‘Thanda Ghost”(Cold Meat), he did not have Rupees 300 to pay as fine.
Utter his name today and many people shrug. They question his relevance. But few have surpassed his art of short story writing. He started by translating the works of Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky. Emulating these masters, he outgrew the South Asian mindset. Like Maupassant, he needed very little space to be able to create a world.
Perhaps, he fell between the two stools. He scandalized the conservatives who shunned him, while the ‘progressives’ of his era espousing Marxist-Leninist ideals, thought he was needlessly and sensationally stirring the society’s sewerage.
Bombay beckoned him in 1936 when he was 24. For the next 12 years, he churned out poetry, short stories, plays and film scripts. He wrote of sights and sounds of the big bad city, with biting satire, and sly humour. Sometimes, he told his story in no more than a paragraph or two.
Manto surfaces only intermittently as India forgot him because he wrote in Urdu, dubbed the “enemy’s language” by a section of political and literary class. Pakistan, where he migrated but was never really comfortable, has been unable to digest him because his material, wherein he predicted military rule and religious extremism, was essentially anti-Pakistan. His presence is grudging and his prophesies are recalled by liberals as part of self-criticism
His anguished writings on the Partition are soul-wrenching reminders of those times and to the conscience of anyone with a sensitive mind.
“Either everyone’s life matters, or no one’s does” Manto wrote during the Partition. But he found it impossible to preach ideals amidst mindless violence.
Bombay had, indeed, triggered his creative juices and offered him great avenues. But he left the beloved city in a pique when he found that the sectarian virus had afflicted even those he held dear.
He quit after Shyam, a rising cine-star and a friend, told him when confronted by marauding rioters that he could “kill every Muslim in sight.” Pleadings by Ashok Kumar, the superstar of the day and a family friend were of no avail. Shyam caught up with him in Lahore later in the early 1950s and said Bombay wanted him back. But a heart-broken, penury-struck Manto never returned.
“This is not the dawn we longed for,” Manto said upon hearing of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. And when Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah died, he wrote exhorting people to hoist the flag, not just of Pakistan and Islam, but also of humanity.
It is difficult to identify the films Manto wrote for in his lifetime. But his writings have been made into films. BBC filmed Toba Tek Singh in 1987, but amid controversy it triggered, re-named it “Partition’.
Manto-inspired Indian and Pakistani films include Mrinal Sen’s Antareen (1994), Fareeda’s Kali Shalwar (2001), and Toba Tek Singh by director Afia Nathaniel in 2005.
Pakistan honoured him belatedly with a posthumous Nishan-e-Imtiaz Award (Order of Excellence) in 2012. Sarmad Khoosat paid him homage with a 2015 biopic, himself playing Manto. It was later developed into a TV series based on his short stories.
In India, after being confined for long to literary and theatre circles, actor-director Nandita Das has resurrected Manto with a biopic. It has received rave reviews in film festivals abroad. Amid the current India-Pakistan mood that is hostile and given the sensitivities of Manto had to say of the country where he died, it is unclear if it will be shown in Pakistan.
Critics say Das has made a ‘dark’ film about a complex man. For, she doesn’t idolize Manto: indeed, she is irreverent and much as she revers him, even cruel in portraying him.
This is where she differs vastly from the huge number of biopics Bollywood has produced recently ranging from cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and M S Dhoni, boxing great Mary Kom, Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt and many others. That, perhaps, explains its poor earnings.
Her Manto, performed exceedingly well by Nawazuddin Siddipui, is not larger-than-life. He has all the human frailties compounded by the intensity with which he reacts to people and situations he confronts.
Das amplifies his liberal voice by maintaining an artistic distance. It’s her restraint that gives the film the soft edge. Notably, the film underlines the continued relevance of Manto’s words whether to do with Hindu-Muslim unity or freedom of expression.
Only Manto, the writer, could defy God and dare to write his own epitaph while still in Bombay: “Here lies Manto and with him are buried all the secrets of the art of short story writing. Under mounds of the earth, he is still wondering which of the two was a greater story-teller: God or he.”
While this epitaph was not used on the grave of Manto, Manto, the story-teller, has lived on.
(The author can be reached at email@example.com )]]>