‘Who are millennials?’ he would’ve asked, before lighting a Capstan cigarette and dismissing us altogether as a species too removed from his beloved drains and gutters of society. He would’ve scoffed perhaps, at our sheer lack of insolence and knowledge of debauchery.
I should begin by admitting here that I’m a closet Urdu fanatic. Being a hybrid of a pav wala East Indian and a Bengali-wielding Assamese, you see I had to start from scratch by stumbling over Hindi in a Bombay school first, and then dedicatedly watching millions of Urdu recitals on YouTube while trying to learn the language via a correspondence course (Bonus confession: I never got around to finishing it).
The most embarrassing was an encounter with a dear Muslim friend – also a comedian and an Urdu poet – who still takes my case for Frenchising the name into ‘Maantoh’ (with the ‘t’ pronounced as in tareek or date; the correct pronunciation is Munto, with ‘t’ as in tamatar, like a regular Indian nickname!).
Unlike most readers familiar with this renowned short story writer from a place stuck somewhere between the bloody division of India and Pakistan, I didn’t discover Saadat Hasan Manto from his famous tale of Toba Tek Singh. Instead, I stumbled upon this searing letter he wrote to Nehru soon after Partition. It has everything I later recognised to be typical Manto style, his provocative sense of humour waltzing around with comments and questions that singe society’s morals and shred down even the most ‘respected’ men, without apologies.
Manto and I had crossed paths before. Back in college, on the occasion of his birth anniversary, open-air film screenings were being held at Horniman Circle and I had chosen to accompany friends studying film at Sophia’s. The short film we watched was based on one of his stories called Kali Shalwar. It had dark undertones, morbid characters, with too many equally serious-looking arty aunties all around – the film bounced over my naive skull.
But Manto kept reappearing before and after the latter. I had to acknowledge this man, I had to get closer to his obscenities (agreed that even the word ‘breasts’ qualified as obscene back then, but things aren’t much better now either!). And I did, through translations, and then through original texts. But also through cinema and theatre, because artists simply cannot get enough of him.
The latest furore is caused by Nandita Das’s upcoming biopic starring Nawazuddin as Manto. Not only that, there are films still being produced based on his stories on both sides of the border, in colleges of Karachi as well as UP. Here’s a quick count:
1. Nandita Das’s upcoming biopic Manto
2. Ketan Mehta’s upcoming film Toba Tek Singh
3. Pakistani director Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s gorgeous, dramatic biopic Manto released in 2015
4. J Rahat Kazmi’s possibly controversial but absolutely beautiful film Mantostaan releasing in May this year. It premiered at Cannes 2016 to great response
5. A funny short film called Muftnosh released last year, showing Manto listing the kinds of cigarette bummers in the world
6. Neelam Mansingh’s contemporary theatre production Licence – The Untitled Saga which began performing a few years ago.
These are only the more recent works of art; there are tons of animations, short films and plays inspired by Manto. We simply don’t have that kind of powerful prose in the world anymore. His words will continue to ring true, they come back ever so often, stand beside podiums of morality, and speak themselves out loud all over again, in between sniggers. They repeat, “We’ve been hearing this for some time now — Save India from this, save it from that. The fact is that India needs to be saved from the people who say it should be saved.”
And priceless gems like, “Allah sends down natural disasters to control population explosion. He encourages us to go to war, He creates Pakistan and Akhand Bharat. In doing this, He teaches humans new and innovative methods of birth control.”
May 11 is his 105th birth anniversary. “And it is also possible,” he had once said, “that Saadat Hasan dies, but Manto remains alive.”
Happy Birthday Manto. The obscenity continues.
Image Credit: Click Here
Mineli Goswami is a 24-year-old Assamese-East Indian, which usually translates into pretty good weekend feasts. When she’s not at her desk struggling with poetry – more often than she’d like – she’s seen wasting time on an assortment of things such as lugging an antique SLR, breaking nails climbing boulders, and chasing turtles. She’s graduated in history and has an unofficial PhD in Bandra-style jiving.