Shahr ki raat aur main naashaad-o naakaara phiroon
Ai gham-e dil kya karoon, ai vahshat-e dil kya karoon
Night falls in the city, and I roam, unhappy and unfulfilled
Like a nomad on the bright, wide-awake streets
In unfamiliar neighborhoods, wandering from door to door
Sad heart, anxious heart, what should I do?
Ek mahal ki aad se nikla vo peela maahtaab
Jaise mullah ka amaama, jaise banye ki kitaab
Jaise muflis ki jawaani, jaise bewa ka shabaab
Ai gham-e dil kya karoon, ai vahshat-e dil kya karoon
From behind a palace rises the yellow moon
Like a mullah’s turban, like a moneylender’s ledger
Like the youth of poor, like the beauty of a widow
Sad heart, anxious heart, what should I do?
No, this isn’t by Manto, but by Majaz, a poet of the progressive writers’ movement. I begin with this because I think it is a poem Manto could well have written (oddly enough, both Manto and Majaz were born within a few months of each other, and both drank themselves to death in 1955) since it reflects the inchoate, ineffable, and tragic rage of the human being caught in a world that is neither comprehensible nor changeable.
Manto came to Bombay in 1936, the same year that the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) held its first meeting in Lucknow, inaugurating a period in Urdu literature that was dominated by a progressive and often, an explicitly socialist, sensibility. For a period of time, the PWA was such a strong force that it defined the cultural agenda for a broad generality of Urdu writers. While it was by no means a front of the Communist Party, most of its stalwarts were card-carrying communists, many of whom worked and lived in the Sandhurst Road headquarters of the party and in the Andheri commune. The charismatic General Secretary of the party, P.C. Joshi, wanted to foster a “culture squad” and cultivated the presence of writers and poets.
In the touching account of her life Yaad-e Rahguzar (Memories of a Journey), Shaukat Kaifi describes the relationship of the progressives with a city whose heady milieu was peopled by India’s best know Urdu writers, poets, and artists including Sajjad Zaheer, Kishen Chander, Sahir Ludhianavi, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Ismat Chughtai, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sultana Jafri, Safia Akhtar, Kaifi Azmi, Sardar Jafri, Dina Pathak, Rajender Singh Bedi and scores of others, all of whom shared a conviction that art could be deployed in the services of progressive social transformation.
As Shaukat’s account details, progressivism was in the air in Manto’s Bombay, and he breathed it deeply. When he burst on to the scene, Manto was embraced by the Progressives whole-heartedly. Ahmed Ali (one of the co-authors of Angaare, the short-story collection that sparked the PWA) writes: “No novelist or short story writer has been consistently acclaimed by the political section of the Movement as “Progressive” in the sense that Faiz has been, with the exception of Saadat Hasan Manto”.
When Manto decided to move to Pakistan, he had left his manuscript of Chughad with Kutub Publishers. He wrote to Sardar Jafri asking him if he would write the foreword adding, “whatever you write will be acceptable to me.” He received Jafri’s reply: “I will be very happy to write the foreword, though your book needs none, and certainly not one by me. You know that our literary outlooks differ considerably, but despite this I respect you a lot and harbor great hopes for your work.”
Jafri’s respect for Manto’s craft is evident in the foreword, but the bloom, by now, was clearly off the rose. Jafri writes: “Manto’s craft is a jewel that sparkles on the tip of his pen. He paints vivid pictures of those characters whose humanity has been snatched from them by the capitalist rule, who have been turned into savages by a society that is founded on the principle of loot. Manto looks into the depths of their souls and sees the human heart beating within.” But not content with his praise, Jafri launches into a critique. There are other kinds of people in the world too, he says, those who have taken the path of struggle and resistance in order to recover their lost humanity. But Manto is not concerned with them. The trouble with Manto, according to Jafri, is that though he loves human beings, though he sees the wretchedness of society, and though he has shown the ability to launch a strident critique against the capitalist system, he no longer recognizes the true enemy, nor does he realize that his real weapon is his pen, which is far more powerful than any bullet. But notwithstanding Manto’s shortcomings, the place where he currently stands is not too far removed from a revolutionary position, one that the early Manto clearly inhabited, and to which a return is eminently possible. “Whenever I read a story by Manto,” Jafri writes, “I am reminded of our first meeting. This happened 15 years ago. I had just recited a poem at the Muslim University Union when a student approached me and invited me to his room. On his wall hung a picture of Victor Hugo, and books by Gorky lay on his table. He said to me: ‘I too am a revolutionary.’”
