The left-wing student organization I belonged to in my college days in Kolkata used to have a poster exhibition every year. This exhibition has begun to take place every year after the 1992 demolition of the Babri structure. One of them had those memorable words calligraphied red-black in a typical Bengali left-wing style – “The child noticed the coagulated blood on the road, pulled at his mother’s sleeve and said, ‘Look, ma, jelly’.” That, I discovered, was a fragment of a very short ‘story’; and to read the rest, I had to go to Manto.
There is a lot of hushed and not-so-hushed lamentation in this year of Saadat Hasan Manto‘s birth centenary. Why did he leave Bombay? India would have been so much of a ‘natural’ home for him, they say. Somewhere between pronunciations such as these, so characteristic of the self-congratulatory strain of elite public-secularism and a second-hand appreciation of Manto’s raw exposition of the chasm between our private and public lives, somewhere between those things lies the attitude with which we in India look at Manto. The Anglicized literati and their patron, the Indian Union, wants to own Saadat Hasan Manto. They are masters at making cages for living writers – some gilded, others iron-made. Some cages become sarkari mausoleums after the writer’s death. Zoo tigers do not bite, generally. Clearly, the enthusiasm of some folks on this side of owning Manto comes from a hope that sooner or later, a suitably golden cage could be made for him in the Union of India, for us to cheer and clap at. But I am not so sure.
Today, in Delhi and other places, Manto is dramatized, commemorated, written and read, largely in English. Urdu’s currency as one of the pervasive languages of the common public sphere (and not ‘qaumi’ affairs) of the Upper Gangetic plain has seen progressive ruin. Read primarily in English, would Manto resign himself to having a smaller following than, say, Chetan Bhagat? Would Manto have loved this loss of readership, would he have wanted to be primarily remembered for getting a Filmfare award for “lifetime achievement” in writing stories for Hindi movies? I am not so sure. He might have written about the gosht the Union would serve up, not only mazhabi gosht, but gosht from a thousand faultlines. He might have written about the garam gosht cooked up in Delhi in 1984, when Sikhs were massacred on that city’s streets, or about the gosht of Muslims burned and killed in Ahmedabad in 2002, if he lived to be 90 years old. Would he, a “Muslim” writer in our times, not be accused of writing only against “Hindu” violence? I am not so sure. He certainly would have written about a lot of gosht served up in East Pakistan in 1971. He certainly wouldn’t have had a postage stamp of the kind issued in 2005 with his image on it. Dying young has its benefits.
He might have looked at the Saltoro range and the slow-killing heights of Siachen. He might have peered into that deathly whiteness, peered deep into it and among the frostbitten parts of the limbs would have located the new coordinates of Toba Tek Singh. Not content with “obscenity”, there might have been calls for him to be charged with sedition. That would have been true, irrespective of his leaving Bombay or not. He would have continued to write about the sensuality that permeates life in the Indian Subcontinent. Invariably, they would have intersected with more than one faith, belief and god(s), for they too pervade public life in the Union of India. Like Maqbul Fida Hussain, that sterling admirer of the goddess Durga who liberated her from the patently mid-19th century blouse-clad look, re-imagining the holy mother in her naked matriarchal glory, Manto’s run-ins with “public sensibilities” might just have been enough to eject him from Bombay. Almost surely, as it happened with MF Hussain, a robust on-the-ground counter to hate-mongerers would have been found wanting. Hardly being ‘Pak’, in the long run, perhaps he would have been easily pushed out of Pakistan also, where he “had only seen five or six times before as a British subject”.