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Sweet and sour Manto
Theatre director Salima Raza revisited three famous stories by the Urdu writer whose biting satire and social observations continue to entertain generations. Utpal K Banerjee reports
Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), faithfully chronicled — in 22 short-story collections, numerous radio-plays and essays — the chaos during and after the Partition of India in 1947.
His work, which grew from the prevailing climate and his own social struggle, reflected an innate sense of human impotency towards darkness and contained a bitter satire that verged on dark comedy, as seen best in his final work, Toba Tek Singh.
His writing showed the influence of his own demons, and the collective madness he saw in the post-Partition decade of his life.It was ironic that he was tried for obscenity six times: thrice before 1947 in India. Thrice after 1947 in Pakistan. But he was never convicted!
It was more ironic that Pakistan awarded him their highest literary honour, Nishan-e-Imtiaz, only in 2012, full 57 years after his death!
Ek Kutte Ki Kahani, a recent presentation by Wings Cultural Society, was an award-winning birth-centenary celebration of Manto, directed by Salima Raza.It is an amalgam of three famous stories by Manto, seen through the author’s cynical eyes.
As he observed to an appreciative doctor-friend of his: I never write my stories, they get written by me.For this compulsive writer, no part of human existence remained untouched or taboo.
He sincerely brought out stories of prostitutes and pimps. Just as he highlighted the subversive, sexual slavery of women of his times.
Thanda Gosht is the chilling story of a husband unable to perform. Having lost his potency by trying to rape a dead maiden. The bitterly disappointed wife slices open his throat in sweet revenge!
“In a sense, it is Manto’s own analysis of his most controversial, split-personality traits, which were not palatable to conservative society of the time,” says Salima.Kali Shalwar contains supreme sarcasm, with its tale of a conman taking two prostitutes for a ride.
He exchanges one’s silver ear-rings with the other’s black-robe, to elicit, “mutual” satisfaction!This smacks of O Henry’s black comedy, and is reminiscent of Manto’s formative years, when he used to read and translate English, Russian and French stories and novels, for a living.
Tetwal Kii Kutta deals with the horrifying experiences of Partition, featuring an honest and stark depiction of the underbelly of society.In an army partitioned into two confronting militias, there is nothing better to do, than amuse oneself with an innocent dog that keeps straying from one occupied zone to the other.
It gets savagely killed by combined bullets. In beautiful sleight of hand, the director converts the dog-puppeteer into Manto himself, to impersonate the hated underdog!
About her fascination for Manto, Salima reminisces, “As children we, studied in Hindi medium at Lucknow. Ours was a family embroiled in the freedom movement. My father, ZA Ahmed, a PhD from London School of Economics, was secretary to Jawaharlal Nehru and made Urdu mandatory in our household, bringing Manto in. Our play has been fleshed out by Manto’s characters: so often misunderstood and sometimes shunned by society. Manto hears the inner voice of the soul, his own, and that of characters in his stories. And we, the audience, share the experience through the play.”
She quotes Manto’s own obituary, recorded by himself somewhere, “Here lies Manto who was the man who asked to be in the pile of filth, rather than in the organised creation of society; who preferred the bitterness, rather than the sweet.”
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