Jafri concludes with the following, asking for a return of that young man: “Today, the masses are on the road to revolution. Their enemy is right in front of their eyes. The demon of capitalism is on its way out. This caravan of people, its entire army calls out to Saadat Hasan Manto: Bring the sharpness of your pen, the loftiness of your thinking, and the intensity of your emotions. You are ours, and there is no place for you in the entire world, except among our ranks.”
While one can hardly argue with Jafri’s right to critique Manto’s work, a foreword to his book was an odd place to articulate it. An understandably peeved Manto excised it from the 1950 edition published in Pakistan, replacing it with a tirade against the Progressives titled "Taraqqi Pasand Socha Nahin Karte" (Progressives don’t think). While continuing to express his respect for Jafri, Manto respectfully declined to use a foreward written by the leading light of a group, some of whose members had dismissed him as a reactionary.
While many of Manto’s early stories were enormously appreciated by the progressives and given the pride of place in their publications, a certain discontent had started to creep in with some of his work. Sajjad Zaheer expressed this about Manto’s story "Bu" (Odour) during the Hyderabad conference of the PWA in October 1945 claiming that “the portrayal of the sexual perversions of a satisfied member of the middle class, no matter how much reality it is based on, is a waste of the writer’s and the reader’s time.”
The Hyderabad conference is inextricably tied to Manto, because of the attempt by the progressives to pass a resolution denouncing obscenity. Hyderabad was ruled by the Nizam, whose feudal apparatus supported and nurtured a communal rank-and-file. The presence of the PWA in the city had riled up this section, and the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen had launched a full-scale attack on the progressives in the media and the public sphere. The accusations were standard-issue: Progressives advocate heresy, irreligiousness and immorality. Charges of progressive literature being obscene were amplified because of Manto’s work, and because a subsection of the movement – which at this time was following the policy of a big-tent, united front – had been writing stories with sexual themes. In his memoir about the movement, "Raushnai", Zaheer writes that keeping this climate in mind, “some of us considered it appropriate to make it clear through a resolution that obscenity was against the rules of Progressiveness”. It was doubtless an ill-advised move, an attempt to deflect the criticism of a group that should have been taken head on or simply ignored. Fortunately, the resolution, which the leadership had expected to be passed without fuss by a membership that had been lulled into sleepy ennui by long speeches, was scuttled in a dramatic fashion by the irrepressible Maulana Hasrat Mohani, who pointed out that the problem with the resolution lay in the fact that obscenity was impossible to define, and that the vast majority of Urdu and Farsi poetry could and would be considered obscene by the fundamentalists who the resolution was geared at appeasing. The Maulana proposed a friendly amendment asking that the resolution while condemning obscenity should simultaneously announce that the progressives endorsed sophisticated eroticism, a phrase that the Maulana claimed could describe much of his own work. Worrying that this would make them a laughing stock, the leadership withdrew the resolution in its entirety.
While the entire story of Manto v. the Progressives on the issue of obscenity is fascinating in its detail, I hardly have the time for a fleshed out narrative here. It is useful to keep the following in mind though:
1) The obscenity resolution was couched in general terms, and was a poorly thought out response to a perceived crisis, as Zaheer himself later admitted.
2) The resolution was never passed by the PWA.
3) Manto was charged with obscenity, first by the colonial government, then by the government of Pakistan, not by the PWA.
4) When Manto and Chughtai were first charged, Sardar Jafri wrote a piece in Qaumi Jang in their support, titled "Ye Adab Aur Tahzeeb Pe Hamla Hai" (This is an attack on literature and culture).
5) Most of Manto’s work that was deemed obscene, including "Khol Do" and "Thanda Gosht", both of which were written after Chughad and Jafri’s preface, were published in progressive journals. Khol Do was brought out by Nuqoosh, which was edited by Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, while Khol Do was published in Javed, which was edited by Arif Abdul Mateen a member of the communist party.
6) No progressive was a witness for the state in the trial, while a host of anti- and ex-progressives including Shorish Kashmiri, and M.D. Taseer were trotted out by the prosecution. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a prominent progressive, was one of the most vocal defendants of Manto at the trial.
