Manto now: Irrelevant for young, icon for others
New Delhi: Literary icon Saadat Hasan Manto finds few takers among young readers because the stories are dark, disturbing and reflect a time they cannot relate to. But for the older generation of Indians, he still remains one of the most powerful writers of the 20th century.
The writer, who died at the age of 43 in Lahore while struggling to keep the literature of truth alive, was born May 11, 1912.
"I tried to read a translation of Manto`s short stories in English by writer Aatish Taseer a couple of years ago, but they were so removed from our time. My grandparents love his work because they came to India from Lahore during partition. They understand the trauma portrayed in his stories," Sarita Kapoor, a Delhi-based Class 12 student, told IANS.
Playwright Shahid Anwar attributes this lack of interest in classics like Manto to a decline in the reading habit.
"They don`t want to know the relationship between the individual and society. The thirst for insight and understanding of sensiblities that Manto portrayed so well is dying in the age of instant coffee, pulp and exhibitionism," Anwar told IANS.
Anwar`s play, "Gair Zaroori Log (Persona Non-Grata)", based on six of Manto`s anachronistic renegades on the social margin and with a rare foreword by Habib Tanvir, has been on stage for the last 10 years.
Anwar said, "The biggest problem with Manto`s work was that he was confined to the framework of partition.
"Partition in his works was symptomatic of a greater socio-economic-political disease. They could not make a society where Hindus and Muslims could live together."
Born in 1912 in Punjab in undivided India, Manto was drawn to stories about psychological aberrations, the angst of partition, rituals, dual moral standards, unusual social crime and the idea of redemption in stories like "Toba Tek Singh", "Thanda Gosht", "Khol Do" and "Babu Gopinath".
After an early education at the Muslim High School of Amritsar, where he felt like an outcast, he lost motivation in studies. However, he was obsessed with reading English novels.
Despite his "exposure to international literature, Manto was shaped as a writer by political and literary developments in the subcontinent", says Manto`s niece and historian Ayesha Jalal, the author of "The Pity of Partition: Manto as Witness to History".
Writer Satya Narayanan R. (Muasir), an Urdu `shayar` of south Indian origin, says Manto`s works "have been a mirror that reflected the social and cultural aspects of his era in a very detached and objective way".
"The portrayal of the emotional state of the characters is awe-inspiring. His best works, in my view, have been around the theme of a common man`s perspective towards life. They cannot be reviewed by detaching them from partition," Satya told IANS.
Satya Muasir, as he likes to be known, argues that "Manto faces a challenge from the time machine".
"The mainstream itself keeps shifting with each era. So writers who appear mainstream in one era do not appear so 50 years or 100 years later. The shift away from Urdu in the post-independence Indian education scenario has made matters worse for all Urdu writers. Reigniting the Urdu script in the popular psyche is essential for the younger generation," he said.
However, for several "aging generations of students in India, during the 1980s and 1990s", Manto`s "Toba Tek Singh" remains a poignant memory, thanks to the Hindi school text, 47-year-old M. Shreedharan, a director at a leading MNC in the capital, said.
Indian "bhasa" activist Sanjay Nirupam said: "Manto was the only one who could capture the absurdity and irony of maginalised people in society with courage."
One of his lesser-known stories "Shahadole ka Chooha" about superstition and child abuse in a Gujarat shrine brings out Manto`s philosophy in life: "Asking humans to behave as humans."
"Many of his powerful human interest stories have been relegated and the wrong ones - catering to popular sentiments - are in the limelight," Nirupam said.
Veteran theatre critic and writer Dewan Singh Bajeli laments that though Manto`s stories inspired a generation of writers in both India and Pakistan, he was not given the respect he deserved in Indian and Pakistani society because of taboos. Manto was tried for obscenity at least six times - and acquitted.
Writer and editor Nilanjana Roy demands lasting recognition for Manto. "Why don`t we have enough roads named after Saadat Hasan Manto in this country," she writes on twitter.