A Review of Saadat Hasan Manto’s “Why I Write”

Saadat Hasan Manto, the family man

Manto is a literary legend whose narrative of the bedlam that prevailed, sustained, and continued after the Partition of India in 1947 is as relevant today, as it was six decades ago. His realistic portrayals were inclined towards leftist and socialist leanings, as is discernible in “Why I Write”, preceding the progression of de-humanistic values around the Partition.

“If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth”.

Manto attacks politics, languages, partitions, and prostitutes without batting an eyelid. His works had been tried for obscenity countless times, yet his brutal honesty always shone through.

I read the entire compilation of “Why I Write”, and my faith in literature was renewed, it highlights the fact that literature does not have to be conformed to a particular set of rules, it does not have to be polite or careful. With the recent Pulwama blast and the growth of terrorism, the freedom of literature in Pakistan is curtailed more than ever. Slaughtering of writers whose works are considered to be seditious is rampant in Pakistan even today. Amidst this carnage rises Manto, whose prediction of a future where everything – music and art, literature and poetry – would be censored is strangely prophetic and resonant today. (The Grace Of Allah)

In “Why I write”, Manto gives us a look into his world, a home replete with three lively daughters and a strict but caring wife. On the surface, it seems that he is living a happy yet ordinary life, but upon closer inspection, I found that he believes himself incapable of being a prolific writer, a sense of isolation surrounds him. He is not naïve; he recognizes that he is an addict; an addiction to alcohol to drown his grief of the partition and an addiction to writing to keep his family afloat. He imagines himself to be a pickpocket and distant from his stories, which is very ironic, since none of his stories are distanced from him, he walks hand-in-hand with every character of his. His identity and his solace is writing, yet he doesn’t consider himself to be a stereotypical writer, though he tries. In this sense, he positions himself at a distance from the other writers and his personal writing.

“Hindi Or Urdu” is a hilarious testament to the absurd notions followed by the leaders of India, during the partition. Its significance is demonstrated even today as this is the procedure for any monumental, or even trivial, decisions to be taken by the politicians. Also, just to restrict this uproarious habit to the politicians will be colossal hypocrisy , since most of our elders follow this conversation to the letter. To any outsider, Hindi and Urdu appear to sound the same and have very similar pronunciations; therefore, it is plain idiocy to make this such a colossal and stringent issue. Out of this short prose, come the most essential words that every person at variance about the National language of India should appreciate: “Languages are not created, they make themselves and no human effort can destroy one already made”. This is as important today as it was in 1947, since India, in all its diversity, uses special dialects in diverse areas. That is what makes it so profound. The unity is not cemented by a universal language, but a common nation.

Even though his life was cut short because of Cirrhosis along with being a chain smoker, Manto managed to use his addictions as bases for his stories. He used cigarettes as a rare commodity available only in the black market, as his base for ‘Thirteen Types Of Freeloaders’. It is comical in the sense that each one of us has experienced a freeloader in whatever commodity we hold precious. In this way, we relate with Manto’s predicament and visualize ourselves in that circumstance. The last two cases of freeloaders were deserving of the climax, as the unexpectedness of the situation leaves the reader in splits.

‘How Arms Control Works’ is an interesting account of the dis-disarmament followed by the leaders of nation states during the first world war epoch. The declaration ‘peace’ has been used and abused in the narrative, as it has in the human race. How the possession of a pillow and an egg escalate to the ultimate killing of the participants of the “war’, but not before the deranged race to increase ammunition. There are also certain nuances that are one can draw palpable similes from; these include; buying an axe without owning a garden (a country with a diminutive population or insignificant international relations buying weapons of mass destruction) and “I come over and tell you that since I’m threatened by the equilibrium between us”, which is foreshadowing for the US intervention in India (during the first nuclear testing at Pokhran). Even though we ourselves are responsible for the war, any collateral or actual damage “is incidental and shouldn’t be blamed on us because at least we tried so hard to keep the peace”.

‘Save India From Its’ Leaders’, is a hard-hitting and direct article, it wouldn’t be appropriate to call it an essay, it is too opinionated,  a leader is compared to a bed-bug, a cheat, a corpse carrier, a thief, empty and one who reeks of selfishness and greed. What starts out as “fiery speeches and righteous denunciation”, fizzle out and turn out to be “unending speeches full of empty words”. Manto, in his critique has not once looked down upon faith or religion. “Faith isn’t the sort of thing that can come into danger in the first place”. He believes religion and faith are up on a pedestal, not to be hindered by mere mortals.  A very similar quote in ‘Hindi Or Urdu’ states “Languages are not created, they make themselves and no human effort can destroy one already made”. In both these cases, the language and the faith are immortal and are untouched by measly human quandaries. This brings forth an interesting side of Manto, one in which reverence towards his religion, language and faith are perceptible. It was believed that he fled India due to the imminent dangers that could harm him and his family due to their religion. The story goes: “One evening he was sitting drinking with his Hindu colleagues at the offices of the newspaper where he worked when one of them remarked that, were it not for the fact they were friends, he would have killed Manto. The next day Manto packed his bags and took his family to Lahore”. Yet, his stories prove that deep down, Manto, too, was an adherent Muslim, who revered his religion. The usage of ‘”theirs” and “ours” shows that Manto stands by what he writes. He, too, is a middle class gentleman who is taken advantage of by the politicians. He can feel the disparity and how the leaders bleed him dry (his own run-ins with the law had been numerous). He awaits a leader from his own social standing that will overturn unemployment and truly pay heed to the vast populace of the country and their widespread predicaments. He believes that the men in tattered clothes possess more dignity than those in silk clothes, it is them who will prove to be the country’s deliverance, when all and sundry decides to take their fate into their own hands.

“The Guilty Men Of Bombay” is a plea from Manto to the intelligentsia and soon-to-be-independent citizens of Bombay who were partaking in the religious violence following the partition. He repeatedly uses the term” My Bombay” highlighting the devotion he feels for the metropolis.  Once again, his distaste towards the leaders is discernible as he blames them for all ails. Sarcasm drips in his explanation of even the “Honorable Muslims” who came to sort him out

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