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Author and iconoclast, late Saadat Hasan Manto often roused controversy and—in the process—forced us to confront our own hypocrisy and prejudices. As part of his birth centenary on May 11, acclaimed theatre director Salim Arif, who has staged many of Manto’s plays, remembers the man who continues to be the voice of our conscience

I read Saadat Hassan Manto’s Nangi Awazein* when I was 17, and it has stayed with me since then. The story set fire to my lifelong admiration for a writer who almost always placed his characters in situations over which they had no control. The equation between their surroundings and their aspirations and desires triggered fascinating conflicts that have endured with time. Manto’s words are best compared to a stiletto—they inflict a deep wound within you even though the scar doesn’t show on the surface. Nobody has ever written about the Partition with greater anguish and firmness. And that intensity has given him a unique placement among the league of Partition era stories.

Manto was almost callous—even cruel—with his detachment with the theme at times. He never took sides, and he wrote with such starkness and sparseness, one couldn’t look away. For instance, in a story like Khol Do, till the end we don’t know where it’s leading. It’s only in the last four lines devoted to the entirely disparate reactions of a father and daughter, separated by the Partition, that the whole story unravels with a sudden twist. It’s almost like an anti-climax and that makes it even sharper. Of course, Toba Tek Singh remains the most poignant comment on the Partition; it sums up the attitude of an average subcontinent person so well.

Though most people regard him as a radical Partition era writer, I think Manto’s stories on Mumbai deserve greater attention; nobody has written about the city or its lower strata the way he has—maybe because no other writer has seen Mumbai from such close quarters the way he did. Whenever you pass through the crowded old alleys of the city, such as Nagpada or Byculla, you can see the characters that he wrote about. Nangi Awaazein, another one of his great short stories, is one such insightful comment on Mumbai, and yet an universal story. A young unmarried immigrant and his elder brother move into one of the many cramped housing spaces of the city where several families live together separated by partitions of thin curtains. Every day, the young immigrant peeps in through these partitions with voyeuristic curiosity to peer at the intimate lives of couples, and dreams and yearns for his own conjugal bliss. But when he finally marries, he is unable to go to bed peacefully plagued by paranoia that he could be the subject of the same scrutiny!

Manto’s stories are rarely ever long, but they are nearly unmatched in their power to sear you. He left behind a phenomenal galaxy of characters—people we meet every day on the streets. Whenever I drive from Saat Rasta to Byculla, I see people living in shelves on both sides of the pavement…slums full of tiny living spaces piled on top of each other precariously, filled with families who cook, wash, eat, laugh, fight and lead their whole lives in spectacular transparency. Recently, when I drove around that place with a friend from Lahore, he instantly said, “Hey, this is so Manto!”

Manto’s empathy for the weakness of a human being has to be admired. He was a lot like Hemingway who wrote with such depth and beauty about the prostitutes of Paris, or like Van Gogh who lived and created some of his beautiful works when he was surrounded by squalor and poverty. Manto always had a soft spot for the marginalised. He was not a womaniser but he found women incredibly attractive—attractive enough to write about them so fiercely and with such defiance; especially the ones on the fringes. There were a lot of people who were critical of him for finding his subjects among the darker sections of our society—the pimps, prostitutes, drunkards and criminals. But there was no agenda to his writings; he wrote from the heart. Whatever he felt and experienced… he was compelled to put it on paper and share it with us. He attacks you in a way that you have to address yourself, forcing you to confront truths that you shy away from. But like all great artists he was brutally honest about his own flaws and that was the most likeable quality about him. He never wrote to show off, but as an outpouring to his surroundings. Anything that disturbed him became a story. He was one of the few who had the courage to explore the inherent violence within the surroundings, especially the violence in relationships. As a director, to me, the most challenging part of depicting Manto’s works on stage is to do justice to this inner conflict and agony of his characters.

There was such restlessness within him that there was no way he could not have reacted to his surroundings. That eventually became unbecoming in a way, as he resorted to alcohol and gradually disintegrated as a person. But that disintegration had a lot to do with the prevalent atmosphere in Mumbai and Karachi at that time. He was a tormented soul; he snapped.

Is Manto relevant today? Of course he is. We still get swayed by choices of religion, don’t we? It is sad that in the past 30 years our politics has become more regionalised and more vernacular. Attitudes have become less tolerant and more hardened. Manto lived in a time when we had national issues; today we have regional issues. The spectres of region and religion are becoming increasingly powerful, so today’s generation will still understand what Manto was trying to tell us. In terms of a social context, it’s unfortunate that most of his stories are still relevant. We do not look at him as a person who existed in an era of hatred and communal politics. I wish we could just look back on him as that…. Manto still lives amongst us, because that era hasn’t died; it has only changed shades—and perhaps, become more frightening.

– This piece has been contributed by Mr Salim Arif-

“Nangi Awazain” (Naked Sounds) – Summary 
The main protagonists are two brothers, Bholo and Gama. (Manto named them after two well-known wrestlers perhaps to leave us in no doubt of their ‘manliness’.) They live in an over-crowded hovel, a block of tiny flats in a slum in Lahore. When Gama gets married, the voices and love making sounds in the dark inhibit him to an extent that he is unable to consummate his marriage. This incapacity becomes known to others and his wife walks out after a few days, leaving him distraught and nearly insane. As any reader could discern, it is not the act of making love but the human need for privacy of which our overwhelming urban population is deprived in over-crowded quarters. Manto perceived sexuality as energy, a life force delicately interwoven in the human persona.

Urduwallahs celebrate One Hundred Years of Saadat Hasan Manto.