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The portable Manto

August 09, 2013

Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star
Photo by Arif Mahmood/White Star

More than 60 years after the riot-torn independence of the new state of Pakistan and following the centenary celebrations marking his birth, Saadat Hasan Manto is being hailed as a chronicler of Partition even more than the short story writer par excellence that he was. The stories Manto wrote around the tumultuous events are powerful in themselves, some of the most horrifying and moving short fictions in our literary tradition. However, some of the recent analysis tends to become limited as well as limiting when it focuses only on those stories related to Partition. Manto lived a writer’s life before Partition and beyond it. He found his true subjects in the tinsel town of Bombay, men and women playing out their real lives in off-screen skirmishes, lives of pain, loneliness and hankering, caught with perfection in brief, episodic short narratives. Poverty and angst find a near-perfect expression in stories like the taut and intense ‘Kali Shalwar’ and ‘Hatak,’ which show Manto at his best. One of his most remarkable stories, ‘Boo,’ shows how he could be cruel as well as tender in the short span of a story. Manto further refined his narrative style in the later day ‘Babu Gopi Nath’. In all these stories, Manto’s focus is on the individual, with violence deep inside the all too human heart. Manto in Bombay appears to be in his element as borne out in Gyan Praksh’s Mumbai Fables, a history of “the enchanted city”. Manto had already developed and perfected his story-teller’s craft when the larger-than-life events of Partition overtook him. Manto, however, was too resilient a writer to end with Partition, just as he did not begin with it. He was deeply traumatised by Partition and after leaving Bombay to settle in Lahore, he felt that he could not write. A prolific writer, it seems strange to think of Manto in the anguish of a writer’s block. He did make a comeback to fiction but also wrote some seemingly light but hard-hitting newspaper pieces, unjustly neglected by his later day critics. In stories like ‘Yazeed’ and ‘Tetwal Ka Kutta,’ he touches upon the first skirmishes of the developing India-Pakistan confrontation and in ‘Shaheed Saz’ he writes a biting satire of commercial interest and opportunism donning the guise of religious piety. He stays clear of the lachrymose, sugary-sweet brand of newly-found patriotism and instead emerges as the sharpest critic of things going wrong in the newly-created state, and he is peerless. This stage of Manto’s literary career is no less important and deserves to be studied in greater depth. In her recently published book, The Pity of Partition, with the rather heavy subtitle: ‘Manto’s Life, Time and Works across the India-Pakistan Divide,’ Ayesha Jalal devotes the bulk of the book to Partition but concludes on a very interesting chapter on his last phase, especially the dark humour of the letters to Uncle Sam, placing them in the Cold War perspective, in an era beyond Partition. The three short but distinct phases in his life as a writer as well as gaps in critical study are highlighted in two recent but different collected editions of Manto’s works. Professor Shamsul Haq Usmani, associated with the Jamia Millia Islamia at New Delhi, undertook the task of a critical and collected edition, with variations and textual notes, published by India’s National Council for the Promotion of Urdu. It is being reprinted by the Oxford University Press in Pakistan and the first volume is already available of what promises to be an invaluable series. The OUP edition is not just a simple reprint but an improved version. It is entitled Poora Manto and the editor has further refined and corrected the New Delhi version, making this the best text edition of Manto. A similar exercise has also been carried out by Amjad Tufail for Narratives, Islamabad. This edition comprises seven hefty volumes. Usmani and Tufail are both insightful critics of Urdu fiction in their own right and while Usmani’s work on Rajindra Singh Bedi is unmatched, Tufail has to his credit a remarkable collection of essays in literary criticism, particularly on modern fiction. Both these editions are described as kulliyat and it is for the first time that this claim is worthy of its name. Manto’s short but eventful life was never entirely free from financial pressures if not distress, but the worst stage was in his last years when he was virtually dependent upon the favours of a few publishers who did not treat him kindly. This carried over to the sorry state of Manto’s books, widely reprinted but without any care and in a slipshod manner. Some publishers went so far as to pluck out stories from different collections to cobble up seemingly new books with names of their choices. The dignity and sanctity of Manto’s texts is now being restored with these new collected editions. The first phase of Manto’s fiction makes a volume of 479 pages in Tufail’s edition and reaches up to the 1948 collection called Chughad. About 49 short stories are included in the first volume edited by Usmani, and he covers Manto’s work till the 1950 collection Khali Botlain, Khali Dibbay in the second volume. In addition to the short fiction, Manto’s essays and newspaper articles make an impressive volume edited by Tufail. A separate volume is made up of personal sketches, another form in which Manto excelled. Usmani has taken meticulous care to authenticate the text by noting variations in different editions. His painstaking work is particularly valuable as it debunks the long established myth that Manto wrote in the heat of inspiration without going through the pains of editing and revision. Usmani establishes that Manto kept working on texts even after publication, improving and tightening up the prose. Tufail has also contributed critical essays as prefaces to each volume and these wide-ranging and informative pieces are the highlight of these editions. His introduction to the volume of essays is particularly useful in showing the main concerns which Manto had in writing these pieces; however, I cannot help but note that mistakes in proof-reading diminish the value of his work. Complaints notwithstanding, it is gratifying to see these befitting editions more than 50 years after the death of the author who savaged all kinds of holy cows as no other writer in Pakistan.

Asif Farrukhi is a fiction writer and critic