Remembering Manto in NYC

The winter sun had long withered away. I was tired, dog tired... just back from a excruciating day in the mind numbing suburban sprawl called New Jersey. I was headed for a meeting of the Lease Drivers Coalition, a local initiative in organizing the primarily South Asian yellow cab driver population of the city. I hail a cab at 14th Street too tired to walk the 15 odd blocks to meeting. A slighly beat up cab pulls up. I get in.. and smile... the driver is a Pakistani - Mohammed Sheik. A conversation begins... brief introductions and then I ask - Where are you from in Pakistan? His reply is slow to come, as if considering: Toba Tek Singh. I sit up, "Toba Tek Singh!!" He looks up at me in the rear view mirror and smiles... "Aap Sadat Hasan Manto ke bare me sounch rahe hai na" ("you are reminded of Sandat Hasan manto, aren't you?"), he asks. "yes of course" I respond.And indeed I was. I had read Manto's Toba Tek Singh many years ago... the black dark turgid humour of two nations, two governments, exchanging mental asylum inmates across the blood spocked border... just months after partition.... and one lone sigh searching for his village, refusing to be simply exchanged... Manto, wrote this in 1948... his take on what partition was all about, his understanding of its logic and his unflinching judgement of the two States it had produced are all woven in. Its one of those stories that slaps you across the face and makes you sit up. "Yes I am, indeed."

He smiles... slowly he begins talking... we talk about this story and then that. "Manto" he says "his cynicism wasn't cynicism... it was a cry of anger and sorrow mixed together that we read as cynicism" I concur. Our conversation twists and turns, suddenly both of us are consumed by an urge to explain Manto. The fifteen blocks have been long covered. We sit by the roadside talking. "How can you expect anything else from a man who had been abandoned... who saw an idea he lived daily, not simply thought of, but lived, being destroyed. Its a brutality born out of being torn apart..." Mohammed says.

Its late. A little past 11:30 PM... I am trying to get home. I need to sleep. I hail another cab... get in... another Pakistani brother... and our conversation begins... When we get to the point where in he says he is from "Toba Tek Singh" I am just too stunned to react. "This can't be true" I tell myself. But my new friend, he knows nothing of Manto... but he knows who Toba Tek Singh was. "Kooaen Khodta tha" he says, "Toba Tek Singh, was a man who gave us water." He tells me a story. A few years ago, some mullas (religious heads) wanted to change the name of our village - they didn't like the "Hindu" name. "A few of us got together and we beat up the mullas... how could we allow that" my new friend says... "he after all gave us water."

Biju Mathew

Generally considered to be the finest short story writer in Urdu. He is a disturbing writer who shocks the reader with his candidness, sometimes with his crudity. Whether he writes of sex or the life of prostitutes, on social or on political issues, his stories are full of fire. His frankness greatly agitated the self-styled moralists of his day he had to face charges of obscenity against several of his stories in the court. Discarding emotionalism and slogans, Manto adopted a plain, realistic style with which he explores the depths of human psychology. His stories about the 1947 killings and disturbances are a moving record of the period. Their grim realism evokes the tensions and tragedy of the time with powerful directness. Manto has created memorable characters and there is hardly anyone in Urdu literature who approaches his skill at characterisation. He has been accused of misanthropy and bitterness, but his social criticism is profound and his censure of hypocritical attitudes devastating. Manto does not rely on abstract reasoning in his approach. He is an artist who feels instinctively and expresses himself without inhibitions. He is however sympathetic to his characters for all his fire and fury and does not despair of humanity. His motivating concern seems to be to make his readers aware of meanness and selfishness, as also concern and feeling, in the most unexpected places.

[Reproduced from "Pakistani Short Stories" edited by Waqas Ahmad Khwaja, UPS Publishers' Distributers Ltd., New Delhi. 1992]

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