COLUMN: MANTO LIVES ON!

July 07, 2019

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There are several new books on Saadat Hassan Manto. Slowly and steadily, the pile keeps growing. Most are new titles, making it obvious that there is more than a steady interest in the author who is the subject of these books — an interest which has grown so much that we can regard Manto Studies as an important subset of recent literary scholarship.

With each addition to the armload of previous books, you are likely to wonder what they add to the already well-known theme. Manto’s literary output was not extensively large, but substantial in itself. The stories remain the same and are constantly in print. Numerous reprints — many of them carelessly done — make one realise the importance of closely edited and annotated texts, as deserved by all classics. I sometimes wonder why such shoddy treatment is given to Manto by his publishers. Do they consider him a merely popular or sensational writer to be printed in cheap bulk? But, then, no better treatment was provided to his contemporaries, including Ismat Chughtai and Krishan Chander. This has less to do with critical esteem and more with the status of book publishing. Many years after such editions were available in Hindi and English, a critical complete-works is in progress: Poora Manto, meticulously edited by the Delhi-based scholar Shamsul Haq Usmani, has been reprinted in Pakistan by Oxford University Press. Usmani is a scholar who relishes in detail and offers opportunities for disagreement. However, he deserves accolades for making Manto available in as complete and careful an edition as possible.

Collected editions are not the only new books related to Manto. Pointing towards the accumulated lot on my desk — which I’ve been diligently going through — a friend directed a series of questions at me. What are all these freshly printed books about? Do they add to a story which is already well-known? Do they add anything substantive to our understanding of the writer and his works, or alter the notions people have already formed about his books? Going through a new set of mostly academic books on the subject, I’ve begun to feel that Manto so far has been a story partially told and only limited efforts have been made to fill the gaps or enliven the details. It is true that not one, but two biopics have been made, on both sides of the border, taking on Manto as a character. So Manto has made his re-entry into Bollywood and Lollywood. Again, such films, no matter how well-crafted they turn out to be, cannot substitute for a full length biography. Manto lived a full life and died a relatively early death, but it was a life not well-documented in the detailed manner it deserved. It seems that, despite paying lip service to Manto as a great realist, most people tend to shy away from the gritty details of sex and squalor which the writer described in no uncertain terms. It makes me wonder if we really esteem and revere Manto or are we embarrassed by his candour and choice of subjects?

More questions emerge from these books than complete answers. Scholar and academic Tahir Abbas is responsible for as many as nine collections of essays and articles, each focusing on a significant book or a particular form and all published by Aks Publications, Lahore. Summarising the critical discussion so far, each of the volumes is also a pointer to the directions in which the discussion can flow in the near future. The first volume I looked through features discussions on the sketches Manto wrote. All praise for his wit, sharp observation and no-holds-barred narration, but nobody questions Manto’s indiscretion in writing about the intimate details of people he claims are his friends. Has Manto’s empathy and humanity, so clearly apparent in his fiction, run dry? Are these a reason of his creative downfall or symptomatic of a general decay in creativity? Did his involvement with the film industry contribute to this situation? These are all questions which cry to be explored, especially if the book focuses on Manto’s film career — the subject of a series of essays in another volume that ranges from contemporary accounts to more recent articles, but the book reminds me of a story with a centre missing.

What did it all amount too, I wonder and listen to a resounding silence. More relevant are the volumes devoted to ‘Toba Tek Singh’, the iconic Partition story and Siyaah Haashiay [Black Margins], the series of vignettes and sketches taking violence and communal frenzy as its themes. It is ironic that, in this day and age of politically charged extremism, critic Fateh Muhammad Malik claims to read in ‘Toba Tek Singh’ what was to be identified later as ‘Pakistan ideology’, a notion refuted by Khalid Fayyaz and Noon Meem Danish. This kind of critical update is not available in the Siyaah Haashiay volume. Clearly the best essay is by critic Shamim Hanfi; even though it is not on this book, it takes a broader view in order to comment on violence and communal killing in the present day situation.

Manto lived a full life and died a relatively early death, but it was a life not well-documented in the detailed manner it deserved.

I am curious to read more about the vicious attacks on the book at the time of its initial publication, especially by the Progressives. However, this volume does include brief reviews by Mumtaz Mufti and Yusuf Zafar. More curious is the essay by Mumtaz Hussain, a leading Progressive writer, who sets out to prove that the stance of Muhammad Hassan Askari — who contributed the introduction to the volume — is akin to fascism since he had espoused ‘art for the sake of art.’

Other volumes in the set take up Manto’s plays, a bibliography of sorts, accounts of the personality by Manto’s contemporaries and a rather mixed volume on the women in Manto’s stories, which seems quite dated in this age of feminism and #MeToo. Manto could have easily been studied from such a perspective. Critical analysis may fall short or become dated; it is the stories which go on and take deeper, newer meanings. Manto lives on!

The columnist is a critic and fiction writer. Among his recent publications is a collection of essays on Manto. He teaches literature and humanities at the Habib University, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 7th, 2019