In search of Sa'adat Hasan Manto

Every time young Sa'adat came down to Paproudi for his vacation, Ujagar Singh knew exactly what needed to be done. In the small, quiet village in Punjab's Samrala tehsil the friends had their own ritual. Grab some makki ki roti and sarson ka saag and meet at their regular hangout - the common well in fellow villager Kartar Singh's fields. Or as they fondly put it, "Kartaarey da khoo" . That was where they would bathe, eat and while away time playing football. Ujagar Singh admits his memory is rusty. He is, after all, close to a 100 years old. But when he talks about the little things he does remember, his heavily lined face further creases into a smile. "He (Manto) really liked playing football. He would get one himself. For all the years he was here, I never heard him utter a single swear word." His disjointed memories of the time he spent with his childhood friend are frequently punctuated with "Bahut hi changa banda si (he was a very fine man)."

As young kids playing in the wheat fields that surround Paproudi even today, Ujagar Singh says he never imagined his playmate Sa'adat Hasan Manto would some day become one of the greatest short story writers the Indian sub-continent had ever seen. Being unlettered, he has never read Manto. But he knows Manto was written about in the papers. He remembers nothing of the time when the writer was charged with obscenity and tried in court for six of his stories. "Maybe something like that happened. I don't know," Ujagar Singh says, the words tripping over each other as they come out of his mouth in a near-incomprehensible mumble.

In its absence, Ujagar Singh's memory mirrors that of Samrala. There is a vague sense of acknowledgement that a writer of renown once belonged to these parts. But it's easy to find vignettes of rustic Punjab in Manto's stories like 'Thanda Gosht' (Cold Meat). Gurbhajan Singh Gill, president of the Punjabi Sahit Akademi, calls Manto a "real son of the soil" . Manto's characters worked to shock and turn societal stereotypes on their heads. For example, Mozel, the Jewish woman who accepts, spurns and then dies for her Sikh admirer. Or Babu Gopi Nath, who does all he can to get a young prostituted woman married off to a rich man. Manto's accounts of the riots and violence that followed Partition are chilling yet remarkably sensitive at the same time. 'Khol Do' is one stand-out example that immediately comes to mind. 'Toba Tek Singh' , perhaps his most famous story, is a telling commentary on the madness of Partition.

Manto's treatment of sex and sexuality was something that earned him the ire of the British government as well as the rulers of Pakistan, where he had migrated to in the late 1940s. His openness and direct approach to the subject was taken for obscenity and perversion then. Today, though, he finds place even in the Delhi University syllabus, regarded as a man ahead of his times. Manto, however, did not stay in his village of birth for long. He studied in Amritsar and later moved to Bombay for work. But had Manto been around, he'd be happy to see that finally, after all these years, a small group of people are putting all their might to revive the writer in Samrala and neighbouring Ludhiana.

On May 13, two days after Manto's birth centenary , the Punjabi Lekhak Manch and the Punjabi Sahit Akademi have scheduled a seminar in Samrala , inviting the writer's three daughters from Pakistan. The Ludhiana chapter of Punjab University will also stage a play based on one of his short stories. In Malerkotla, a village about 40 km away from Samrala, an Urdu bi-monthly magazine 'Nazariya' plans to bring out a special issue dedicated to Manto. Advocate Daljeet Singh Shahi, who works in the Samrala civil court and is also president of the Punjabi Lekhak Manch, proudly points out that it's the same court where Manto's father served as subjudge years ago. A Punjabi short-story writer himself , Shahi is unhappy at the lack of recognition for Manto in Punjab today. "I feel people have forgotten him. There is very little interest in literature here," he says. Talking about the centenary celebration plans, he turns to two people waiting in his office and politely explains to them who exactly it is that is being discussed. The men have never heard the name Manto before.

See alsoSaadat Hassan Manto and the partition of India —Ishtiaq Ahmed
This year marks the centenary of one of the most remarkable Urdu short-story writers of the Indian subcontinent: Saadat Hassan Manto (May 11, 1912-January 18, 1955). His contemporary, Krishan Chander (1914-1977), himself a literary icon who some critics have described as the “the imam of the Urdu short-story” graciously wrote in his obituary on Manto that indeed he was the greatest short-story writer of his generation...I will end by narrating one of my other favourites. In his, ‘Siyah Hashiye’ (Black Borders), Manto depicts an excited pro-Pakistan mob that attacks the statue on the Lahore Mall Road of the great Hindu philanthropist of Punjab, Sir Ganga Ram. One of them blackens its face with tar. Another collects old shoes, strung into a garland, and is about to put it around the statue’s neck, when the police shows up and begins firing. The man who is about to put the garland of shoes around the statue’s neck is injured. He is sent to the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital for treatment.. (The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.)

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