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A view of Manto's grave. -- Photo by Tariq Mahmood

May 11, 2012 marks Sadat Hasan Manto's birth centenary. To Celebrate the occasion Books&Authors invited some of the most well-known names of Urdu literature to share their thoughts on a writer Zaheda Hina terms the “creative conscience of the subcontinent”.

Was Manto a part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement or was he boycotted by the organisation? The panelists and the audience discuss the issue.

Wusatullah Khan (WK) Now if we move to another point. He was initially with the Progressive Writers’ Movement, then the two parted ways.

Mohammad Ali Siddiqui (MAS) He was with them till the end. It was a mistake the progressives made in 1949 which they rectified in 1952. Manto was progressive. Society’s biggest critic would have to be progressive.

WK Being progressive as far as ideology is concerned is one thing. But as far as the actual movement is concerned, the cardholding members of the Progressive Writers’ Association were disowning him.

MAS Don’t bring the cardholder issue in the middle.

Hasan Manzar (HM) Progressiveness existed before 1936. It has always existed, and will always exist.

Zaheda Hina (ZH) An interesting point is that the first book by the progressives was called Angaray and Manto’s first collection of short stories was called “Aatish Paray”.

Discussion with audience

Asif Noorani But if we read the accounts of the progressive writers’ gatherings, he is not mentioned. He was not present at the first conference either in 1936 that was presided over by Munshi Premchand and at which Maulana Hasrat Mohani was the chief guest. So what was the extent of his involvement?

MAS They accepted him back in 1952. He remained progressive till the end. The background of [their decision to banish him from the association in] 1949 is that it was a time of madness, ideological madness. It was rectified in 1952.

HM Manto was not the only one to be thrown out of the Progressive Writers’ Association. And some dissociated themselves as a precaution because they were afraid of losing their jobs in radio or film. It was a time of extremism.

Ajmal Kamal The three stories for which Manto was tried in court, “Thanda Gosht”, “Khush Log” and “Uper, Neechay, Darmian” were all published in progressive journals. The other thing is that those who are called his friends — Muhammad Hasan Askari, Mumtaz Shireen or Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi — were not called as witnesses in those cases. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was the witness.

MAS Hamid Ali Khan was a witness.

Ajmal Kamal For a long time I could not figure out how, if Manto was boycotted by the progressives, did the stories with which the British as well as Pakistani governments had issues, get printed in progressive journals?

Badar Alam Listening to the discussion, it seems that Manto was either only an alcoholic or a progressive and that there was no other aspect to him. At the start of the session we raised the question of whether we see a psychologist in Manto’s stories, or a historian, or a prophet of humanism. But we didn’t discuss these points. It seems to me that even after Manto’s death, the debate hasn’t moved forward. He wrote such wonderful stories, why can’t we talk about them?

Fahmida Riaz (FR) You said a wonderful thing and I agree with you, he was a prophet of humanism. In fact, he is standing for the great values of the human civilisation.

HM The cases against him were not for his drinking but for obscenity. Alcohol is mentioned in Manto’s context for a different reason, for the affect it had on his brain. Because of it, his production was uneven. Some of his work was good, some not so good.

FR After coming to Pakistan he wrote “Toba Tek Sigh”. His mental condition was fine.

MAS You have to admit that he is the greatest short story writer.

Zaheda Hina (ZH) And as far as even and uneven is concerned, that keeps happening.

Ghazi Salahuddin Manto used to write a story everyday in his last years, because he needed the money. We are talking about the early 1950s. Usually his stories would be bought immediately for Rs30. Today, what is our population and what is the percentage of the reading public? Can a Manto sell his stories today for Rs5,000, which is probably how much Rs30 in the 1950s equaled. Are there enough magazines and organisations to print these stories? Are we reading Manto as much as he was being read then?

MAS That is a good question. In the 1930s, 30,000 copies of Nerang used to be printed. Now a magazine doesn’t even print 3,000 copies. It was a more literate society.

Ghazi Salahuddin If people start reading Manto in hundreds of thousands today, many new Mantos would be born.

ZH You are right.

WK But how will more people read Manto?

ZH Now people only read Marnay Kay Baad Janat Ka Manzar and Bahishti Zawer.

MAS I believe that you will have to change the system of education. People used to be taught appreciation of literature. All big revolutionaries and freedom fighters had studied the British Romantics. Take Jawaharlal or any big leader, behind them all were the Romantics.