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Master storyteller


SAADAT HASAN MANTO: A prolific writer of short stories

While the centenary celebrations for Faiz Ahmed Faiz - one of Urdu language's greatest poets wind down - the centenary year of Saadat Hasan Manto, another giant of the Urdu language, will commence in May this year. In fact, Faiz's Subh-e-Azadi (August 1947) and Manto's Toba Tek Singh are perennially invoked in any discussion about the Partition. Not for nothing is Toba Tek Singh one of the most read short stories in South Asia.

'Sadaat Hasan Manto, Short Story Writer, 1912-1955 ', announces a very basic commemorative plaque on 31 Laxmi Mansions, Hall Road, Lahore, where Manto lived following his decision to leave Bombay and India in 1949. Although most would say that Manto was much more than just a short story writer, but this laconic introduction cannot be faulted. Yes, the man wrote essays, radio plays, a novel and a bunch of film scripts, including Mirza Ghalib, but he also wrote 200-odd short stories over two decades. Manto's privileging of the short story over the novel - undoubtedly a more dominant form of narrative - is also indicative of the author's subversive temperament. Little surprise then that Manto was tried for obscenity half-a-dozen times, but never convicted.

If Lahore has its plaque, then Delhi has its Saadat Hasan Manto Lane. And then there's Mumbai, a city the writer moved to in 1936 and where he continued to live - except for an 18-month stay in Delhi - till the time he left for Pakistan where there's nothing to indicate that the man had once been there.

In 2001, Naseeruddin Shah directed Manto. . . Ismat Haazir Hain! The title summons the obscenity charges the Lahore High Court had hurled at Manto and his contemporary - both in thought and time - Ismat Chughtai for their stories Bu and Lihaaf respectively. The play is a theatrical retelling of these stories. The following year, Shah and his wife Ratna Pathak Shah co-directed and presented more Manto stories in a production titled Safed Jhoot Kali Shalwar.

"Toba Tek Singh is no doubt a great piece but Khol Do, Thanda Ghosth and Kali Shalwar are superb, " says artist Nalini Malani. In 1998, she made Remembering Toba Tek Singh, one of her earliest video installations. Of the work she says, "In May 1998, following the nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistan I received a call from a television channel seeking my reactions. I had already been interested in Toba Tek Singh and in the course of the half-hour interview I laid out the structure of what would eventually become Remembering Toba Tek Singh. "

Recalling her introduction to Manto, Malani adds, "I had read some of Manto's short stories in a Hindi translation while I was a student at Sir J J School of Art in the mid-sixties. Toba Tek Singh struck me as a brilliant account of the absurdity of Partition. At the time, Manto, of course, was very famous for his scripts for Bombay's Hindi/Urdu cinema. "

For Bhishen Singh, the mentally challenged, reluctant protagonist of Toba Tek Singh, the Partition is a conundrum. He fails to fathom its grotesque reality. Malani draws on Singh's trauma and presents the viewer with a repertoire of images, most prominent among them being the digitally manoeuvred images of babies withdrawing into their maternal wombs.

"I was born in 1946, and have no memory of my life in undivided India. Memories of a lost homeland through images, objects and words frequently filtered into the homes of my grandparents and parents. Manto's Partition stories are vital to me as they sensitively nuance that painful period of collective madness, " she says.

On the other hand, Madhusree Dutta's Seven Islands and a Metro looks into Manto's less-explored traits such as his humour. In the docu-drama, Dutta does a reading of Mumbai with the assistance of the fictionalised presence of Manto and Chughtai. "Most people when they think of Manto think of his haunting Partition stories but there's a light, witty and urban side to him. I'm always amused by the anecdote about the time Manto and Chughtai were travelling to Lahore for the hearing of their obscenity case when they spent a lot of their time buying jootis along the way. Much has been talked about the seriousness of the case but not about the flamboyance of prioritising footwear over the legal troubles. In my film I wanted to show this side of him. "

Dutta was also interested in Manto's relationship with Bombay. "Despite having moved to Lahore, Manto continued to write about Bombay. Chughtai on the other hand was very critical of his decision to leave India and continued to live in Bombay for another 40 years but never wrote about the city. This begs the questions: Who left the city? And who stayed on? I wanted to access Urdu, a language we seem to be losing, through these two authors, " she says.

Speaking of language, Manto's wit shines through in an article he wrote about the Hindi-Urdu language dispute. In this piece he mischievously takes on the debate by using lime and soda water as metaphors for the two languages.

In 2005, Pakistan commemorated Manto's fiftieth death anniversary with a postage stamp. In this centenary year Manto's memory will hopefully be commemorated with a more liberal culture, tolerance and less censorship.

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