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Manto with his family. -- File photo

“I accept [my characters] with all their vices, their disease, their abusiveness, their peevishness” — Saadat Hasan Manto

AS literary circles celebrate the current year as Manto’s, perhaps the literary mode of expression known as realism too will come under discussion as it is the hallmark of the Urdu short story of the 1930s and 1940s.

In fact, this mode of expression had come to us from the West along with the genres of the novel and short story. So it was already in practice. Premchand is regarded as the father of the Urdu short story and a great exponent of realism. The circles of Progressive Writers in particular held him in high esteem on this account. However, Faiz differed from them. In a radio discussion in which Agha Abdul Hamid was all praise for Premchand’s realism, Faiz differed from him. He argued that while condemning certain social customs Premchand turns his eyes away from other objectionable customs. So he often makes compromises. “He may be anything but is not a realist,” says Faiz.

Faiz was perhaps thinking in the context of his own times, the decades of the 1930s and 1940s, when new writers were in a rebellious mood. Premchand had made his appearance in an age which was known for its reformative sensibility. He too was a reformist and was temperamentally a moderate. His critical approach to social problems had the stamp of moderation.

But the decades of the 1930s and 1940s stand distinguished in the history of Urdu literature because of a rebellion, which was not confined to literature alone but had far-reaching social implications. The emerging rebels staged a revolt against tradition and all forms of expression prescribed by it. In the realm of social affairs they chose to reject social and moral values, which, in their estimation, were false and smacked of hypocrisy. The story writers in particular made a point to expose these false values and depict the situation as it actually was.

The one who stood tall as a story writer amid his contemporaries was Krishan Chander. But the two who, in their zeal for realism, went to the extreme to depict truth as they perceived it, were Manto and Ismat Chughtai. More particularly, Ismat invited the ire of the conservatives of the Muslim society of UP. They were shocked to see a daughter of a sharif gharana ‘immodestly’ writing things impermissible. They were soon dragged to court, Manto for his story “Boo” and Ismat for her story “Lihaf”.

With the passage of time, Ismat too lagged behind. But Manto stuck to his guns. Committed to the truth as he perceived it, he insisted on saying what he wanted to say, come what may. Significantly, Manto’s characters come from a fallen class, the class of people who have been rejected by society under the assumption that they are somehow morally degraded. They are prostitutes, pimps, thieves, swindlers, liars and gamblers. Prostitutes, who figure prominently in his stories, are not of the Umrao Jan Ada type. They are downtrodden prostitutes. But Manto asserts that they are his favourite characters: “I accept them with all their vices, their disease, their abusiveness, their peevishness”. But why? Why has he chosen them as characters for his stories?

The question arises whether Manto gives some license to those who stand abandoned by the society. But his portrayals of them betray no such sympathy. He is acutely conscious of their shortcomings, and is strictly realistic while portraying them. His contemporaries, the poets as well as the story writers, had developed a sentimental approach to this theme. They were in the habit of accusing society for creating conditions which forced innocent girls into this situation. Their portrayals carried a romantic flavour. Manto makes no such attempt. He is cruelly realistic in his approach, depicting objectively what he has observed. With no romantic flavour or sentimentality, his are stark realistic portrayals. Realism finds here its best expression.

Consider Sultana’s character in the story “Kali Shalwar”. She is seen talking in a very matter of fact way about her profession. She is concerned about losing her market value. But she also has another worry. Muharram is approaching. She has somehow managed to get a black dupatta and a kameez but needs a black shalwar for which she has no money.

We see no big transformation in her character. And yet we feel that there is something in her other than sexual appeal. She has humanity.