RJ Sayema on Saadat Hasan Manto: The Secular, Feminist Rockstar

RJ Sayema on Saadat Hasan Manto: The Secular, Feminist Rockstar

Art and Culture

(This video has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark the release of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s ‘Manto’. It was originally published on 11 May 2018.)

He’s given me wings when I don’t need them. Someone needs to clip them.

Sayema Rehman, the sonorous voice behind Radio Mirchi’s immensely popular series Ek Purani Kahaani, wrenches her gaze away from the camera. The man in question, Sa’adat Hasan Manto, was the inaugural author of this unique series. Why, then, does she regret discovering him?

Sayema Rehman, voice behind Radio Mirchi’s immensely popular series, Ek Purani Kahaani by Sa’adat Hasan Manto.
Sayema Rehman, voice behind Radio Mirchi’s immensely popular series, Ek Purani Kahaani by Sa’adat Hasan Manto.
(Photo Courtesy: Shiv Kumar/The Quint)
His writings have imbued me with raw courage to speak up. I feel very suffocated. These are not the times that I should have met him. I feel like speaking up when I should not.

Manto, slapped with multiple obscenity charges, who talked of gore, violence, and rape in the same breath as love, fragrance, and tenderness, is not for the faint-hearted. His short stories acted like a mirror in a society rent apart by communal and gendered violence.

Manto, the Unbiased Secularist?

Manto’s stories depict the horrors of the Partition without elisions or obfuscations. The tidal surge of communal violence engulfing both Muslims and non-Muslims is a recurring theme in his writings. A tipple-happy Manto, who understood the world of prostitution like nobody else did, hardly led a Sharia-compliant life. It is not, however, surprising to see Manto being accused of having a certain favourable slant towards the Muslim community. After all, he did go to Pakistan not long after the Partition. Sayema banishes the idea with a ready example,

In ‘Mozel’, it’s a Muslim man that rapes the protagonist. He’s the villain. In many stories, the character’s religion is never revealed. Then why do we assume that the bad guys weren’t Muslims? Reading his stories, you forget whether it’s about a man or a woman; about a Hindu or a Muslim; about the rich or the poor; about a person who loves, or one that hopes to love.
Sayema Rehman, Radio Jockey

Manto the Feminist

Elaborating on Manto’s craft of sculpting characters, Sayema chooses to focus on his women characters. Calling him the “biggest feminist”, she shares how when she first encountered Manto’s writings, she constantly quarreled with the author.

“After reading Kali Shalwar, I was thinking ‘how dare this writer justify a prostitute’s actions. Why is he making me like her?’ All my prejudices, value systems were, at once, being attacked,” she says.

Sayema comes up with a list of her favourite women characters: all of whom are neither saints nor devils. Manto’s equanimity in character delineation is evident there. Sugandhi of Hatak challenges her clients’ sense of entitlement over her body; Sharda of Do Quomein refuses to convert to Islam despite being coerced by her lover; Sarita turns a potential nightmare into a joyride in Das Rupaye; Kulwant Kaur of Thanda Gosht is an example of commitment; and the protagonist of Mera Naam Radha Hai has the ability to turn the reader into a character of the story.

Cover page of Manto’s ‘Thanda Gosht’.
Cover page of Manto’s ‘Thanda Gosht’.
(Image Courtesy: Rekhta.org)

Loving Manto comes with a price tag. “Go to Pakistan” is a phrase that is casually flung at her on social media platforms. She, however, is unfazed.

Yes, there are some who are in the business of hate, but there are others who are just swayed by the dominant ideology. If spoken to, they are willing to listen. And this gives me hope.

Manto was forced by the circumstances around him to shift to Pakistan but Sayema won’t follow suit.

Or so she hopes.

Camera Person: Shiv Kumar
Video Editor: Prashant Chauhan
Location Courtesy: Radio Mirchi
Sketches: Radio Mirchi

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