Revisiting Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) on his birth centenary turned out to be an experience which cannot be described by a single adjective. It was not just a return to Manto but also a home-coming to my associations with him. I was introduced to Manto in the 1980s during my graduation in A S College Khanna, in Ludhiana district of Punjab. There, I could immediately relate to Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, as the prevalent vicious communal atmosphere and brutal state response was nothing short of insanity. After graduation I came to Chandigarh which, despite being the capital of Punjab was aloof from the madness reigning in the countryside.
Here, Manto again helped me to understand how the same situation could have different impacts. The massacre of April 1919 of Jalianwala Bagh, Amritsar had changed the life of Udham Singh and Saadat Hasan Manto in different directions. Udham Singh became part of history as Ram Mohammad Singh Azad when he avenged the massacre of Jalianwala Bagh and was hung by the British. In another but equally powerful trajectory, Manto wrote his first short story, ‘Tamasha’, using the backdrop of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, and went on to become one of the most acclaimed story tellers of the Subcontinent, with prolific writing until his untimely death at forty two.
In Chandigarh I learnt that Manto belonged to Papraudi, a village near Samrala in Ludhiana district. We Punjabis have a fluid definition of the term ‘village’. Whenever a Bihari labourer received a visitor, we used to say that someone had come to meet him from his village. It did not matter that one was from Gopalganj at the western end of Bihar and the other from Kotihar in the east. Similarly, when we moved out of our villages the concept of village expanded along with the distance from native place. Living in Europe or North America, someone from Bahawalpur (West Punjab) and other one from Patiala (East Punjab) can comfortably claim that they belong to same village. Manto’s village is just 15 km from my village, Daudpur — in the same district and tehsil. This piece of information made me feel closer to Saadat Hasan Manto. From a mere reader I became his garain or someone from the same village.
In the 1990s Lal Singh Dil, a revolutionary Punjabi poet was running a roadside tea stall in Samrala, from where I used to change my bus while commuting between Chandigarh and Daudpur. Mostly, I used to stop at his tea stall to talk about poetry, politics and literature or sometimes just to chat. It was a great feeling that Manto, Dil and I are garain.
I went to Lahore in 2003 to attend the Punjabi World Conference. In a parallel program on the Seraiki language someone told me that Hamid Akhtar was also in the gathering. Hamid Akhtar was an old friend of Manto and Sahir Ludhianvi and his ancestral village was also in Ludhiana district. They all migrated to Pakistan after Partition but Sahir eventually returned to India. Hamid Akhtar was looking very frail, as he had just recovered from throat cancer. I was told that his hearing was very weak so he would not be able to understand many things and, furthermore, he could not speak very easily.
However, I was sure that he could listen to his garain. I touched his feet and greeted him with folded hands, ‘Sat Sri Akal’. He looked at me and I introduced myself, ‘Mein Samrale toh ayan’ (I have come from Samrala). In a trice, Hamid was on his feet. He hugged me and announced, without the help of a loudspeaker, ‘Eh mere pindo aya. Manto de pindon (He has come from my village, from Manto’s village).’ He made me sit next to him, all the while holding my hand. His first question: ‘Samrale vich kithon ayan’ (From where in Samrala do you come)? I replied, ‘Daudpur.’ With a few explanations, he could understand the geography as well as roads from Daudpur to Papraudi and to his native village near Jagraon. Hamid subsequently recovered from cancer and has visited Chandigarh twice, thereafter. He would call and ask, ‘Mein aa gayan, sham nu tun meinu sharab pilauni aa’ (I am here. In the evening you will take me for a drink). We would end up discussing Manto, Sahir, India and Pakistan. This is Sadda Gran, our village.
Recently, I visited Papraudi to make a special program for the news channel Day and Night News, on Saadat Hasan Manto’s birth centenary. One of Manto’s contemporaries, Ujjagar Singh, remembers having played with him when they were children. At the age of ninety plus Ujjagar Singh has memories of Manto and his family. He identified Manto’s house, which was auctioned after Partition by government as ‘evacuee property’. I asked him if he had read Manto’s writing. He replied, ‘I have not read him as I can’t read Urdu. I have heard that he is a renowned writer. He has made our village proud.’ I talked to at least half a dozen people but none of them was familiar with Manto’s writings.
