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Bombay's Manto

Friday, August 17, 2018

Asiatic Library recently celebrated the legendary Saadat Hasan Manto’s writing. Ronita Torcato reports

For someone who died young, despairingly young at 43 from alcoholism, the iconic Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto wrote prodigiously: 22 collections of short stories, five collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, a novel  and several screenplays.

Born in Samrala, Punjab, Manto lived in Mumbai (then Bombay) for 12  years and immortalised the city in his stories before he migrated to Pakistan in 1947.

His  essays are said to be full of irony, satire, self ridicule and sorrow. One of his most famous works is of course the short story "Toba Tek Singh", about an insane asylum on the border of the two recently divided nations.

In this story, ­the scene where a madman climbs a tree and  declares ‘I want to live neither in Hindustan nor in Pakistan. I had rather live on this tree,’ probably captures the lunacy of the  Partition and violence that followed it, especially since, outside the asylum, the supposed sane  were  slaughtering neighbours and friends.

Several of his stories had conflicted, complex characters: a Muslim father who rejoices on finding his daughter alive in a refugee camp, the Sikh who is stabbed by his wife during sex when he confesses to raping a corpse, a Jewish girl who sacrifices herself to save a Sikh man during Muslim-Sikh riots and the Hindu prostitute who opens the door stark naked to a pimp.

Manto  did not see his characters through the lens of religion, caste or community. For Manto, these people are just human.

"If you find these stories intolerable," he once  said, "it must mean that we live in an intolerable age." Pilloried as a drunkard and “kafir” (Arabic for unbeliever) Manto was hauled up for obscenity three times in British India, and thrice after Partition in Pakistan. And what did he write about that got everyone's goat on both sides of the border! Massacres, rape, addictions, prostitution, poverty!

He predicted the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan in  sardonic “Letters to Uncle Sam”.   In one, written a year before he died, he wrote that the US “will definitely make a military aid pact with Pakistan because you are really worried about the integrity of this largest Islamic sultanate of the world and why not, as our mullahs are the best antidote to Russia’s communism. If the military aid starts flowing, you should begin by arming the mullahs.”

In another essay, he predicted a future where music, art, literature and poetry would be censored. That future is already upon us. But it was not so in the city that Manto had lived in between 1936  and 1948. “I am a walking, talking Bombay" Manto would write in 1951, four years before he died  in Lahore.

To celebrate this legend’s life and letters, Mumbai Research Centre of the Asiatic Society recently organised a day long program of events. These included a culture walk by Rafique Baghdadi, an expert on Bombay’s history and a great fan of Manto’s writings.

The walk took participants over Kennedy Bridge, the erstwhile location of Jyoti Studios owned by Ardeshir Irani, producer of the first talkie Alam Ara whose release coincided with the execution of Bhagat Singh.(Manto wrote the screenplay of the first Indian colour film, Kisan Kanya produced  by Irani)

The walk then meandered through the gullies of Grant Road,  sallied through streets where sex "workers" live in "cages", wandered through Nagpada, the hustling-bustling Arab Galli where the iconic writer had first stayed when he came to the city, at age 24 from Ludhiana.

After his marriage to Safiya in 1942, Manto would  move to a quiet precint, into a building called Adelphi inside a spacious compound on Clare Road, Byculla, where a large number of Jews, Christians and Muslims lived.

Filmmaker Nandita Das showed a trailer titled “Manto” where Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the iconic writer.

Her biopic traces the most tumultuous years in the life of iconoclast in India and Pakistan. It has been screened at the Cannes Film Festival and to a ticketed audience in Sydney and will be shown in September at the Toronto International Film Festival where she last went a decade ago with her directorial debut "Firaaq" featuring Nawazuddin.

Das described Manto as "a misfit, brutally honest, rude,very sensitive and also arrogant. A maverick who lived on his own terms." Researching her Manto biopic Das recalled her Lahore meeting with Manto's sister-in-law who "kept weeping at every question."

After Partition,  Manto had begun to feel paranoid. The story goes  that he was shaken by a film colleague who told him, " I feel like slicing a knife through your throat". Given the nature of Hindi filmdom and Bollywood which has always been secular and cosmpolitan, I don't know if that story is true. But this one is: As Manto lay dying in Lahore, broke and heartbroken, he kept insisting he was in Bombay.

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