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Saying boo to the who’s who
Intizar Husain, Urdu writer and critic, once made a telling comparison between the two enfant terribles of the Urdu short story - Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto whose centenary was on May 11. Drawing attention to their natural tendency to write on provocative subjects, Husain wrote: "Where Ismat moves away lightly after making a passing reference to (such) a subject, Manto is like the naughty boy who flings open the door, claps his hands and says, 'Aha! I have seen you!'"
Indeed, both Ismat and Manto wrote bold stories that challenged traditional morality and worn-out notions of a woman's 'place' in society. Both spent the most active part of their writing career in Bombay and a group of writers called the Bombay Progressives influenced their writing to some extent. Both loved to handle bold and unconventional themes that had so far been taboo in Urdu literature. However, unlike Chughtai's homely and colourfully idiomatic language, the Begumati zubaan as it was called, Manto chose a stark, spare, almost staccato style, unembellished and unaffected, deliberately shorn of all appendages of style and convention. Cocking a snook at the niceties of form and content, both fashioned a language that was full-bodied and vigorous, an Urdu that was uniquely capable of expressing a thoroughly modern sensibility. What is more, both had an unabashed interest in sexual matters. Comparisons between the two, therefore, have always been inevitable.
Manto's short story Boo and Ismat's Lihaaf drew the ire of the upholders of traditional morality, the former for its unapologetic portrayal of an explicitly sexual encounter between an educated married man and a ghatan girl and the latter for viewing a lesbian relationship between two older women through the eyes of a young girl. What is more, a powerful literary grouping called the Progressive Writers' Association, and a core group within it comprising Sajjad Zaheer, Ali Sardar Jafri, Abdul Alim, etc. , sought to pass a resolution against obscenity in literature and came down heavily on both these writers. While the resolution to ban obscenity through a formal injunction was scuttled by fellow writers, both Ismat and Manto found themselves hauled up in a Lahore court. A case of obscenity was filed by one Chaudhry Mohammed Husain;Manto and Ismat were defended by Harilal Sibal, father of Kapil Sibal. The case dragged on and was eventually dismissed for lack of evidence. There is a delightful account of their trips to Lahore to attend the protracted court trial by Ismat in an essay entitled 'Un Byahtaon ke Naam' (In the Name of those Married Women). Both Ismat and Manto treated the frequent and necessary trips to Lahore as a jaunt, a fun time to eat, travel and meet fellow writers.
While Manto found himself shunned by the larger community of fellow writers, especially the progressives who had hitherto hailed him as a champion of socially engaged literature, Ismat found some supporters after the storm created by Lihaaf broke over her head. Major Urdu writers like Majrooh Sultanpuri, Krishan Chandar and Manto himself came out openly in support of her. Initially, Manto tried to defend the charges of obscenity by saying that his intention was neither pornography nor titillation but simply to show certain important and stark realities of life. Later, he took to feigning nonchalance about 'progressivism' though he admitted that the back and forth leaps of the famous progressives hurt a lot.
Throughout their literary careers, both refused to conform to the demands of the two major literary groups of their day - the progressives and the modernists;both continued to write stories culled largely from their own experiences. Ismat was characteristically blithe about her literary 'agenda' : "I have never seriously taken it to be my mission to reform society and eliminate the problems of humanity;but I was greatly influenced by the slogans of the Communist Party as they matched my own independent, unbridled, and revolutionary style of thinking ...What wonderful get-togethers, arguments and scuffles of words we had!"
Manto, while seemingly careless of the opinion of others was actually sensitive to criticism. We sense a distinct note of defensiveness when he writes: "I am no sensationalist. Why would I want to take the clothes off a society, civilisation and culture that is, in any case, naked? Yes, it is true I make no attempt to dress it - because it is not my job;that is a dressmaker's job. People say I write with a black pen, but I never write on a black board with a black chalk. I always use a white chalk so that the blackness of the board is clearly visible. "
Being near contemporaries, both Ismat and Manto were singed by the Partition. While Manto is regarded as the one of the finest, most brutal chroniclers of the Partition, producing story after story that lays bare the human aspect of the tragedy, Ismat wrote a play (Dhaani Bankein) that is directly about the cataclysmic events of 1947;elsewhere she alludes to it but with none of the macabre fascination that the blood and gore seems to have for Manto. In Ismat's essay Fasadat aur Adab (Communal Violence and Literature) we hear an echo of Manto: "The flood of communal violence came with all its evils and left, but it left a pile of living, dead and gasping corpses in its wake. It wasn't only that the country was split in two, bodies and minds were also divided. Moral beliefs were tossed aside and humanity was in shreds. "
Provocative, outrageous, scandalous, Ismat and Manto remained relentlessly and steadfastly individualistic. Till their dying day, they continued to pose a problem for the literary critics who never quite knew what to make of them. But not their readers - who only love them more with each new generation.
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