Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Vijay Seshadri on Saadat Hasan Manto.
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When, the famous legend tells us, Kabir, the fifteenth-century poet, saint, and mystic of the Gangetic plains, died, the Hindus fought with the Muslims over his body. The Muslims wanted to bury the body in anticipation of the Day of Resurrection. The Hindus wanted to take it to Varanasi, the sacred city and Kabir’s birthplace, to cremate it and relinquish the ashes to the sacred river. While the quarrel was intensifying, someone lifted the shroud covering Kabir and found that he’d vanished. In his place was a mound of flowers. A miracle. The Muslims buried half the flowers. The Hindus burned the other half.
This is an attractive story. It confirms certain ideas about India that persist to this day, among both Indians and Westerners. (I first heard it in the 1970s, a mystical, multicultural decade, while reading about Kabir after encountering Robert Bly’s Americanised versions of Tagore’s English translations of his poems.) It echoes the Easter-morning story nicely, and neatly combines piety towards a person with a transcendental solution to a collective human problem. Anyone who knows the history of the medieval and modern Subcontinent could be forgiven, though, if what they heard in it was not the harmony of the spheres but, instead, the ominous reverberations of communalism – the word that in South Asia denotes primarily religious but also sectarian (between Sunnis and Shias, for example, or between Sikhs and Hindus) and caste and ethnic conflict. And for anyone who knows the stark, unyielding Partition stories of the Punjabi slash Kashmiri slash Indian slash Bombay-wallah slash Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto (1912–1955), those echoes can become almost deafening.
It might not seem inevitable that a piece about Manto’s stories should begin by evoking the death, over five hundred years ago, of an ecstatic devotional poet. The absence in Manto of any interest in religion other than as a communal marker (or an opportunity to make the occasional joke about God, or depict, as in a story like ‘God-Man’, a variety of clerical scams) seems to make the connection even less inevitable. There is, though, an unassailable point of comparison, one that Manto himself, a subtly sardonic connoisseur of paradoxes, would have appreciated. No writer in any of the Hindustani vernaculars – and, in fact, no South Asian writer of equivalent stature in the half-millennium since Kabir – would have been less likely, figuratively speaking, to have his body fought over by the different communal entities than Manto.
Manto can be recognised, admired, praised – as he has been almost from his beginnings as a writer. He can be revered – as he has been. But he can’t be embraced. He had a powerful, free-floating, impartial imagination. He could fashion characters across the entire range of available human specimens. He had tremendous negative capability. He wrote a dry, vocally rounded, impeccably neutral, firm, precise, and limpid Urdu prose, which has proved to be easily accessible to translation. He had quicksilver powers of assimilation and dissemination. His storytelling gifts – the celerity, the smooth, masterly pacing, the controlled use of melodrama within a naturalistic frame, the instinct for dramatic tensions and for bare-bones but effective mise-en-scène (talents that made possible his well-compensated decade-long career in the cutting-edge media of the 1930s and 40s, as a writer of radio plays for All India Radio and a screenwriter for Bollywood) – were exemplary.
All these qualities make him wonderfully readable. But this readability has sharp edges. Is it a pleasure or a danger? Not just the darkness (in some places, the utter darkness) of so much of his material provokes this question. Given that darkness, the characteristics of Manto’s supreme fictions – his laconic specificity, studied reportage, understated tone, and unwillingness to take pity on his readers by giving them at least the occasional refuge of moral judgment – make it easy to wonder if his designs on us are benign. Readers who couldn’t care less about the subversive effect the authorities of his day said reading Manto had – he was put on trial (and acquitted) six times as a menace to society – might nevertheless feel a reluctance and unease in the face of his frankness and truth-telling. Manto’s career began among the Progressive writers of the Independence era, writers strongly influenced by Marxism, who demanded literature’s submission to moral outcomes. They, too, largely repudiated him. Moral rage can suffuse Manto’s stories, but they have no moral outcomes.
Many of Manto’s best stories available in English are included in this volume, culled and translated from a body of Urdu writing that is huge for any career, let alone for a career of a couple of decades (22 books of short fiction, along with a novel, multiple collections of radio plays, essays, and personal sketches). Among these are stories with an impressionistic interiority and ruefulness reminiscent of Chekov; stories about sex that were revolutionary for their time; stories that delicately examine the deepest privacies of consciousness, that are rich with humour, absurdity, phantasmagoria, that are self-reflexive and as much about how they are told as what they tell; stories that display a remarkably advanced feminist comprehension of women who succumb to, refuse and withstand, or triumph over male oppression and control.
