The Literary Genius of Manto

There is something endearingly painful about the work of Manto, in the characters he uses to portray the turbulence of the post partition era, the particular depiction he adopts for each of them, the imagery of crude sensibility and crass sensationalism and the impact his work has on the first time reader. The element of darkness-blurring as he does the distinction between man and animal,the savage and the cultured- is inescapable and one would reasonably speculate that this comes from a deep appreciation of the unique quality of the human spirit(he translated the works of Russian literary giants, so must have picked up the themes of suffering and social hypocrisy from there). Manto, in defense of the litigation charges leveled against him, contends that he simply unveils the barbaric face of society, that his baring work is a mirror to a society grounded in hypocrisy; in other words, that the messenger should not be held responsible for exposing the truth as it is. Manto was outrageously articulate about social taboos-in particular the treatment of women in society- and here he explains his stance, in a rather nonchalant manner, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth”.

In the 1950s, Pakistani society and intelligentsia rebuked the work of Manto, deriding him as a fanatic, a heretic, a drunkard, and most dangerously, a Kaafir. Manto’s was a chaotic life, marred by financial troubles and literary criticism and he died young, at 42. He gradually withered away in his last years (his drinking problem only worsened with time), as the country he had migrated to failed its people, as the dream crashed and reality sunk in; he too began to fade away( in his own words: iss zillat ki zindagi ko ab khatm ho jana chahiye). Manto was a product of his times, as every writer inevitably is. His early, untimely death remains a terrible loss to world literature. However, as they say, artists never die, and Manto lives on through his short stories, through his pen. In a patriarchal and hypocritical society,how could Manto have survived the suffocation, the dreadful betrayal and barbarism of the people?

An article in Dawn is pertinent here:

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 dostho Maulana Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, magar maine tumhain apne zameer ki masjid kaimam muqarar nahin kiya.”

Manto was daring enough, in a time of Hindu-Muslim clashes, to highlight the violence that would otherwise have been neglected as being taboo, the kind that most writers cringe to explore: intra Muslim violence, whereby believers commit acts of injustice against one another. His literary genius exploded in stories such as “Khol Do” and “Toba Tek Singh”, where he single-handedly challenged the prevailing intellectual discourse and for which he was subsequently attacked and charged with obscenity. In depicting the prostitute, an individual who survives on the fringes of the society and is marginalized and derided, Manto stokes a deep respect for the feminine form; he explores piety through impiety, respect through disrespect and honor through dishonor.

The genius of Manto emerges not only from the content of his writings, or the sheer nuisance value of some of his more colorful short stories, but from his relevance in a historical perspective. The harrowing bloodshed and carnage that accompanied the partition of a once united India, would not have escaped the literary lens of the time, and more than any other individual, he personified and captured the spirit of loss and sacrifice, the sense of tragedy and doom. Every era has a writer who absorbs the contradictions of his day, and Manto stands tall among his contemporaries as the voice of the voiceless, those killed without due justice, those maimed and tarnished for life, those whose bodies were defiled and who retained within themselves an enduring sense of shame. Pakistan, ever since Manto’s demise, has undergone another major internal crisis, namely the spread of radical Islam and extremism, both state sponsored and by non-state actors. Thousands have perished in the ensuing turmoil, and none of the anger, the feeling of injustice and betrayal, has been dissipated and mollified through the written world. The age harkens for a writer of the stature of Manto.


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