Each time, Saadat Hasan Manto changes position in his 65-year-old grave in Lahore, “wondering whether he is a better short story writer than God”, the subcontinent, more than any other part of the world that recognized his genius belatedly, goes into raptures. Some recent films, books, and stage adaptations to do with the great writer and liberal humanist provide a legitimate reason to explore, however briefly, his abhorrence of active politics even whilst rooted in a deep awareness of the social and economic realities of the times in which he lived. Practically everybody talks of his literary brilliance – which is only to be expected – but not many appear to have an opinion about his unique, unbending political mind.

One would have thought that a man of Manto’s egalitarian temperament and unshakeable but nuanced commitment to the poor and the oppressed would automatically opt for life- membership of one or more of the organizations of Leftist writers and artists which held Bombay in their grip in the 1940s. But no such thing happened, for Manto was nothing if not his own boss – a rebel and individualist par excellence. His inherent distrust of labels and dogmas prevented him from getting too close to the so-called progressives. In their turn, these bodies, which counted in their ranks intellectuals with a marked Moscow tilt, maintained a calculated distance from freethinkers like Manto. Many of Manto’s contemporaries and later, Manto scholars have written about how he chose to be his own lord and master and, even as he had cordial terms with many a Leftist, he consciously chose to keep himself away from easily identifiable political creatures. To characterize this as neutrality or, worse still, opportunism is to do grave injustice to the literary statesman of principles.

The Delhi writer and scholar, Tarannum  Riyaz’s observation deserves re-calling : “Manto appears to be quite impressed by socialism, but he does not recognize it as the prescription for the political and economic problems of India. He refuses to endorse any particular political ideology. Nevertheless, he has a sharp political and social consciousness which helps him to develop his ‘liberal’ attitudes… Manto does not raise slogans, nor does he trade politics in the name of literature… It is a sad commentary on the history of Urdu literature in India that Manto did not receive the recognition that was due to him merely because some prominent progressive writers dismissed him as a reactionary.”

In a world that was (and is) largely given to latching on to sycophancy on account of the benefits easily accruing from it, a striking feature of Manto’s life and legacy was his opposition to the culture of overlordship emanating from the State, the socio-religious establishment, ideologies and parties, big capital, or the intellectual elite. He possessed an open mind on every subject under the sun, notably the real connections between poverty, sex and violence; an open heart that counted meanness and backbiting as its principal enemy; and a tongue that freely, if not always judiciously, articulated, often in public, what went on inside his frenzied head. In other words, what he wrote amounted to an ultimate prescription bringing upon himself neglect and marginalization that took decades following his untimely and painful death, to be reversed.

Manto’s reaction to being called a reactionary was characteristically Mantoesque – unapologetic, unsparing : “I greatly detested the so-called communists. I could not appreciate people who talked about ‘the sickle and the hammer’ while sitting in comfortable armchairs. In this connection, Comrade Sajjad Zaheer, who sipped his milk in a silver cup, always remained a clown in my eyes. The true psychology of working labourers is manifested in their sweat. Maybe, the people who used this sweat to earn wealth, and used it as ink to write detailed manifestoes, are sincere people. However, you will pardon me if I consider them to be impostors.”

If Manto had no use for “these charlatans who were using the prescription proposed by Kremlin and were busy preparing a mixture of literature and politics”, the pilgrim through the lower depths was also alarmed by creeping American influences on the society and polity of infant Pakistan to which he had been banished by forces beyond his control. To understand the writer’s political vision, one must be able to appreciate his ability to be even-handed when it came to seeing through the designs of the two superpowers fiercely competing for possession of the soul and substance of the two newly-independent countries, and the subsequent impact the development had on the national liberation movements in many countries of Asia and Africa.

In one of nine letters addressed to Chacha Sam, Manto predicted : “We will have buses fitted with American tools. We will have Islamic pajamas stitched by American machines. We will have clods of earth ‘untouched by hands’ from the American soil. We will have American folding stands for the Holy Quran and American prayer-mats. Keep watching Uncle, you will find everyone singing your praises.” It goes without saying that Manto’s persecution at the hands of the mullahs and their flock, or those who saw their political destiny in the Muslim League, had much to do with his perspicacious foretelling of events that unfolded in course of time. Neither the State nor the Church forgave him for his honest and accurate plain-speaking, clothed variously in irony, sarcasm, horseplay or ribaldry.

For someone thought to be politically naïve by the progressives, Manto saw through the games of both Moscow and Washington early on. It was the era of the Cold War; of Stalin and Roosevelt, followed by Truman; of lies, bribes, threats and treacheries freely practised by both sides. Both parties seemed to think that the former British colonies were fertile ground for ‘political picking’. Manto may not have been actively involved in politics, but it was absurd of his critics to claim that he was innocent of the political realities of the day. Rather, it was his political awareness which saved him from being predictable and uncreative after a while – a fate in store for many of his contemporaries who, sadly, chose to be drummer-boys of this or that bloc, with consequences that could perhaps have been avoided.

There is reason enough to think that Manto turned out to be the kind of person, writer, or citizen he was largely, if not wholly, due to his intimate association with both the fickle and fulsome aspects of the Bombay film industry. If Manto had been allowed to have his way, he would never have left Bombay. For, in the Bombay of his day, he discerned that cosmopolitanism, that variety and diversity, that engagement with the brutal, the bizarre and the beautiful, which together prevented him from jumping to doctrinaire conclusions of this or that kind. What the liberal with deep humanist tendencies would have made of the metropolis were he to chance upon it today…

Come to think of it, there is something compulsively surreal about the actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing both Manto and Bal Thackeray in back-to-back biopics, one already realized and the other about to be shot. Arguably, no single man did so much to rob Bombay of either its upper-class refinements or its never-say-die working-class culture – both of which Manto prized deeply – as the founder of the Shiv Sena.

( Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.)


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