Manto was a scriptwriter in Bombay’s film industry in the 1940s. When his friend, the legendary actor Ashok Kumar, and his producer-partner, Suvik Wacha, took over Bombay Talkies, they offered – in a redeeming gesture that resisted the septic atmosphere of communal violence and disharmony – the most senior positions to Muslims. For this, Wacha received mails threatening arson and murder. But he and Kumar stuck to their guns. Despite such a show of solidarity by friends, the atmosphere was perhaps poisoned beyond redemption for Manto when he discovered that his Hindu friend Shyam had violent feelings against him after they heard stories of communal violence together from a Sikh family who had escaped from Rawalpindi. It was a major incident that fuelled Manto’s decision to leave the Bombay he loved, for Pakistan […]
As he recounts in his memoir, when he asked his friend Shyam if he wanted to kill him after hearing the stories of Muslim atrocities, Shyam replied, “Not now, but when I was listening to them…I could have killed you.”
Manto understood the ‘psychological background’ of the ‘communal holocaust of Partition’ from Shyam’s desire to kill him when he was hearing the story, but not later. It told him that communal feelings can cast a spell where both objectivity and friendliness are eclipsed by an overwhelming sense of hate. In that mindless moment, a person’s religious identity is implicated without moral, ethical or even affective registers of belonging. The person is stripped of all human meanings that made the friendship possible in the first place. The fact that the person who goes through that moment of intense hate calms down later, only proves the fatal, if momentary, nature of the illness. The shock of that revelation led to Manto’s departure. The growing communalization of Hindu-Muslim relations today is reminiscent of what happened during Manto’s time. Trust is thrown into the cesspool of jingoism […]
Hindus and Muslims, during Partition and after, have been prepared to lose, for the sake of pride, what they could have gained by trusting each other. The secular state is only suited to solve matters of dispute between two communities. It cannot provide ways to engage with (or overcome) deeper matters of trust and reconciliation. For the secular state itself is implicated in the moral mess that founded the nation. In the name of instating a social order, the secular state overlooked its responsibilities regarding the ethical issue of trust.
The foundation of social order is most often a fiction guarded by law. The necessity for such an order needs to be supplemented by public expiation. No law can ensure peace without setting an example of social honesty. In time, the unfulfilled possibility of that honesty degenerates into acceptance of mass crimes. This is exemplified by Hindu men bragging on tape about rapes they committed during the 2002 Gujarat pogroms.
In contrast to this degenerate state of Hindu-Muslim relations, imagine Manto’s exceptional friendship with Ashok Kumar. In his memoir, Manto recounts the day when ‘religious killings were…at their height’ (he does not offer a date, but it must have been post-August 1947). He was returning with Ashok Kumar from Bombay Talkies, and had spent a few hours at Kumar’s residence. Kumar offered to drop Manto home, and they ended up passing through a Muslim neighbourhood, where a marriage procession was passing by. Manto was scared to bits, ‘praying in broken words’, invoking god to dissuade any act of violence that would render him guilty for life. Manto feared that if Kumar was harmed, the country would never forgive him. A few people in the crowd recognized Kumar and shouted his name. Manto froze. He was prepared to reveal his identity in order to avoid disaster. Then two men rushed towards the car and, ignoring Manto, addressed Kumar, ‘Ashok bhai, this street will lead you nowhere. It is best to turn into this side lane.’
The fragile and exemplary nature of this story reveals a couple of key aspects in our political history. At a personal level, friendship inspired Ashok Kumar to risk driving through a Muslim neighbourhood at the height of Hindu-Muslim riots to drop Manto home. Friendship inspires trust, and trust emboldens the spirit. Despite the breakdown of social relations, a Muslim crowd in Bombay displayed an affectionate attitude towards Ashok Kumar. It was perhaps not merely the respect Kumar had earned as a popular figure of Indian cinema, but also what the culture of the Bombay film industry represented in the minds of people. It was a culture where Urdu and Hindi thrived together as languages, as much as Hindu and Muslim filmmakers, actors, music directors, lyricists and singers. To take just one example: Sahir Ludhianvi’s most memorable compositions were set to tune by Sachin Dev Burman in Guru Dutt’s Pyasa, and the songs were sung by Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt. The history of the Bombay film industry is a reflection of our folk and popular cultural history, where spiritual beliefs, social criticism of those beliefs, legendary love stories and the idea of love and friendship, overlap religions and cultures. Any attempt to engineer a culturally fascist agenda of segregating languages, stories and sensibilities cannot last.
Excerpted with permission from Looking For the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee (Speaking Tiger, August 2018).