Such stories represent what might be reasonably called the normal Manto – and, even, the companionable Manto, the Manto who can be talked about in the way other artists are talked about. This Manto can be analysed as an embodiment of literary hybridisation in the aftermath of imperialism, anti-imperialism, and Independence. He can be appreciated for synthesising influences ranging from the classical Urdu poets to Poe, Maupassant and Gorky, and adapting them to the churning reality of India in the decades of the freedom movement. Absent the tragedy of Partition, this companionable Manto would have had a (sort of) normal career and a (sort of) normal life in cosmopolitan Bombay, his beloved adopted city, open to the sea breezes and the world, instead of being panicked into fleeing from its communal riots in the months after Independence to provincial, pious, landlocked Lahore, where he died in 1955, prematurely and impoverished, of alcohol poisoning. His deep-rooted impulses to self-sabotage and self-destruction would have been sufficiently subdued, and might even have been dissolved, by a glamorous life, an affluent life. He’d still be drinking, but far more moderately, and drinking good Scotch, not the rotgut that killed him. He would have grown old as the family man he was, in his own way, meant to be.
But there are other Manto stories, too: coldly furious allegories, fevered illustrations, parables, vignettes, sketches, some of which are shapely, some of which are bitten-off shards, perpetual fragments. These are his Partition stories. They don’t comprise descriptions of carnage. Instead, they represent by means of ironies, indirections, and a restrained, ferociously objective orchestration of effects, humans lost in a wilderness of unspeakable violence. They are acts of imaginative courage, products of the refusal to lie – which refusal in turn becomes Manto’s fatality. His reputation substantially rests on these stories, and they encircle his isolated presence in the literary landscape of mid-century South Asia. Enduring (maybe the enduring) artefacts of the literature of Partition, they are vehicles for impossible truths about human violence, truths that, however much the evidence of history renders undeniable, people other than Manto – and societies everywhere, ancient, modern and contemporary, seeking to preserve their good opinion of themselves – repress with psychic cunning and determination. This has been especially true in India, Pakistan, and what is now Bangladesh, where the surges of mass psychosis – and the imperialist indifference, shot through with spite and racial animus – that defined the end of the British era gave way to a massive denial, a denial that determines and compromises national, international, and geopolitical relations in the region up to this moment. Acknowledged as he’s been over the past seventy years, because of those truths, Manto has never been, and never could be, the object of a cult or following. Not only is he not embraceable, he can hardly even be approached.
This is as much the case for professional readers – scholars, critics, writers of prefaces – as it is for general ones. Critical and biographical accounts (in English, anyway, and probably even more so in other South Asian languages) inevitably circle and approximate Manto rather than trying to get a direct fix on him. Discriminations and aesthetic judgments are made; stories are classified as successes or failures; strategies are undertaken to contain this radically disenchanted, radioactive material by asserting its crucial value to the historian of Partition, its value as a certain kind of data. Writers writing about him, baffled by the limitations of discourse itself, can seem like interlocutors at a seminar table ignoring the tiger that happens to be pacing the classroom. An indication of Manto’s unique achievement is, in fact, that he makes the limitations of discourse apparent, and forces us to ask questions about the moral purpose of reading itself.
Our responses to literature ordinarily tend to be loquacious, or at least talkative. We argue, admire, reject; we’re eloquent or ineloquent when we like or dislike. Reading, being social, involves a rhetorical contract between reader and writer. Even the majestic darkness of King Lear leaves room for reader response. Manto has stories that accommodate such responses. But the towering Manto stories, irreconcilable and undeniable, don’t. They stun us into silence, and transform the roar of Partition into a surrounding silence. This surrounding silence is one from which we want to extricate ourselves as quickly as possible; and we would, quickly, except for the fact that we can hear at the centre of this silence the faint echo of Manto’s muted, anguished sobbing, and are transfixed by it. Kabir famously said that he was neither a Hindu nor a Muslim. Manto, as pure a writer and as purely a writer as there ever was, involved in humankind to the point of his own destruction, was helplessly both, and helplessly every other kind of person, in every other place. It remains very hard for us to know what to say about such an artist.
This piece is taken from the preface of The Dog of Tithwal, a collection of stories by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Khalid Hasan, Muhammad Umar Memon and Aatish Taseer, published by Archipelago Books on 14 September 2021. You can buy The Dog of Tithwal here.
Vijay Seshadri is the author of five collections of poems: Wild Kingdom, The Long Meadow, The Disappearances, 3 Sections, and That Was Now, This Is Then; and many essays, reviews, and memoir fragments. His work has been recognised with a number of honours, including the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.