Then we went to the village Gurudwara where the Punjabi Sahit Sabha, Delhi, opened the Manto Memorial Library two years ago. The caretaker of the Gurudwara, Lakhwinder Singh, looks after the library as it is housed in his one room accommodation. The bookshelf carrying 200 books has two translated volumes of Manto’s stories. The library attracts not more then a couple of readers a month so Lakhwinder Singh has not felt the need to unbundle books. Now Punjabi Sahit Sabha Delhi is planning to shift this collection to Samrala. Hopefully Manto’s writings will have more readers in his home village.
Continuing my quest for Manto the person, I went to Amritsar to film the places he is supposed to have frequented. One such place is Katra Sher Singh where he lived. The demography of this area has changed, as it was a Muslim dominated locality before Partition, and witnessed remorseless killings and brutality of untold magnitude. Katra Sher Singh now has a Hindu-Sikh population. No trace of its bloody past or its displaced populace is visible to an observer.
Manto might have gotten his characters of ‘Khol Do’ and ‘Thanda Ghosht’ straight out of these environs, I imagine as I walk the streets. Since I had been steeped in Manto for many days, I could feel the traumatized young Sakina’s presence. As in ‘Khol do’, she is not confined only to being Sirajudin’s daughter, but symbolizes the vulnerability of women subjected to sexual violence during Partition. Even after 65 years, it is scary. I do not want to dwell on what Manto had gone through while witnessing and then recording these details. He took refuge in ‘Toba Tek Singh’’s Bishan Singh, who says, ‘Aupar di, gargar di, bedhiyana di, annex di, mungi di daal of the lantern of the Hindustan of the Pakistan government, dur fiteh munh.’ All the words of this sentence are familiar but still it is an enigma inviting silence. Manto too, is such an enigma who may have grown out of words so he chose silence at the age of forty two. As a garain of Manto I am unnerved by his silence, Sakina’s predicament and Bishan Singh’s gibberish. Oh, when Manto is not confined to any one village, why should I think that I am the only one who is scared while revisiting him? It leaves me with a final question: can scared people celebrate birth centenaries?
Manto and one of his children
The Epiteph: Meri qabr ka qatba
Saadat Hasan Manto
qabr ke hai
jo ab bhi samjhta hai ke uss ka naam
harf-e-mukarrar nahin tha
padayesh 11 May 1912, wfaat 18 Januar 1955
The epiteph of my grave
the tablet of
Saadat Hasan Manto’s
who still thinks that his name
was not a repetitive letter
on the page/tablet of life (Manto)
Birth May 11, 1912, Death January 18, 1955
(Refers to Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s couplet ‘Ya rubb zmana mujh ko mittata hai kiss liye, loh-e-jahan pe harf-e-mukarrar nahin hoon main’ – ‘O Creator why does world wants to rub me off, i am not a repetitive letter on the tablet/page of life’
2005 comemorative stamps on his death centenary
Photographs from Amarjit Chandan Collection
PS: According to Amarjit Chandan, Hamid Akhtar’s ancestral village was Mehatpur near Nakodar. Akhtar passed away in 2011.
Daljit Ami is a documentary filmmaker, journalist and cultural activist from Chandigarh. After studying Ancient Indian History Archaeology & Culture, and later, Mass Communications, he has worked on several independent films and documentaries dealing with poignant social issues in northern India. Ami also contributes to Chandigarh’s Punjabi Tribune as an Assistant Editor.
Saadat Hassan Manto From Wikipedia: ‘(Punjabi, Urdu: سعادت حسن منٹو) (May 11, 1912 – January 18, 1955) was a short story writer of the Urdu language. He is best known for his short stories, ‘Bu’ (Odour), ‘Khol Do’ (Open It), ‘Thanda Gosht’ (Cold Meat), and his magnum opus, ‘Toba Tek Singh’. Manto was also a film and radio scriptwriter, and journalist. In his short life, he published twenty-two collections of short stories, one novel, five collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches. Manto was tried for obscenity half-a-dozen times, thrice before 1947 and thrice after 1947 in Pakistan, but never convicted. Some of his works have been translated in other languages.’
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