By Syed Nomanul Haq
Speaking about Manto’s poetics might seem like an odd undertaking, perhaps even bizarre. Manto was a fiction writer and he wrote not poetry but prose, it would be pointed out, and claimed with the uncompromising certainty of a fact. Indeed, this claim cannot be challenged, at least insofar as conventional understanding is our adjudicator. And yet, behind this claim is a presupposition, a presupposition that must remain tentative at best.
What is happening here is that an analytical distinction, highly serviceable though it is for our understanding of literature, is being taken as objective reality. Analytical distinctions separating one literary genre from another are contrivances, manufactured by us for our conceptual convenience, and are therefore conventional; they are not meant to be objectively fixed. Truth to tell, a general malady in our literary criticism is this very tendency to presuppose that conventions lie in the essence of literature — something tentative is considered to be forever stable, carved in stone. What is happening here, then, is that something that must remain provisional is given an ontological reality of metaphysical permanence, if I may be allowed to use two heavy words here.
But back to our Sa‘adat Hasan Manto. This powerful and brave craftsman of the highest order constitutes a glaring and glowing case in point. The unfortunate thing is that critics have generally surrendered the responsibility of looking closely at Manto’s art almost totally to social, political, and ideological evaluations. That he spoke “the truth”; that he wrote about social issues as they “really” happened to be; that he abhorred communal extremism; that he depicted what he had “actually” observed; that there was a yawning ideological gulf between him and the Progressive Writers’ Movement — this is the kind of discourse we have been hearing, almost exclusively. Granted, some of this might well be correct, oversimplifications notwithstanding, but what about Manto’s art?
What about his use of language, his imagery, his allegories? What about the rhythms of his sentences? What about his figurative constructs? His masterfully crafted ambiguities? His playful dances with metaphors? What about the flights of his imagination at the beginning of a story and his uncertain landings? What about his characteristic narrative technique of making the tangible caught up in the snare of the intangible? Then, there is this fundamental question of art: What are the features of the universe Manto creates parallel to this given one, a parallel universe arising out of the concrete and bare reality around him, but transcending it, a universe with its own natural laws, its own grammar? When we begin to explore these questions, bypassing social commentaries, we see analytical boundaries breaking down. The distinction between the arts of prose and poetry now blur. And even the hermetically sealed genres of music, the visual arts, and literature leak into one another, feeding and nourishing one another.
It has often been observed that when telling a story about atrocities that are consciously wrought, exploitation that is deliberate, injustices done by choice, shady businesses carried out by pimps and loafers in dark urban streets, in none of this does Manto take sides. He would not sit in judgment, he would not establish some phony moral balance between two parties — for example, he was never heard saying that though a train arriving from Amritsar to Lahore following the fateful Indian partition in 1947 was drenched in human blood, a train going the other way too had turned into a blood pool. This kind of moral equivalence, this kind of balancing act, this declaration of “neutrality” is not Manto’s trade. And yet, this defining posture of his, a creative posture, is not explained. Was he cold and indifferent, and a mere chronicler, operating in an ethically hands-off manner?
But if Manto’s creative arena is our perspective, then the explanation is not too far to seek. This great writer is great inasmuch as he created a parallel universe, something Ghalib had so poignantly longed for. In this universe fashioned by him, he saw dimly lit humanity even in the characters that appear to us evil. He perceived glimmers of this humanity both in the oppressed and the oppressor, perceiving a distant flame of human frailties flickering both in the pimp who goes out selling in the streets the body of an exploited woman, and in that woman herself. The moral principles in this given everyday universe of ours hide underneath our prejudices and our ideological agendas. Manto created a pure universe on the other side of the horizon; in his universe ambiguities twinkle as virtuous stars — here there is no moral judgment of an Indian Congress or Muslim League kind; there is no Lahore or Amritsar here. There are only human beings. No, Manto does not depict reality; he abstracts from reality; he is not a mere reporter; he is a creator. His abode is not concrete social facts; rather, concrete social facts serve as his station of departure.
Ambiguity, as a technique, is generally associated with poetry, especially Urdu poetry. Manto in his prose has the habit of wandering in a thick forest of ambiguities, sometimes even diminishing in obscurities. His story “Kali Shalvar” (Black Shalvar) — one of those (in)famous ones produced as evidence against him during an obscenity trial — is a superb instance of ambiguities. This story revolves around four characters that are meshed together in a complex web of human relations. There is the prostitute Sultana; her simpleton husband, lorry driver-turned-photographer Khuda Bakhsh; Sultana’s “client,” street-smart Shankar; and making a brief but crucial appearance, the woman Mukhtar, Sultana’s friend-in-business. All of this is characteristically placed in the ethos of dislocations and migrations that marked the 1947 partition. The reader is utterly unable to know in the end who among these figures is evil and who is good; who is the victim and who the victimised; who is crafty and who is naïve. We are abandoned by Manto in the high-seas of imagination, speculation, and questions that pierce our hearts. And here there is no resolution: the narrative comes to a screeching halt, with Sultana and Mukhtar face-to face, each one having sneakily perceived the irony of being hit by the professional craftiness of the other — “Then, both of them had to remain silent for a while!”
