Long banished from the literary canon, Saadat Hasan Manto was probably amongst the few great writers who wanted to make a living out of writing.
The late 1970s and 1980s were whimsically contradictory in many ways but clearly a departure from the immediate aftermath of the post-Partition period that had caused so much anguish and despair to its most outspoken literary icon. Saadat Hasan Manto had migrated from Bombay reluctantly but was soon consumed by a new Pakistan, her freakish anomalies that, like a ghost, kept returning to haunt.
The culture of reading, however, was still popular in the years under Zia-ul Haq and, apart from being the lingua franca, Urdu was the predominant mode of expression especially in Punjab and urban Sindh. Urdu literature was read a lot more than today and popular monthly and weekly publications were common in homes, schools and a few public libraries.
For the older girls, the popular choices were magazines such as Hoor, Zaibunissa and Pakeeza and for children, Naunehal, Jugnoo and Taleem-o Tarbiyyat were the going fare. The selection for adults included Urdu Digest, Sayyara Digest and Chattaan. One could still chance upon a library full of books and hardback copies of older magazines at a friend’s house. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was dismissed as a surkha (communist) but still revered and respected. Children could read to their heart’s content as long as they did not skip school or fail exams.
Yes, there were rules. Adaab Arz was frowned upon, considered vulgar and below dignity for adults or children. Girls weren’t meant to even imagine reading magazines that carried gory details of love letters written with men’s blood. Girls dutifully obliged, mostly. It was still not unusual though to spot these magazines in the trash which the middle-class families sold to trash collectors every month.
But one author who did not exist in this paradise of books was Manto. His was the complete expulsion from the Garden of Eden – banished and exiled without a trace. No one ever whispered his name at home. This was a strange fact of life whose discovery astonished any boy or girl who upon reaching adolescence became curious and one day accidentally discovered his work in some hidden corner of the house. They read it out of curiosity while trembling with fear but soon abandoned him for not delivering and wondered about the reasons for his clandestine existence.
The ever-evolving ritual of selling Manto’s books ‘under the counter’, however, kept them seduced. You would see a bookseller sitting with a nervous youth in a remote corner of his shop, digging out alluring paperbacks wrapped in neat half-transparent plastic covers – one of these would unmistakably be a Manto.
Manto had been dead for over two decades but his banishment from the ‘proper households’ seemed eternal in the holy land. It suited both the publishers and the booksellers since it was more profitable, just like any other prohibited item. You could make money out of those who were genuinely interested in his works or the ones looking for something that they suspected these books offered based on the occasional snippets of eavesdropped gossip.
In this process, a lot of books under Manto’s name became available by obscure publishers with clumsy editing and printing and often additions or changes in his stories. One would read almost the same portrait of Pakistan’s greatest playback singer Noor Jehan as a separate paperback under the title of Noor Jehan, Saroor-e-Jaan with a few spicy extra bits sprinkled here and there and then one could find a crisp version of the same under another title Noor Jehan in a hardback anthology. One would wonder if the devil was out there to challenge the idea that Manto was dead.
As with Bulleh Shah or Ghulam Farid, you could never find the ‘authentic text’ apart from what he himself had published in a few literary magazines or with some publishers during his lifetime. A number of cheap and badly printed paperbacks existed in his name and, as if to haunt his tormentors, these mostly announced on the back cover that Manto ke andar aik aurat reh ti thee [a woman resided inside Manto].
In a way it was fine – after all, Manto always wished to sell. He was probably amongst the few great writers who wanted to make a living out of writing and never failed at it. That also landed him in all kinds of troubles, including the trials of his stories, stirring more controversy than any of his contemporaries – perhaps he knew that controversy sells. But there were also two unlikely outcomes for Manto – he succumbed to his financial woes despite writing something everyday and his name was permanently added to the list of forbidden subjects which he so vehemently wanted to make part of the mainstream discourse.
By 1980s, the paranoia of ‘Islam-under-threat’, which Manto had warned against in numerous articles, had been hoisted as the sole determinant of the national narrative, beyond debate. The denial syndrome that afflicted us in those days made us turn our backs on Manto’s most enduring theme, that of the human condition.
Fortunately for him, Manto was no longer alive and was spared the agony of having to pass through such intellectual imbecility and gross ideological oppression. The business of liquor and prostitution was still legal in his times and when the latter was banned in Karachi, he openly made fun of it. In an article, he welcomed an announcement by sex workers in Rawalpindi to form a union and pitied that a magazine brought out by sex workers in Lahore had to close down because it could not find ‘honest’ contributors. Could he have written anything like that under Zia or even after that?
The 1990s came and went. We entered the next century with ‘enlightened moderation’ and by then had learned to live with naat ringtones taken from Bollywood numbers on our fancy cellphones. Manto is now openly available in bookstores and his critics and tormentors are gone. He must be sitting with them, hotly debating his relevance in our times. And what sadistic pleasure must he be deriving from the fact that he cannot be banished from the dead as he was from the living.
This piece originally appeared in Herald.