depicted as conversation between the writer and this alter ego with the characters taking on vivid lives of their own. This makes it difficult to distinguish between what is real or make believe. Anglu kalbos kursai suaugusiems, įmonėms, vaikams, verslui Klaipėdoje, Vilniuje ir Kaune

Rushdie commented on something similar: that he got so emotionally involved in creating his fictional characters that he wept when they died. He added wryly that this surprised him even though it was his decision to kill them off in the first place.

Rushdie’s writing is his latest book Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is rooted in the realm of vivid story telling. The characters are based on the offspring of Dunia, a princess of the jinn who falls in love with a man Ibn Rushd – whose name apparently the Rushdie family adopted.  Together they produce a number of children, unaware of their magical powers, who spread across generations in the human world and are superheroes. Inspired by Genies and Djinns of 1001 Nights, this story combines stories of the East and West, but also characters that miraculously coexist in different centuries.

In one passage from the book, a gardener called Geronimo feels disconnected from his birth place in India which could well have applied to the Manto that one sees on screen. “He wished he had never become detached from the place he was born, wished his feet had remained planted on that beloved ground, wished he could have been happy all his life in those childhood streets, and grown into an old man there and known every paving stone, every betel-nut vendor’s story, every boy selling pirated novels at traffic lights.”

When seeing Manto through this movie one empathizes with his battles – that of taking on the establishment, creating stories that caused unrest and of doggedly listening to his own inner voice, despite others urging him to take the safer path. There was a darker side to his creativity; of the world that exists in his mind battling the world that exists outside. The same could be said for authors in this day and age.