May 11 was the birth anniversary of Sadat Hasan Manto – the short-story writer who, among many other afflictions, had a serious predicament. In his imagined after-life he had envisioned himself in a state of perpetual conjecture — whether he or God was a greater story-teller. The matter was never settled probably because of the audacious perversity, perverse audacity and morbidity most people assign to his body of work. Given that, and the profundity and intensity of Manto’s body of work, such matters cannot obviously be settled by ordinary souls. Only Manto and God can resolve a tricky question like this in some one-to-one debate.
Manto’s stories, though fictional in form and style, are documentary in nature and content. His characters and stories carry a deep, tangible realistic aura rather than the abstractions usually associated with the make-believe world of fiction. Through his storylines, Manto plays a relentless, cold and unfeeling witness and an objective narrator of the multitude of shades of human character. He picks his story themes and their characters from the daily life around him making them look like people living next door. At times you get an impression that Manto is being a wicked witness and a wicked narrator of the wicked susceptibilities of his characters and the suffering it produces for others. He records these distressing shades of the human condition without any hint of guilt let alone any sense of penitence. Through his characters he makes us look inward at our own selves and our very well-kept secrets of our character—its uneasiness to come to terms with itself, its failings, its raw passions, its carnal desires, its crude hatreds, its anxieties, its vain struggle to set the moral compass right that has gone awfully wrong, and finally its angst at its very being.
Manto is a journeyman of sorts. He tirelessly journeys through the maze and whirligigs of the society into its innards where he reveals unsettling realities of individuals and the society. But, despite Manto’s mean, dark and fiendish descriptions, he remains an easy- to-read writer. His work is simple in style and structure. And even simpler in its narration. No literary complexities or convoluted narrativity or intellectual intensity. Just plain and uncomplicated story telling. Manto employs a fly-on-the-wall approach to a range of themes that may appear banal to the ones dramatically grotesque.
Manto is more like a socio-political-historical documentarian of his times, conditions and characters and of their minds and motivations. To pigeon-hole him as a short-story writer leads to a reductive reading of Manto—the man, his mind and his methods.
While it is easy to read Manto, it is even easier for a casual reader to move on despite the depravity of the human condition and moral disasters Manto’s stories are reeking with. That’s until Manto strikes you with his unabashed frankness of description, his subtext which is stronger than the text you read, and the intent of his latent meanings. That seriously disturbs your own moral compass. And you begin to wonder about the frightening severity and scale of circumstances a moral breakdown—individual or collective — can unleash. So much so that even the one who doesn’t participate in acts of iniquity is desensitised to the extent of accepting malevolence as normal. That is where outrage dies. As a consequence, the human self is pulled deeper into the swamp of sin. Manto’s thoughts, his worldview and approach to the portrayals in his stories are probably shaped by this very death of outrage within Manto—the man. That’s perhaps why he outrages his readers with his writings.
Here is storylet ( a very, very brief story) Sorry by Manto that illustrates just that:
paet chak karti hui
naaf ke neeche tak chali gai
izarband kat gaya.
Chhuri maarnevale ke
“Chi, Chi, Chi…mishtake ho gaya.”
The knife ripped through the belly. As it sliced down the navel, the trouser-belt tore open. The one slashing the knife suddenly uttered words of regret. “Chi, Chi, Chi …it was a mistake.”
Removed from its context, it appears like a pedestrian piece of casually assembled random assortment of words. At best, you may laugh it off as a clumsy, uncivilized joke told even more badly. But, framed in its historical and political perspective of Partition, its accompanying themes, the unique hatred it unleashed and the violence humans suddenly become capable of when hate takes over their minds, it becomes a timeless, painful and cruel metaphor of all these things. And more. It also serves as a tool of studying the human mind at its lowest moral ebb and history at its most dramatic convulsion.
Sorry is situated in a world of absolute moral breakdown. It provides an alternative way of looking at the ‘independence’ of India and ‘creation’ of Pakistan through the lens of their accompanying unprecedented sadism that continues to poison relations between these two countries so much that they are permanently at each other’s gates with mutually-assured-destructive nuclear weaponry.
History is often a distilled and sweetened version of events where big-time names and their machinations matter. The gore and the gross common folks face are often edited out. Manto’s work on Partition document what history books usually leave out to glorify and beautify the ‘freedom’ of the sub-continent from British colonialism.
There is a certain historicity in Manto’s oeuvre making him a historian of sorts. Probably that calls for a different approach of analysis of Manto’s work. We can call it a psycho-historical method where a simultaneous reading and interpretation of history and collective and individual psychologies take place. That can give us a new Manto. And a new insight into our collective and individual sins and our propensity to deploy violence to achieve our ends by eliminating the ‘other’. It can also provide some understanding into our barefaced justifications for the use of such violence.
Going back to how relentless periods of violence and evil desensitise the human heart and mind, Manto had probably himself been so numbed by the real and imagined violence and evil around him that he felt no shame in documenting them with all their disconcerting rawness. But without this, he would be just Sadat Hasan who lived and died, and not the Manto whom he wished to remain alive. Forever. Just in case we forgot the everyday wickedness we employ behind our carefully raised facades of virtuousness.
The story Sorry gives no clue about the communal identities of the killer and the killed. That is immaterial, and perfectly so in the context in which the killing happens. In a climate of merciless murder and mayhem, it isn’t so much about the individual death of a Muslim or Hindu. It is about the collective demise of humanity. In Sorry, there is just a between-the-lines reference to such an identity. Even that doesn’t tell us who was killed – a Muslim or Hindu. The killer discovers the wrong choice of his victim after he has run though the act. After that he is overtaken by a useless sense of remorse. Manto probably deliberately doesn’t reveal anything about the identities because he sees no point in that.
Manto himself is the lone witness to the murder in Sorry. And he won’t tell us who killed whom though we know why. Manto wants the pain to permeate through all communal compartmentalisations. Why? Because at his core rests a a unique brand of humanism. He is a humanist outraged by the difficult realities around him that he is unable to reconcile with. He thus either finds refuge in his stories and their characters or the cheap alcohol which finally consumed him at age 42. At times, he is so much overwhelmed by the urges of his creative genius and life’s irreconcilable calculus that he finds solace and a final resolution in madness just like his character Bishan Singh does in his world-class masterpiece TobaTek Singh.
Manto’s stories and his characters are birthed and brought up in a world beyond literary and intellectual hypocrisies. We may find them raw and often offensive for our artificial sensibilities of forced decency and sophistication. It is here Manto’s work becomes a critical tool of examination – of looking at the self and the society without any filters of pretence.