Manto’s Centennial: Tapping the Lost Memory

Saadat Hassan Manto (1912-1955) – Source: Wikipedia

Saadat Hasan Manto would have turned 100 today. Anyway he passed away more than 50 years ago in the most hostile of circumstances. However, it is needless to say that his stories continue to be an inspiration and I have personally found them to touch my imagination deeper than I expected, but I cannot say that about all of them. He is certainly a man worth remembering and telling your children about, if you have any or would ever like to have them. He was often criticized for vulgarity and obscenity by his contemporaries, for whom the crude realism and daring of his writing were nothing less than a shock and an attempt of an apparently libertine writer to break the conventions of the time.

I have not read all of Manto’s work as of this day though I do want to. I need to read more to write about it but I doubt if I’d feel too differently. I don’t know much about Urdu literature either but of whatever I have read of Manto’s short stories, I have found it really fascinating. I can’t say but probably there is some sort of encoding of the memories from the past centuries on our DNA from grandparents to parents and so on, or so it seems, probably just our imagination, which seems to be revived or activated by such stories. In Manto’s case, this is true for India during the Raj, particularly around the turbulent years of the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.

Manto’s writing style is often associated with a lot of sexual crudeness and what is commonly and popularly referred to as “obscenity” or “vulgarity”, at least for his time, and for which he had been tried quite a few times as well, but the fact is that his writings are among the most sensual and sensitive that you will ever read. It largely depends on the particular story you are reading but really I am in no position to offer a critique on what sort of a writer he was. I don’t really care about critical analysis as long as the writing taps the lost imagination, or if I dare say, the lost memory.

As a matter of fact, I find a lot of commentary on Manto’s writing very crude and in bad taste itself, especially one which tries to emulate it in admiration and ends up in putting you off. If the writing is indeed “crude”, “obscene” and “vulgar”, the sort of commentary makes it doubly so, or makes it so if it was not in the first place. Those who know about it would know about what I am talking about. Those who do not would probably have to start with his stories first. While his stories are popularly considered to drive a lot of lust and sexual stimulation in the imagination, I wonder if it is really meant to be taken that way at all. I don’t know. This is the beauty of any art form. However, carrying out an open surgery on it certainly does bring the reader’s mind to that level.

But enough of the unpleasantness. I am more of a fan of the subtle detail that constructs the picture of the India that a part of me has known even before I was born perhaps. I keep on going to that absurd threshold of lost memory, instead of lost imagination, because somehow the feeling is far stronger and far more overwhelming than just imagination. Perhaps it is that, imagination, but I would like to think otherwise, or go one step further, calling it lost memory anyway. It feels more like memory. Perhaps, it is my grandmother’s old house, my grandparents themselves, the neighborhoods I grew up in and the city that had not yet lost its tradition to the mechanized modernity disguised in progress. The curiosity how the earlier generation used to live, the loss of the different elements of the Indian society living together, the lost hormony, the lost peace, the lost values.

Some of his short stories such as Mozelle have had a deeper effect on me than others. The greatest thing about those stories is not just the people, but the very environment around which the story has been woven. Another one being Sahib-e-Karamaat, but these surely not being the only ones. It is not just the sensitivity of the story that matters but also the universe that it exists in. Of course it exists merely in our brain cells, but that information certainly comes out of each individual’s association with the time. I know this really has nothing to do with what his stories are actually about but maybe it does not really matter as much since each person can relate to it in their own way and a person born in a different era can find it as a link to reach the years he or she cannot reach otherwise or physically, in their own way. It’s a good portal.

Perhaps one of the great things about his stories has been the way it lets you construct the scene and that is the greatest thing about any writing. Of course, it is meant to bring out that lost lust in you and it was important in a more or less repressive society of the India of the earlier twentieth century, perhaps not as much as a modern mind would imagine, but at least to the extent that such writing style would have been found out of place at the time. To me, writing is supposed to be. Manto was sort of an iconoclast in terms of Indian literature at the time and of course was way ahead of his time. Not to imply that he did not have an audience or people who did not understand and who were not good enough to receive it without going into a state of unproductive shock instead of ecstasy or at least literary if not hormonal pleasure of some sort. But it nevertheless is a fact that the society mostly acts unlike its individuals.

You would say that about every artist probably but more work out of Manto would have been great because the thought of having read all his stories is frightening, as is the thought of watching all the motion pictures from Fellini or Buñuel and getting done with it.

Because we need more inspiration to tap that lost memory.

A sense of nostalgia, a past-future, that is just not supposed to be there, or maybe it is.

Maybe we should try ourselves.

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