Finally Pakistani state honours Manto

“Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of story writing. Under mounds of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater story writer – God or he.” (Manto’s self-composed epitaph)

The decision of Pakistan’s civilian government to accord the highest civilian honor to Saadat Hasan Manto comes as a minor, though significant, attempt at our national course correction. It took fifty seven years and a light year of denial for the state to recognize the worth of our great writer and commentator. Even though Manto dreaded the idea of a posthumous award, the conferment of a top state honour is a debt that Pakistan’s anti-intellectual and repressive state owed to the genius of our times.

Saadat Hassan Manto was born on 11 May 1912 in united Punjab’s Ludhiana district. In a literary, journalistic, radio scripting and film-writing career spread over two decades, he produced at least 250 stories, scores of plays and a large number of essays. He also worked with the All India Radio. Perhaps the best years of his life were spent in Bombay where he became associated with leading film studios. Manto also wrote a dozen films, including Eight Days, Chal Chal re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib. The last one was produced into a movie after he moved to Pakistan in January 1948.

After 1947, Manto was shoddily treated by the new state of Pakistan. This towering writer had become a sensation even before his migration to Pakistan. Manto’s scathing irony and the proclivity to subvert conventional wisdom was already well recognized. But it was the senseless and horrific violence of the partition which gave a new dimension to his writings, and made him both into a story-teller par excellence and a social historian of immense depth and variety.

In Pakistan Manto was tried for ‘obscenity’ and the right wing launched a full-fledged campaign against him. It is a bitter irony of our confused society that in 2012, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has entertained petitions from an Islamic party representative and a former judge against television channels airing Indian programmes and thereby spreading ‘fahashi’. Manto’s chilling story “Thanda Gosht” – a no-holds-barred indictment of violation of woman’s body and desecration of humanity invoked the ire of puritans. It is a separate matter that the story has gained global traction and acclaim.

As Ayesha Jalal says Manto was ‘vulgar’ because what he saw in his surroundings was vulgar to him. It was the environment that caused him to attain that degree of directness in his writings. Manto was faced with over half a dozen charges of obscenity, three of which occurred before Partition and three after he moved to Pakistan. Even out of these, the court found only two stories in which he had transgressed the law and was liable to punishment. It would be unjust to call a writer’s work obscene just on the basis of two stories. But then we are good at defying logic. […]