Saadat Hasan Manto, the iconic figure of Urdu fiction, has had a strange fate: being either idolised or roughed up by his critics. His detractors have found him guilty of pornography. Despite having radically different takes on his fictional corpus, the majority of his lovers and haters share at least one common trait: their critical discourse — if that’s what it is — has little to do with the nature of fiction and, by extension, Manto’s fiction. They have either commended or condemned him for his use of certain societal and political issues, assuming that the use of such issues defines a writer’s calling, namely exposing society’s ills. For them, fiction is merely a convenient peg on which to hang a whole agenda of social amelioration, very much in the vein of Munshi Premchand, who unabashedly used fiction as a tool to reform society. For an astute reader such issues are, by and large, irrelevant to the fictional art.
As a preamble, what, exactly, is Manto’s appeal? At some subliminal level of cognition, his fiction coincides with our innate, if not our empirical sense of truth — a truth that exists in a parallel universe of refined emotion and sublime expectation. If fiction is moral, it is precisely in this sense, in its very human pursuit of what does not exist, but in some inexplicable way is infinitely better, and necessarily so. In other words, it is an evocation of the absent, of what should have been, from the depths of yearning. But fiction is not moral in the conventional sense of the word, or rather it is indifferent to this conventional sense.
This is what characterises the outer perimeter of good fiction and what good writers strive to achieve. “Strive to achieve” might suggest conscious effort and design and, therefore, a dichotomy between self and other. But writers strive because striving is inherent in their nature, is part of who they are. Even unconsciously they would not act any differently. In this sense, one absolutely cannot tame a writer. He may live in a society, yet stand outside of it, in violation of its norms and values, because they don’t jibe with his notion of reality. He will behave in unpredictable ways, ready to surprise you, but even more to surprise himself, by becoming conscious, with wonder in his eyes, of what was always inherent in him, or even to articulate that which he knows only vaguely.
As for intractability, a scene from Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting comes to mind. The coffin has been lowered into the pit for burial, the mourners stand around the freshly dug grave in a semicircle, the orator is only halfway through intoning his eulogy for the dearly departed when a “neurotic gust of wind” lifts the hat off of Papa Clevis’s head and drops it at the edge of the grave. Eventually it will tumble into the grave, but, for now, Clevis, hesitating between should he or shouldn’t he pick it up, lets his gaze crawl along the erratic course of the bobbing hat. The attention of everyone among the small band of mourners has wavered. No one is listening to the eulogy anymore; instead their eyes are riveted on the comic drama unfolding before them. The funeral loses its meaning and laughter is born.
Such utter disregard for decorum, such hilarity at the most solemn moment of grief and loss — only a writer thinks about such contrary situations because he is not beholden to the rules of conventional decorum. He cannot be held hostage to the tyranny of conventional attitudes. Such playfully discordant details often occur in Manto’s fiction as well. They do not in any way confer greater density and weight to the main story, nor otherwise seem indispensable, but they do reaffirm our belief in the autonomy of the writer and his penchant to see the comic in a very solemn moment.
Mere human aspiration and striving for something that exists “beyond the sphere of our sorrow” does not by itself guarantee a work’s success. Art enters while translating the aspiration, however unconscious, into a sellable — or, at least, plausible — commodity in a very conscious world where the foot is firmly dug into the ground and the head is screwed on in its right place. In doing so, it gives the reader an intimation of the possibility of an existence beyond the empirical world.
This perspective argues vigorously against any reduction of the imaginative world of the writer to a handful of societal or political issues. Lamentably, too often Manto has been drafted into the service of one such issue or another. The greater part of the critical commentary on his writing has unwaveringly focused on prostitutes (a social phenomenon) and Partition (a political event).
Of course the remnants of the Progressives and a fair bunch of those too eager to deny fiction its radical autonomy would likely rush to declare — teary-eyed, I might add — “Hatak” (The Insult) as yet another story about the degradation of women. They would go for the nearest baton, if a cleaver could not be found, to bash the head of a society intent on sending its womenfolk to eke out a living by selling their charms and the physical repository of those charms. They would not fail to stick a feather in Manto’s cap for exposing this crass injustice. And they would also dig up a motive for his doing this: infinite compassion for the downtrodden, disenfranchised female of the South Asian subcontinent.
To speculate on why a woman chooses to sell her body is the business of sociologists, to judge the morality of such a choice is the business of the custodians of morality. Is it also the business of fiction? Was it Manto’s business? No, the business of fiction is to see what she makes of this life, independently of the circumstances that brought her to this choice.