Manto saheb review: Manto minutiae

Man Of the hour

Writer — short stories, screenplays, plays, essays; provocateur, alcoholic genius, Urdu icon; Saadat Hasan Manto, born 106 years ago in Ludhiana, Punjab, died aged 42, Lahore, 1955. And here we are still discussing him today — a book and a film about him being the latest releases among many through the years. What makes Manto such a magnet?

One may or may not have heard about well-known Manto stories like the recently filmed Toba Tek Singh, the ironical tale about a senile old man who puzzlingly found himself stateless even as India and Pakistan came into being. In any case, Manto’s stories continue to enthral the curious reader. And Manto’s life story itself, full of drama, contradictions, and humanity, is surprisingly relevant to this day.

One of the major charms of Manto Saheb is that it serves as a travelling train to the past, dotted with stops en route at Amritsar, Delhi, Bombay and Lahore — from the 1930s, 40s and early 50s. Through chapters authored by Manto’s contemporaries (big literary names and family), one gets a very good idea of the trajectory taken by Manto since his beginnings as a self-confessed proud ‘Kashmiri Brahmin’ rooted Muslim from Amritsar. The youngest of 12 children to a lawyer father, Manto found himself without the family aptitude for law, but just the right temperament for writing. Starting off by translating to Urdu, the socialist works of writers like Gorky and Victor Hugo, Manto graduated from writing for an Amritsar paper to editing film magazines in Bombay’s bustling film industry of 1936. It was in this enchanting lively city with all its temptations and turbulence that Manto flowered through the next five years, as a writer, finding his stories in Bombay’s brothels as much as the studios he stalked with his scripts. There was also marriage, loss of a young child. Everything left its mark and flowed out through his darkly humorous pen. This atheist, Punjabi-fluent Urdu writer started every work with 786 mark.

But the intermittent employment and income of the Hindi film industry found Manto seeking temporary refuge in Delhi — at AIR, the intellectual hub of those times. And the prolific wordsmith soon found himself turning into a literary superstar, as he seamlessly churned out innumerable radio plays for AIR’s Urdu service. This is where he worked with the big names of Hindi-Urdu literature, as fiercely competitive colleagues wrote passionately in a liberal atmosphere touched by the mood of pre-independence, wartime India. Writers like Krishan Chander, Upendranath Ashk, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Balwant Gargi and many more… all experienced Manto’s waspish tongue, moods, generosity, his temperamental genius —firsthand. They have told their stories in detail — providing insights and gossipy revelations. Gargi’s essay truly reflects those happy years.

Krishan Chander talks about downing drinks with Manto, rather reluctantly. Manto is quoted thus: ‘‘The bloody English have no idea how to distil alcohol. How do they dream of even ruling over India?’’

 After 18 highly productive months in Delhi, Manto returned to his beloved Bombay for his second session of six years. These years saw him produce his best work, as a short story writer, as well as scriptwriter for the film company Filmistan. He worked with big names like Ashok Kumar, Urdu literary stars like Ismat Chugtai — and with their help attempted to revive Bombay Talkies.

 Ashk joined Manto in Bombay, despite their acrimonious love-hate relationship. Ashk notes in his essay: ‘‘Shashadhar Mukherjee, the boss at Filmistan, was like the sadist police inspector of old days, who would make people labour like slaves under the power of their whip.’’

 But fate dealt another blow when his sensitive prickly nature again caused problems with colleagues. Besides, the increasing communal atmosphere propelled a reluctant Manto to leave for Lahore, in January 1948, joining his family, already there.

 His final years were spent writing, earning small amounts, which soon got converted to drinks, and increasingly, fighting obscenity cases in court, as in India earlier. In January 1955, Manto died, yearning for his beloved Bombay, a victim to alcohol and his own tempestuous honesty. He left behind a huge volume of work, some of the most nuanced explorations of the human psyche.

 His wife (with three young daughters to support) had appreciated Manto but was understandably bitter, too. They bore the economic brunt of his battles with alcohol and courts.

Manto’s stories about Bombay’s diverse denizens — women, writers, workers, pimps — reveal a deep understanding of a city that has flourished creatively through a century and more, despite overcrowding and general poverty. His stories about partitioned India are warnings that need to be read, more than ever by today’s citizens. Stories like ‘Mozelle’, ‘Boo’ (Smell), ‘Khol Do’, ‘Thanda Gosht’ — just drops in the ocean of Manto’s literary overflow; they need to be sampled, appreciated, and learnt from.

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Manto saheb review: Manto minutiae

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