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The Fifth Global Urdu Conference: Manto - forever green

December 16, 2012

Shamim Hanafi -- Photo by Anis Hamdani/ White Star

MANTO graced the world a fortnight before Miraji did, and he outlived the poet by a little over six years. Both died young — Manto in his early 40s and Miraji in his late 30s. Both were mavericks, but Manto surely was the more calculated of the two rebels and hogged the limelight in the realm of modern Urdu literature. But the session dedicated to Manto, “Azeem Manto ki Sadi,” could sadly not do justice to the great writer.

After Khalid Fayyaz and Raees Fatima had read their papers on the critics and sketches of Manto, Zaheda Hina struggled through her speech, talking about Manto’s capacity to look beyond the immediate and quoting his famous letters to Uncle Sam in support of her argument.

By this time, the session was struggling to keep the audience engaged. It came alive thanks to Masood Ashar who used Manto as a means to understand current Pakistani society. Manto, he said, was condemned for obscenity by critics and readers in several areas of united India, but legal cases were filed only in parts that were to later comprise Pakistan. Is it just coincidence, he wondered, or is there more to it, and invited sociologists and anthropologists to look into it.

“The social diversity of these areas has been on the slide from the very outset,” he argued. The Hindus and the Sikhs left in 1947. After the debacle of 1971, the Bengalis left. And the Parsis and the Christians have been leaving the country silently. “The journey from cultural diversity to unity has made us intolerant and extremists,” he said, giving voice to a shocking thought: will the Pakistanis of the future even own Manto?

Shamim Hanafi made a lot of important points about Manto but there was always a qualifier to his statements. Even when he called Manto “the greatest Urdu writer of modern short story,” he wondered why he failed to influence the writings of those who followed him. It may well have been a failure of the followers, but Hanafi continued with his balancing act.

Intizar Husain also called Manto “the greatest writer,” but insisted that he needs to be seen in the context of his peers and the environment in which he wielded his craft, rather than in isolation. It was quite obvious that both Hanafi and Husain both could have articulated their thoughts better — much better — if they had been given a chance to come prepared, but they were asked to join the panel literally at the last minute. The session was extremely mismanaged as most of the speakers scheduled to talk about the great writer were not to be found anywhere and the organisers had to make do with the staple diet of Husain and Hanafi to lead the discussion.

The panellists also realised the hazards inherent in speaking extempore on someone as tall and as controversial as Manto. In her justification, Zaheda Hina said that she needs to write down her thoughts first but didn’t get the chance. “Had I left the auditorium after the last session, I would have been having tea at the cafeteria. I was a minute late and got caught,” she said. The helplessness on her face was quite visible. Hanafi also started out with clarifications.

It was Husain, however, who put the scenario in context: “Had everything gone according to plan, I would have been sitting in the audience,” he said. “But I was first asked to say a few words and then I was made to preside over the session. Anyway, the way things are moving at the conference, anything is possible.”

The way the session was cobbled together made one wonder how the acerbic Manto might have reacted to it. It is not a long shot to guess that he would have uttered his favourite and famous words: “It’s a fraud!” And he would not have been wrong.

-- Humair Ishtiaq