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Manto’s women

Manto stands more or less alone in the position he takes on women, contends Raza Rumi, in an exploration of Manto’s relationship with his female protagonists

 

Manto2Saadat Hasan Manto

Perhaps the most well-known and also controversial Urdu writer of the twentieth century happens to be Saadat Hasan Manto. He left us with a stupendous literary output, which continues to remain relevant decades after his death. Manto, not unlike other ‘greats’ died young and lived through the greatest upheaval in the Indian subcontinent i.e. the Partition. As a sensitive writer, he was influenced and traumatized by political turmoil during 1947 and beyond. His stories reflect his repeated attempts to come to terms with this cataclysmic event especially for millions in North India. For Manto, partition remained a mystery but he did not keep himself in a state of denial about it. He always used the word ‘batwara’, never partition.i Manto felt that it was the ripping apart of one whole and would lead to greater divisions among the people of the subcontinent. This coming to terms with the ‘batwara’, is experienced in his works by unusual characters driven by plain ambitions, mixed emotions and above all sheer humanity.

Like Nazeer AkabarAbadi, Manto’s characters are universal and often it is difficult to condemn or dislike them since their humanity remains overarching. Manto raised the slogan of humanism at a time when the subcontinent presented the picture of a boiling cauldron of religious riots and protests, of acts of misogyny committed in the name of communal honour and ‘nationalism’. For example, in the story Sahai, Manto writes, “Don’t say that one lakh Hindus and one lakh Muslims have died. Say that two lakh human beings have perished.” Manto uses his characters as metaphors to highlight the prevalent abuse of humanity in those times.

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Through a screen, darkly

Pakistani cable operators, following the cyclical escalation of imagined hatreds, discontinued the transmission of Indian satellite channels in 2002. The absence of Indian TV soaps, fodder for an entertainment hungry populace, was widely mourned. Once, not long ago, the axiomatic edge of Pakistan’s TV serials was widely acknowledged both in Pakistan and in India. No longer. This is the age of the market, of selling dreams and drama, of converting the stereotype into a saleable commodity and citing it on the cultural stock exchange.

The popularity of Hindi language soaps is not limited to Pakistan. I have seen squatters in Dhaka’s decrepit Bihari camp, Bangladesh’s largest no man’s land, glued to their colour TV sets. Here, Biharis lack citizenship; they are technically Pakistani, having opted for the Land of the Pure at the cessation of Bangladesh in 1971. But Pakistan doesn’t want them and so they continue to live in limbo. Yet, Star Plus is still beamed 24/7 into their tiny, cramped, leaking shacks. Indian soaps have made inroads even into Afghanistan, that newly liberated project of global corporate interests. They were wildly popular until the Afghan government banned them as inimical to Afghani values.

The soaring audience of Star Plus and Zee TV serials, with their in-your-face parivar mantras, is known all too well. The hype is also a constructed story of success and market acquisition. On the face of it, the commodification of entertainment is a global phenomenon. So what’s the problem, one might ask, given that most of us post-colonial wannabes in South Asia want to integrate into the global economy and its uniform cultural variants? Junk food, designer brands, pop music and the corporate media ethos are all “signs of progress.” […]