By Syed Nomanul Haq
Speaking about Manto’s poetics might seem like an odd undertaking, perhaps even bizarre. Manto was a fiction writer and he wrote not poetry but prose, it would be pointed out, and claimed with the uncompromising certainty of a fact. Indeed, this claim cannot be challenged, at least insofar as conventional understanding is our adjudicator. And yet, behind this claim is a presupposition, a presupposition that must remain tentative at best.
What is happening here is that an analytical distinction, highly serviceable though it is for our understanding of literature, is being taken as objective reality. Analytical distinctions separating one literary genre from another are contrivances, manufactured by us for our conceptual convenience, and are therefore conventional; they are not meant to be objectively fixed. Truth to tell, a general malady in our literary criticism is this very tendency to presuppose that conventions lie in the essence of literature — something tentative is considered to be forever stable, carved in stone. What is happening here, then, is that something that must remain provisional is given an ontological reality of metaphysical permanence, if I may be allowed to use two heavy words here.
But back to our Sa‘adat Hasan Manto. This powerful and brave craftsman of the highest order constitutes a glaring and glowing case in point. The unfortunate thing is that critics have generally surrendered the responsibility of looking closely at Manto’s art almost totally to social, political, and ideological evaluations. That he spoke “the truth”; that he wrote about social issues as they “really” happened to be; that he abhorred communal extremism; that he depicted what he had “actually” observed; that there was a yawning ideological gulf between him and the Progressive Writers’ Movement — this is the kind of discourse we have been hearing, almost exclusively. Granted, some of this might well be correct, oversimplifications notwithstanding, but what about Manto’s art?
What about his use of language, his imagery, his allegories? What about the rhythms of his sentences? What about his figurative constructs? His masterfully crafted ambiguities? His playful dances with metaphors? What about the flights of his imagination at the beginning of a story and his uncertain landings? What about his characteristic narrative technique of making the tangible caught up in the snare of the intangible? Then, there is this fundamental question of art: What are the features of the universe Manto creates parallel to this given one, a parallel universe arising out of the concrete and bare reality around him, but transcending it, a universe with its own natural laws, its own grammar? When we begin to explore these questions, bypassing social commentaries, we see analytical boundaries breaking down. The distinction between the arts of prose and poetry now blur. And even the hermetically sealed genres of music, the visual arts, and literature leak into one another, feeding and nourishing one another.
It has often been observed that when telling a story about atrocities that are consciously wrought, exploitation that is deliberate, injustices done by choice, shady businesses carried out by pimps and loafers in dark urban streets, in none of this does Manto take sides. He would not sit in judgment, he would not establish some phony moral balance between two parties — for example, he was never heard saying that though a train arriving from Amritsar to Lahore following the fateful Indian partition in 1947 was drenched in human blood, a train going the other way too had turned into a blood pool. This kind of moral equivalence, this kind of balancing act, this declaration of “neutrality” is not Manto’s trade. And yet, this defining posture of his, a creative posture, is not explained. Was he cold and indifferent, and a mere chronicler, operating in an ethically hands-off manner?
But if Manto’s creative arena is our perspective, then the explanation is not too far to seek. This great writer is great inasmuch as he created a parallel universe, something Ghalib had so poignantly longed for. In this universe fashioned by him, he saw dimly lit humanity even in the characters that appear to us evil. He perceived glimmers of this humanity both in the oppressed and the oppressor, perceiving a distant flame of human frailties flickering both in the pimp who goes out selling in the streets the body of an exploited woman, and in that woman herself. The moral principles in this given everyday universe of ours hide underneath our prejudices and our ideological agendas. Manto created a pure universe on the other side of the horizon; in his universe ambiguities twinkle as virtuous stars — here there is no moral judgment of an Indian Congress or Muslim League kind; there is no Lahore or Amritsar here. There are only human beings. No, Manto does not depict reality; he abstracts from reality; he is not a mere reporter; he is a creator. His abode is not concrete social facts; rather, concrete social facts serve as his station of departure.
Ambiguity, as a technique, is generally associated with poetry, especially Urdu poetry. Manto in his prose has the habit of wandering in a thick forest of ambiguities, sometimes even diminishing in obscurities. His story “Kali Shalvar” (Black Shalvar) — one of those (in)famous ones produced as evidence against him during an obscenity trial — is a superb instance of ambiguities. This story revolves around four characters that are meshed together in a complex web of human relations. There is the prostitute Sultana; her simpleton husband, lorry driver-turned-photographer Khuda Bakhsh; Sultana’s “client,” street-smart Shankar; and making a brief but crucial appearance, the woman Mukhtar, Sultana’s friend-in-business. All of this is characteristically placed in the ethos of dislocations and migrations that marked the 1947 partition. The reader is utterly unable to know in the end who among these figures is evil and who is good; who is the victim and who the victimised; who is crafty and who is naïve. We are abandoned by Manto in the high-seas of imagination, speculation, and questions that pierce our hearts. And here there is no resolution: the narrative comes to a screeching halt, with Sultana and Mukhtar face-to face, each one having sneakily perceived the irony of being hit by the professional craftiness of the other — “Then, both of them had to remain silent for a while!”