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Theatrics: Manto’s life story retold

December 23, 2012

Actors from Ajoka Theatre present "Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh?"

Although a hundred years have passed since Sa’adat Hasan Manto was born, he still remains one of the most gifted short story writers of South Asia. And to this day, Manto is a misunderstood writer especially in the land that he chose to live in.

To pay a tribute to Manto on his centenary and to present the lesser known facets of his persona, the Ajoka Theatre presented its new play, Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh?, at the Alhamra Auditorium in Lahore. In the words of the writer Shahid Nadeem “it was an attempt to enact the life of Manto and present his utterly sensitive, humane and sage-like side to people.”

The play was largely based on the stories of Manto, his sketches and essays, his notes to himself and from an account of his last days written by his nephew Hamid Jalal (writer, historian Ayesha Jalal’s father).

Shahid Nadeem did a fine job of bringing Manto honestly to life. He does well to remind us that Manto wrote about both ruthless and subjugated women from the heart and the mind of a woman. Manto’s writings are not meant to titillate, they are meant to show that black could have specks of white and white could have specks of black. Beyond the crudity, there lies a subtlety that implores the reader to reserve his judgment against the obvious; a tall order for a society obsessed with the superficial.

The irony perhaps is that Manto wrote ahead of his time and he wrote in a society that has been patriarchal and hypocritical.

What else would you think of the empty back rows of the auditorium showing Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh? and hordes of men packed outside the theatre hall next door showing a seedy mujra play?

Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh? presented Manto’s life as he decides to move to Pakistan leaving a flourishing career, fame and friends in India and goes onto trail blaze his finest works while being in a state of a grand disquiet.

The play started with actual video and photo footage of the Partition with atrocities setting the mood to the tragedy that took place on both sides of the newly made Pakistan and India. Some heart-wrenching stories of violence, betrayal and barbarism are narrated by Manto (played by Naseem Abbas) as told to him by a Liaison Officer in Pakistan. Manto speaks bluntly of the atrocities and his stark words and grim expression leave you in no doubt that this is a man unconcerned about pleasantries. He lays bare the horror that affects his sensibilities and documents his thoughts in finely crafted jewels of Urdu.

He moves to Pakistan, feels disoriented, drinks his blues every day till he is offered to write for Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s Nuqoosh. His first play, Thanda Gosht, is a story on a theme unprecedented in Urdu literature. He presents Eesher Singh who joins other vandals and breaks into a Muslim home, kills all the family and kidnaps the only woman left in the house with an intent to violate her only to realise later that she is dead. The realisation of his gruesomeness shocks him so that he becomes impotent and dies after confessing his sin to his wife. Thanda Gosht created furor at the time and typical of our hypocritical attitudes, there were allegations of obscenity and outrage on Manto.

Undeterred, or perhaps even charged by the reaction, Manto produced his next masterpiece, Khol Do; about Sirajdin and his beautiful daughter Sakina who falls prey to the lust of a group of volunteers that had set out to bring her back to her father.

Following Khol Do, Manto became both celebrated and controversial. He is shown to be a sought after name by the foremost writers’ movements of the time and also faces charges in the court for crude language and obscenity.

A court scene is shown where Manto fiercely defends his right to write boldly. His witnesses (including Faiz) fail to impress the judge who convicts Manto to three months in jail on charges of spreading obscenity. The jail bout turns to be a precursor to Manto’s steady slide downhill. He is banned from being published and soon runs into financial trouble and starts seeking solace in alcohol. A conversation between Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and Manto was particularly emotive as Qasmi tries to convince Manto to give up using invectives in his stories. Manto says that he will speak in the language of prostitutes and the pimps if he writes about them. When Qasmi reiterates, Manto says, “Tum mere dost ho Maulana Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, magar maine tumhain apne zameer ki masjid ka imam muqarar nahin kiya.”

Manto’s letters to Uncle Sam are also narrated in the play. He addresses the US satirically and was able to read into the manipulative tactics that the US would employ three decades down the line in buying the mullahs to fight off Communism. In his most troubled times, Manto again charged back with his magnum opus Toba Tek Singh; the story of a mental asylum inmate who keeps getting confused by the newly demarcated geographic boundaries of Pakistan and India. When he is most anguished, he is shown to be given inspiration by a mysterious woman whose identity is revealed only in the end as Manto dies. As per the accounts of Hamid Jalal, Manto had been strictly advised by his doctors to stay away from alcohol or he would die instantly owing to liver cirrhosis. However, Manto read the news of a pregnant woman gang raped and left to die in Gujrat, and became so disturbed that he drank again and tried to write something but died while trying.

The play had impeccable performances by Naseem Abbas, Uzma Kharal, (who plays several women in the script) Tipu Sultan as Qasmi and Kamran Mujahid as Shyam. The play did very well to bring Manto to life. It succeeded in showing his greatness as a writer and his human failings. One wonders, however, as to why Manto’s sketch on Quaid-i-Azam (Mera Sahib) which forms an important part of his writing was not mentioned.