What an ending this is, as if all of a sudden the whole moral burden of the situation is ruthlessly consumed by silence. Then we have the robust core of a dramatic ambiguity in “Toba Tek Singh”, a Manto masterpiece about the exchange of lunatics between India and Pakistan after Partition. The corpus of this whole narrative rides on a single ambiguous core embodied in the ending line, in Frances Pritchett’s translation — “In between, on that piece of land that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.” What/who is Toba Tek Singh here? We do not know. Is it that Sikh inmate of the lunatic asylum on the now Pakistani side of the border who gained this name from other inmates, but whom, most intriguingly, the narrator never refers to by this acquired name except once at the very end? Or is it that piece of land about whose location “Mr Toba Tek Singh” had wondered throughout his asylum vicissitudes, but nobody seemed to know exactly whether it is, in the new Pakistan or in the truncated India? What precisely was lying in between the borders? This dark ambiguity is the crux of the matter. There was this burning issue of Partition for the Congress, for Muslim League, for the British — but here the issue has been rehabilitated in the fullness of humanity in Manto’s parallel universe. And here no resolution is offered. There lay Toba Tek Singh on a piece of land that had no name.
But perhaps the most compelling aspect of Manto’s art that ushers him into the ring of poetics is his play with metaphors, images, and similes. Entangling metaphors in the twines of concrete reality; considering a figurative construct a real object and drawing further figurative images out of it; metaphors taken to be tangible objects giving rise to ever new sets of metaphors — that is, metaphors begetting metaphors; the embrace of the physical with the non-physical — this is the poetic play one finds in his prose. And I say this upon the promptings of history — for this is exactly the unique feature of classical Urdu and Persian poetry of the region called “Subk-i-Hindi.” Manto’s complex art places him squarely into the poetic tradition of his milieu.
In “Sajda” (Prostration), the protagonist beseeches God to give him back his prostrations —“O Lord, return my prostrations!” As if prostrations, a posture of submission, are physical entities that can be returned. The story “Blouse” shines bright in its play with a single erotic image, layer after layer. This is a delicate account of the rising sexual awareness of a young man, ironically called Mu’min, (“a man of firm religious faith”), who catches a glimpse of a girl’s underarm hair. This image of a bunch of black hair haunts him and the narrator goes on to show this image in multiple manifestations, aspects, colours, and transfigurations — he does so in a gushing wave of poetic craft that seems to break into the valley of the visual arts. Mu’min looks at the tassels of a Turkish cap, and this reminds him of the hair; he separates the threads of satin clippings — this too turns into the girl’s hair; when he looks at a blouse, an image of the same hair arises. The growing boy dreams of a heap of black coal, and as he hits the coal pieces with a hammer to crush them, they transform into soft black hair — and so the wave keeps on gushing forth restlessly. This noble eroticism and this multicoloured brocade of images must arouse the envy of many a great poet. Note how the image of crushing serves erotic ends.
And there is more. In “Namukammal Tahrir” (Incomplete Writing), Manto speaks of an aborted kiss, and says — “this incomplete kiss will always remain sticking to my lips.” A kiss sticking like a physical object! “Dhuvan” (Smoke) gets into the same Subk-i-Hindi sport — “slumbers were dissolved in the air — slumbers, which are more of awakenings, when soft dreams around us cling like woolen garments.” Dreams clinging to bodies, and sleep mixed in the air! Now see the fullness of image play in “Misri ki Dali” (Sugar Crystal):
“What is life? I think it is a woolen sock. One end of the sock’s thread has been given in our hands, and we keep pulling out and unknotting this thread. After pulling and unknotting, when the other end of the thread will reach our hands, this magic spell we call life will break …”
Manto’s art, if we pay attention to it, is too complex and rich to be locked in boxes of provisional analytical conventions — boxes whose walls are highly precarious anyway.
“The majority of the lunatics were not in favor of this exchange. Because they couldn’t understand why they were being uprooted from their place and thrown away like this. Those few who were capable of a glimmer of understanding were raising the cries, ‘Long live Pakistan!’ and ‘Death to Pakistan!’ Two or three times a fight was narrowly averted, because a number of Muslims and Sikhs, hearing these slogans, flew into a passion.
When Bishan Singh’s turn came, and on that side of the Wagah border the accompanying officer began to enter his name in the register, he asked, ‘Where is Toba Tek Singh? In Pakistan, or in Hindustan?’
The accompanying officer laughed: ‘In Pakistan.’
On hearing this Bishan Singh leaped up, dodged to one side, and ran to rejoin his remaining companions. The Pakistani guards seized him and began to pull him in the other direction, but he refused to move. ‘Toba Tek Singh is here!’ — and he began to shriek with great force, ‘Upar di gur gur di annex di be dhyana di mung di dal of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan!’
They tried hard to persuade him: ‘Look, now Toba Tek Singh has gone off to Hindustan! And if it hasn’t gone, then it will be sent there at once.’ But he didn’t believe them. When they tried to drag him to the other side by force, he stopped in the middle and stood there on his swollen legs as if now no power could move him from that place.
Since the man was harmless, no further force was used on him. He was allowed to remain standing there, and the rest of the work of the exchange went on.
In the pre-dawn peace and quiet, from Bishan Singh’s throat there came a shriek that pierced the sky.... From here and there a number of officers came running, and they saw that the man who for fifteen years, day and night, had constantly stayed on his feet, lay prostrate. There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”
— Excerpt from Toba Tek Singh, translated from the Urdu by Frances W. Pritchett