The question that has haunted me since I first picked up Manto’s short stories many years ago as an undergraduate, and then began to read about his growing iconic status around the time of the fiftieth anniversary of Partition, is rather simple. Why Manto? What is it about the man, and his short stories, that has bestowed on him this now iconic status among the intellectual and cultural elite of South Asia? For surely no other writer has engendered such a response among this particular class of consumers in the subcontinent. I ask this in the spirit of being something of an iconoclast, which I think that Manto would perhaps have appreciated. What is it about his writings or what he represents for us, that is, the middle class, that has transformed him so completely into the vernacular writer par excellence? It doesn’t matter where you turn, whether one is talking about Bombay, the Partition of India, or communal violence in post independence India, it would seem that it is obligatory to cite Manto and his short stories.
I think that it is important to ask this question, particularly because Manto’s iconic status has grown to such mythical dimensions, particularly since the fiftieth anniversary of Independence and Partition in 1997. It was at that time that Manto suddenly emerged on the radar of social historians, in their efforts to uncover the ‘human’ dimension to the tragedy of the Partition of British India in 1947. This is not to say that his importance was a fabrication, only that prior to this he was mostly only celebrated among a very select, narrow group of writers, in other words by his peers, in South Asia. While I don’t want to suggest that he was ‘rediscovered,’ it is certainly the case that the 1990s brought about a fresh enthusiasm for his writings.1
There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, it would appear critical that Manto wrote in Urdu, the language that also came to be celebrated in the 1990s as a symbol of an ecumenical, syncretic, secular culture for a particular class, a class that could, ironically, for the most part no longer actually read the Nastaliq script, but who were searching for some symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in a world still characterized by significant communal unrest and a sense of a growing intolerance towards religious minorities in India by right wing Hindu nationalists. I would not like to minimize Manto’s achievements as a short story writer by suggesting that his prominence can be reduced to his personal ethnicity, or to the language he chose to write in, but I do believe that Urdu came to be valorized at this time as a language that represented a utopian world from before the colonial period. In reality, by the 1990sthe Urdu language (or perhaps more accurately the Nastaliq script), had become entirely obsolete in north India outside of crumbling departments of language and literature in major universities, and its token inclusion on road signs in the capital.2
Secondly, given that he came into prominence again around the fiftieth anniversary of Partition and Independence, Manto’s preeminence can be said to lie in his reputation as the Partition writer par excellence. Indeed, this is why many social historians turned to his work at this particular moment in history. Historians such as Ian Talbot, Gyan Pandey, Ayesha Jalal, Susie Tharu and others lionized his writings and his life, primarily for his stories that focused on the brutality, inhumanity and utter senselessness of the Partition and the violent transference of populations in the west of the country. In particular, his collection of short vignettes Siyah Hashiye (Black Marginalia) were heralded as the most powerful, confronting examples of literary responses to the Partition, examples of the violence that offered the reader little sense of redemption and hope, leaving him or her bewildered and as incoherent as the characters in perhaps Manto’s most famous partition story, “Toba Tek Singh”.
I have always wondered what it is about these macabre, often grotesque stories that have so captivated us. Why it is that social historians have found in Manto’s writings a more meaningful response to the Partition?What it is about the grotesque, about the uncanny, about the horrific nature of some of his stories that so attracts us?
If we take a closer look at the volume under review in this particular celebration of Manto’s 100th birth anniversary, Chugd, and indeed, Manto’s engagement with the world of Bombay in the 1930s and 1940s, I think that there are several answers that suggest themselves to these questions. Often it is said that Manto reserved his most strident critique for the middle classes in his time. The problem with this is the very nomenclature ‘middle class’. Like the masses, with which we have an equal obsession as the Other, it is always suggested that the middle class is out there, that is, spatially at a distance from us. And yet, we are precisely the middle classes. And so, there is something particularly interesting to me about the fact that Manto seeks, often in a very modernist literary style in which there is no moral to the tale, and in many stories no great semblance of a narrative even, to put on display for the consumption of the middle class its own abjection. And there is nothing more abject that taking a perverse pleasure in reading about one’s own abject state.
Is there something about 1930s and 1940s Bombay that engenders such a response by this particular story teller? Many of Manto’s discursive, (non)narratives are about a particular class of inhabitants, and the seemingly utter irrelevance of their lives. They are dislocated, dissolute, alienated, purposeless, often seemingly emasculated by capital, incapable to acting in any decisive manner. They are concerned with base, mundane affairs, with opportunism, and with self loathing. They can only indulge themselves in prurient entertainment, in pleasures of the flesh and alcohol. Their lives seem utterly random, inconsequential, lacking in any political or social conviction. Manto’s stories are full of licentious descriptions of prostitutes and pimps, meaningless parties, sycophants and pathetic characters who populate this city. He is both demonstrating in his storytelling how emasculated the middle class had become, and giving them precisely the wanton stories in which they took so much pleasure. There is nothing so abject than a class that takes pleasure in its own abjection, in its own despair.
Manto’s stories are thus deeply ironic. They appear on the surface to reinforce humanity through their seemingly sympathetic portrayals of sex workers, alienated Mumbaikars and so on, but in reality, they reinforce this pathos by giving us the very prurient descriptions that we crave. It must be remembered that these stories were produced for a minuscule percentage of the population. The middle class (those who had some education and worked in salaried positions, but were not possessors of finance capital - that is, not wealthy industrialists) consisted of no more than approximately five percent of the population at the time that he wrote. While this is a conservative figure, it doesn’t strike me as being inaccurate. Manto’s stories, then and now, are celebrated precisely because they critique the very class that reads them. This suggests that the perverse pleasure that is to be derived from them is one that has to do with the abjectness of the capitalist enterprise.
What is engendered is a self-loathing at a fundamental level, which says much about the nature of this particular city as the most important embodiment of capitalism in India at the time Manto and others inhabited its spaces. In other words, Manto’s stories show up the abject nature of the capitalist enterprise, that so enslaves the worker to the point where all he or she can do is take pleasure in is their own abjectness. That is they become the flawed, the minor, the anti-heroes of his stories. There are no great figures to be found in his discursive, anecdotal urban writings. These stories are not supposed to inspire. They seem destined to mire the middle class further in its own flaws, in its own lack of humanity. The middle class reader can take pity on the sex worker who is exploited by the system, knowing well that he or she will be able to do little to change the situation of that exploitation. Perhaps the most valuable contribution of Manto’s stories is not their humanism, which we can celebrate in the manner of Herbert Marcuse’s notion of ‘affirmative culture’, the affirmation of cultural values that are unattainable in a world given over to capitalism exploitation but that may be upheld in literary texts, but that he so often ironically reminds us of the shallowness of middle class piety and the pleasure of middle class abjection.
(Please do not cite without permission)
1In his introduction to one of the first collections of translations of Manto’s stories in1987, Khalid Hasan argues that Manto’s work at that time was little known outside of India and Pakistan. Khalid Hasan, Kingdom’s End and Other Stories (Delhi:Penguin Books, 1987),p.1.
2 On these points, see my unpublished MA thesis, “The Making of Manto: The Construction of a Literary Icon” (Clayton, Victoria: Department of History, Monash University, 1998)
Richard Delacy is Preceptor in Hindi-Urdu with the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. He is at present a doctoral candidate in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, working on post-liberalization novel writing in Hindi, particularly novels written by non-traditional groups, such as Dalits (Ajay Navaria) and semi-urban female writers like Maitreyi Pushpa.