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Manto with his family. - File photo

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”.

Panelists discuss the portrayal of women in Manto.

Wusatullah Khan (WK) What would you say about female characters in Manto’s stories? A lot has been discussed about the way in which he has written about women and a lot of it is very controversial. For instance, a common accusation against Manto is that he liberally uses sexual symbols. On the basis of these accusations he was charged with obscenity and magazines refused to print his stories. Do you feel that he used these symbols to depict a particular situation or that there was an element of ‘pleasure’ in them?

Fahmida Riaz (FR) Saadat Hasan Manto is the subcontinent’s greatest writer. He was a great champion of the moral values of the human civilisation and in very difficult times, when he was being attacked from all sides, he stood for those values. And this is his greatest contribution.

The good thing is that today we have reached the point where we can celebrate Manto; this wasn’t possible before.

WK I want to ask whether the symbols that he used were for a particular situation or whether there was something in them to shock the society of his times?

FR Manto did not use symbols. He was not a writer to use symbols. He used to write openly. Where he wanted to say ‘breast’ he used to write ‘breast’ and people criticised him for that. The criticism came because our minds were so used to symbols and metaphors and to hiding things that we could not digest his pure and open writing. We did not know how to deal with it.

To understand how he presented women we will have to take a look at Manto’s stories and see what kind of characters he wrote.

Firstly, no two women in his stories are alike. They are all different from which we understand that he saw women the way he saw men. Meaning that they are all individuals and grappling with their lives.

But because Manto stood by the marginalised — about which there is no doubt — and because women are more marginalised, and they are looked upon with more contempt, he explored this theme particularly.

Look at “Soganthi”. This woman’s agent comes late at night and wakes her up and tells her to come and meet a client. So the poor woman gets ready but when she meets the seth he rejects her and leaves. That one rejection starts a great revolution in her and she gets so angry that she could have ripped him apart had she a chance. A big change comes within her and the next day when her lover comes — who exploits her and takes money from her — her illusions and self-deception have ended and she throws him and his picture out. And the last words of the story are that she is sleeping with her arms around her dog on her big mahogany bed.

Mohammad Ali Siddiqui (MAS) Her flea-ridden dog.

FR Yes, her flea-ridden dog. This is a woman who has self-respect, who is a realist, who gets rid of the last illusion which could have comforted her. She finds herself ready to stake out her own way, alone.

Then come to “Mozail”. This is a Jewish woman and in this story her body is described in a lot of detail: her long legs, full breasts, well-shaped thighs. In other words, Manto described the female anatomy. But what is it used for in the end?

Her neighbour, a Sikh, falls in love with her. He asks her to marry him but she refuses saying that he is too conservative and religious for her. So he gets engaged to someone else.

It is the time of the riots and news comes that the Sardar’s fiancé is going to be attacked. So she takes him to his fiancé’s house, removes her gown and puts it on the fiancé so that she looks like a Jewish woman and tells them both to run.

And then she starts to descend naked where the blood thirsty rioters are standing below; her foot slips and the body that Manto had described in so much detail falls down. Sardar covers her up with his turban but she throws it away and tells him that she wants to have nothing to do with his religion.

MAS Fahmida, you missed a point here. The main burden of the story is not what she did. The main burden is that she made herself a spectacle. With that spectacle she was able to avert the violence of the situation.

FR She helps those two escape and descends naked to divert the mob. And says, take away your religion. I want to point out how Manto depicted women. There is a concept in India of Shakti. Mozail rises to save two lives. Meaning she is a free woman, like the wind is free.

Hasan Manzar (HM) It is very dramatic. If we look at Manto’s good stories we will see that most of them had been written during his Mumbai period.

He did write stories after moving to Pakistan but most of them were from the stock material available in the market. For instance, a story similar to the one narrated in “Khol Do” had been published in Lahore’s newspapers. Manto dramatised it.

In Manto we find two kinds of stories; those which dramatised the stock available in the market, and those which were indeed very good, such as “Hatak”, “Khusia”, etcetera. Many of the other stories are melodramatic.

Zaheda Hina (ZH) It is a bit unfair to say that Manto dramatised “Khol Do” because what was happening at that time was a lot more dramatic. A big problem is that people don’t notice one thing about “Khol Do”, mainly because they don’t think it is appropriate. The girl Sakina’s father describes her in front of a few volunteers. They then go to look for her, catch her in the field and then what happens to her takes place within the boundaries of Pakistan at the hands of Muslim volunteers. We turn our backs to this point and some people say that Manto wrote a great story and others say that he dramatised and sensationalised.