‘Ek Mulaqat Manto Se’: Rediscovering the Finest Urdu Writer
Was Manto a seer or a fraud? Manto’s djinn tells you!
(This story was first published on 9 January 2019. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Saadat Hasan Manto's birth anniversary.)
Camera: Shiv Kumar Maurya
Video Editor: Rahul Sanpui
Location: India Habitat Center
“Although it is said of Manto that he speaks the truth, I am not prepared to buy that. He is a first-rate liar.”Saadat Hasan Manto, ‘Manto On Manto’ (trans. Khalid Hasan)
Now that’s something you don’t hear too often about the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who is best known for capturing the ‘truth’ of partition in his stories such as Toba Tek Singh, Thanda Gosht (Colder Than Ice), and Khol Do (Open It).
‘Ek Mulaqat Manto Se’, a one-man play, captures the ‘fraudulent’ and complex side of the ‘Seer of Pakistan’.
Ashwath Bhatt, who recently acted in Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, takes centre stage as Manto’s doppelganger or his ‘djinn’ (spirit).
“Manto is a complex character. He was erratic, a loudmouth, and irritable... To play a character like him on stage becomes a challenge for you.”Ashwath Bhatt, on the sets of ‘Ek Mulaqat Manto Se’
Manto: Seer or Fraud?
Manto is perhaps the only Urdu writer whose works have been extensively translated into English. He published 22 short-story collections, a novel, several radio plays, essays, and sketches.
In a sketch about himself, written not long before his death, Manto writes, “I know that when he has to write a story, he is like a hen about to lay an egg... [T]he store that Manto has opened in his mind has more goods than any general store can carry.”
In the same sketch, he refers to himself as a ‘fraud’, a ‘thief’’, a ‘liar’, and a ‘cheat’, as he reflects upon his art as an act of pick-pocketing.
“Editors have messed up Manto’s works. They have changed words and moved the phrases around. Thankfully, the endings remain unaltered.”Ashwath Bhatt, on the sets of ‘Ek Mulaqat Manto Se’
Manto Chronicled the Horrors of Partition
Manto moved to Pakistan after Partition. The bloodbath that he witnessed greatly affected him. He chronicled the horrors of partition and the human predicament at its most raw and cruel form in some of his best-known stories.
You would be surprised to know that not all of Manto’s partition stories are serious. In Sawairey Jo Kal Aankh Meri Khuli (A Stroll through the New Pakistan), for instance, he provides a sharp social critique of post-partition Pakistan in hilarious and sarcastic prose.
Partition and the move from Bombay (now called Mumbai) – a city Manto loved dearly – to Lahore had a deep psychological impact on him.
“Like my country, I, too, have become independent and in exactly the same way... [I]magine the freedom a bird whose wings have been clipped can enjoy.”Saadat Hasan Manto, ‘Letters to Uncle Sam’ (trans. Khalid Hasan)
Manto on Trial
It is well known that most of Manto’s stories were not received favourably during his lifetime. They suffered from honesty. Manto was tried in court thrice in both India and Pakistan on charges of obscenity for his authored works.
“It’s very important to know the person who wrote these stories and what we term ‘literature’ today. In those days, it was termed ‘obscene material’.”Ashwath Bhatt, on the sets of ‘Ek Mulaqat Manto Se’
Once, during a court trial, when his counsel did not appear, Manto chose to plead his own case. In A Day in Court, Manto recorded the trial in great detail.
“The last statement to be recorded was mine, after which the magistrate was pleased to observe, ‘This statement in itself is enough to convict the accused.’”Saadat Hasan Manto, ‘A Day in Court’ (trans. Khalid Hasan)
Manto was fined in only one case but the court proceedings as well as what he witnessed during the post-partition period took a toll on him. His drinking and smoking increased manifold. So much so that it is impossible to think of Manto without a cigarette and bottles of alcohol to keep him company.
This was Manto, the man who wrote his own epitaph, in which he challenged the artistic ability of God himself.
Bhatt’s ‘Ek Mulaqat Manto Se’ is an attempt to capture “the kind of person whom even an iron hammer cannot crack open” (from ‘Manto on Manto’).
Manto died at the age of forty-two in Lahore.
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