Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mottled Dawn - Saadat Hasan Manto

'A writer picks up his pen only when his sensibility is hurt.' - Manto to a court judge.

Some errors have to be corrected. I had not read Manto (1912-1955) so I found myself at a loss when people discussed his raw intense writing. Manto is the Che Guevara of writing. Now that has been corrected. 'Mottled Dawn' is a translation of 50 of his works.

The Urdu writer who comes from a family of Kashmiri barristers lived the writerly life (and died in poverty), the kind of a writer one speaks of in awe because they never change their first draft nor the starkness of their ideas despite criticism or court cases, the one who went away to Pakistan after the partition more out of disillusionment than any specific inclination and in his resentment and disappointment slowly faded away in a life of penury. 22 collections of short stories (he is considered one of the greatest in Asia in this genre) one novel, five series of radio plays - all in a life of 43 years. He was tried for obscenity six times - never convicted.

Manto writes with a shade of humour that exists beside the raw truth in his tales relating to the partition. Tales of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh viewpoints of the partition times. What caused such high passions among people that they murdered, raped, kidnapped, pillaged, looted with no fear of god or society. Just one mad outpouring where they ravaged anything that could be ravaged with untold savagery. What caused this anger - was it some outpouring of something hidden inside already, of a beast that makes men walk into houses of neighbours to kill  all the men, rape the women, take them away and use them as sex slaves, occupy their homes. Was it about survival? Or a basic human conditioning to take when the law is not looking? As you read the stories you know that there is a truth to that reality that even someone like Manto cannot put forth without resorting to his trademark wry humour. You cannot handle the truth.

Among the stories are themes that haunt for a lifetime. The partition also leads to a partition of all the inmates of mental hospitals of undivided India and finds the lonely ex-landlord and now mental hospital inmate Toba Tek Singh, whose village lies on the border; he finally refuses to leave the no man's land in between. The Dog of Titwal which goes to both army camps across the border wagging its tail unmindful of the reality and finally dies a dog's death shot by soldiers of both sides who were its friends but who suspect its affections. The handsome sardar who becomes impotent because he cannot forget the touch of the Muslim girl he abducted and raped - she was cold as ice - dead. Two soldiers, Hindu and Muslim, who fought together in the World War for the British as Indians now fight against one another across the border and one kills another by mistake, as the soldier lies dying even in their friendly banter. The daughter who marries a Sikh and does not recognise her Muslim mother who is stark raving mad searching for her lost daughter. Two fathers, one Hindu and one Muslim, who rape each others daughters in their anger against the other community. A father who loses his young daughter in the partition journey but finds her again in a hospital - when the doctor asks the father to 'open' the window the badly ravaged seventeen year old unconsciously opens her salwar; the father is overjoyed that she is alive while the doctor understands the significance of her involuntary act. The child who sees the ice cream man's blood congealed with ice cream and who thinks its jelly. The wealthy man who helps the looters loot his house in an organised fashion so that his precious belongings are not ravaged but used elsewhere as they are. The two rapists who find in the end that the girl was from their own religion and not from the other religion; but shrug and move on feeling let down by the pimp. The killers who kill all people from the other religion on the train mercilessly and in the same breath offer pudding to their own community in all humility and affection for humanity. And on and on the stories flow, all real, but still protected by perhaps the writer's love for humanity or even his sense of shame at what humanity is capable of.

Manto writes. If you find my stories dirty then the society you live in is dirty he says. My stories only expose the truth. Manto first translated works of Gorky, Chekhov and other greats. He wrote for films in Bombay. One story in the collection 'A Tale of 1947' is what they say perhaps influenced his decision to go to Pakistan when in the aftermath of the partition, one of his close friends says in anger, he might kill a Muslim friend like Manto. In Lahore Manto again met great minds like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Nasir Kazmi etc in the famous Pak Tea House of Lahore where they say fearless debates raged even in times of dictatorial rule. His greatest works have been produced in the last seven years of his life when he faced extreme financial and emotional hardship, unable tot come to terms with a humanity that seemed to have let him down.

As I read his stories, short, some are only one line long  as in this one titled 'Luck' - 'That is rotten luck my friend. After so much hard work all I was able to get was this box... and all it contained was pork.' - I was awakened to the idea that stories must be told whatever and however. The one line tells enough of the man's search for loot, god knows how many he killed and how he ended up with nothing but a box that contained food he cannot eat. Manto's stories are typically short, ironical and leave a small wound. Reading Manto (I have another huge collection) inspires me to write stories for the sake of writing them and nothing else.

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