7) If the Progressives had a problem with Manto’s “obscenity” in general, they would have condemned all his “obscene” stories. But that was not the case. In a letter written to Manto, Sardar Jafri refered to "Khol Do" as “the masterpiece of our age”.
By early 1948, in response to the Progressives' relentless critique of the state, a liberal anticommunist intellectual front began coalescing in Pakistan, centered around Muhammad Hasan Askari and M.D. Taseer. Explicitly and self-consciously anti-Progressive – and simultaneously, pro-state and pro-ruling party – the members of this front attacked the Progressives on both aesthetic and political grounds. In July 1948, Askari's essay "Adab aur riyasat se wafadari ka masala: Taraqqi-pasandon pe kari tanqeed," charged the Progressives with disloyalty to the state. The essay was the first in a series that laid the groundwork for attacks on the Progressives which involved the proscribing of publications, ubiquitous harassment and frequent imprisonment. And they set the stage for the eventual banning of the PWA following the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.
Manto had only recently become estranged from the Progressives, and in what must have been a fit of pique, asked Askari to write the preface of his new book. Askari made full use of this opportunity. Echoing the established Cold War propaganda in which communists were accused of preying on human misery, Askari wrote about “writers who looked forward to human tragedies of a vast scale” as well as “political and social chaos” because they provided rich literary raw-material for their next project. “And as God provides sugar to the lover of sweets,” Askari proclaimed sardonically, so were these literary vultures provided with “many such opportunities to exploit the misery of others.” Referring in particular to the Progressive approach to Partition, Askari poked fun at what he saw as their “obsessive” focus on ensuring that the blame for the violence did not fall on any particular community. Manto’s alliance with Askari created a huge commotion, and much of what followed between him and the progressives was a fallout of this drama.
Despite the periodic bad blood between Manto and a certain section of the PWA, neither side fully disawoved the other. For the most part, they were fellow travelers. Even at the height of his annoyance, Manto took care to point out that he had no issue with progressivism, it was just that he was upset by “the strange leaps of so-called progressives”. And a reading of Manto’s “Letters to Uncle Sam” written in the year preceding his depth clearly reveals both his fissures with the progressives and his abiding respect and affection for them.
To laud Manto for being an iconoclast while criticizing the Progressives for their didactic focus on social structures is to caricature and flatten both. The Progressives were hardly a homogeneous lot and their work is characterized by an incredible variety in both form and content. There is, broadly speaking, a lot of congruity between Manto’s ideas and those of the progressives. His idea of realism sat well with that of the progressives. In his famous speech to students at Jogeshwari College in Bombay, he said: “If you are not familiar with the time period we are passing through, read my stories. If you find them unbearable, that means we are living in an unbearable time.” If there was a significant break, it was in what the Progressives would have thought of as Manto’s jaded, pessimistic, and cynical view of human nature, something that did not sit well with the PWA (after all, “optimism” and “life-affirming art” were its calling cards).
Manto laid out his position in his Jogeshwari College speech: “If I take off the blouse of culture and society, he said in his speech, then it is naked. I do not try to put clothes back on… that is not my job.” He would have laughed at Faiz’s lines: Dil na umeed to nahin, nakaam hi to hai; Lambi hai gham ki shaam, magar, shaam hi to hai (The heart is merely unsuccesful, not without hope; the evening of sorrow is long, but it is only an evening). The coming of the dawn wasn’t a moment of celebration for this writer whose own preference is signaled in the title of the preface to the collection Thanda Gosht – “zahmat-e mahr-e darkhshaan” – a phrase he borrows from a Ghalib couplet:
Larazta hai mera dil, zahmat-e mehr-e darkhshaan par
Main hoon voh qatra-e shabnam, ke ho khaar-i-bayabaan par
My heart trembles at the thought of the trouble the bright sun will soon take and rise
For I am the drop of dew that rests on a thorn in the wild
Ali Mir is an Urdu poet, activist and scholar. As lyricist, dialogue and screenwriter, he has worked with Indian director Nagesh Kukunoor on several films, including Iqbal (2005), Dor (2006), Bombay to Bangkok (2008) and Aashayein (2010). He is the author of Anthems of Resistance: A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry (New Delhi: India Ink, 2006), and is now completing work on his next book project Faiz Ahmed Faiz: The Poet as Revolutionary, forthcoming from Left World Books. He is Professor of Management at William Paterson University.