A Manto remembrance
In my reform house,” Saadat Hasan Manto wrote in his later years, “I keep no combs, curlers or shampoos because I do not know how to apply make-up on human beings. If Agha Hashr was cross-eyed, I have no device that can straighten his crooked eye, nor can I make him shed flowers form his mouth in place of the four-letter words that were his forte … Every angel admitted to the facility I operate has been barbered thoroughly in style so that not a single hair is left standing on his head.”
Elsewhere he wrote that he pronounced a thousand curses on that society which after a man’s death laundered out his life and then hung it by a nail on the wall, declaring him “Of Blessed Memory.” Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Manto’s death at the young age of 43 in Lahore. Will it be celebrated in the country that he chose as home and where he produced some of this greatest work and in whose earth he lies buried? I doubt it. The day will pass unnoticed, except for a meeting or two in Lahore.
One of Manto’s closest friends in his last years was the late Professor GM Asar, then teaching at Government College, Lahore. In January 1983 the late Muzaffar Ali Syed and some other friends and admirers of Manto decided to hold a session with Prof Asar to record his memories of the great man. The meeting held at Hamid and Qaisra Alvi’s home in Islamabad was attended by Syed and his wife Rashida Syed and the late writer Munir Ahmed Sheikh and his wife Nusrat Munir. Prof Asar’s reminiscences were recorded by Mrs Syed and circulated among those present to ensure their accuracy. Eleven years later, the transcript appeared in the journal Nairang-e-Khyal. Manto’s readers and fans would find Prof Asar’s memories, some of which have been challenged by the Manto family, fascinating and, in places, painful. Manto would have favoured their publication.
Manto’s last story, Prof Asar recalled, was “Kabootar kabootri” that he read at a small FC College student gathering three days before his death. He was on his way to college when his youngest son told him that Apa Iqbal, Manto’s sister, wanted to see him. When he went to the Manto home next door he found her crying. When he asked her what the matter was she replied “Why are you asking me, go in and see your brother?” Prof Asar went into Manto’s room and found him covered with a quilt. He called out his name but there was no reply, just a shudder in the heap. An ambulance was sent for that took Manto to Mayo Hospital. The doctor on duty felt for Manto’s pulse and said casually, “You have brought him to the wrong place. You should have taken him to the graveyard. He is dead.”
Prof Asar said that after Manto’s death he was asked to write something and he completed a piece captioned “Qatil kaun” (‘who’s the murderer’) but did not publish it. He said, “Manto’s marriage was a difficult one. Apa Iqbal (Manto’s sister) would give him a vitamin B-complex shot every day and every evening there would be an argument in the house with his wife saying, ‘Don’t you want me to be rid of this torture in my life?’” Three days after Manto’s death, Prof Asar recalled going to the Manto home and saying to his wife, “Bhabi, I have come to ask you for something.” When she wanted to know what, he replied, “There was a brass glass that he always drank out of. Please give it to me.” He was told that the three or four such glasses in the house had all been electroplated since, so she could not say which among those was the one he wanted. “And it was only three days after his death. I felt greatly pained … His private life was very bitter.” Asked if it was so because of his heavy drinking or his lack of a sense of responsibility, Prof Asar replied, “Both, both things.”
Prof Asar said Manto was sent to the mental hospital in Lahore against his will, and at his wife’s insistence. There he was given certain medicines which affected his mind. Manto became a problem for the hospital authorities as he set about launching a reform movement. “There were many disappointments in his life. As far as his drinking is concerned, I don’t defend myself, since I favoured it myself, then now. His was a slow suicide. He would eat nothing. Just one slice of bread, a cup of tea. Some curry in a saucer with a bit of potato and a piece of meat that he did not eat. He would dip a slice of bread in the curry and eat it. That was his average daily intake. Once he opened a bottle, he would not cork it till it was done. He would charge twenty rupees for a story and a bottle cost seventeen rupees in those days. At night the bottle would lie under his bed and whenever he woke up, he would take a swig from it without water.”
Muzaffar Ali Syed asked how a man who loved his children to distraction could be so selfish as to spend what he earned on drink. Prof Asar replied that what Manto earned through the daily story he wrote, went to buy his drink, but income from the ice factory allotted in his name by Qudratullah Shahab went straight to Begum Manto. Hamid Jalal, Manto’s nephew has also recorded in a piece he wrote during his uncle’s life and with his knowledge: “To restore his family’s confidence in him, he has done several things to keep himself in check and break out of the vicious circle … He has signed away all his rights in (sic) his writings, past, present and future. All accounts are now in his wife’s name. He cannot now borrow even a rupee from a publisher, unless his wife signs the receipt.”
A couple of years before Manto died, he was examined at a hospital where the doctors pronounced that his liver was not functioning. Manto reacted characteristically. “What do you mean, not functioning! It will have to function. You will see, doctor, that it will function. How dare it not function!” And, miraculously, his words came true. Muzaffar Ali Syed recalled that once when he was with Manto, he heard an older woman, probably Manto’s mother-in-law, shout angrily from inside the house, “Why is he alive? Why doesn’t he die?” Manto rose and closed the door. Prof Asar said: “The older lady must be expressing her daughter’s feelings.”
Manto, Prof Asar said in answer to a question, was neither for nor against Iqbal and hardly ever mentioned him. It was Ghalib he was totally devoted to. Once he wrote that after Ghalib, if truth be told, no one had the right to write poetry. He did not like talking about politics. He moved from Bombay because he wanted to live among his people and he also thought he would have a larger following of readers here, though he was disappointed on both counts. Asked if he ever expressed any regret, Prof Asar answered, “No, never. He always lived in a haze of optimism; pessimism was foreign to his nature. He was a warrior who would never have surrendered.”
His famous self-composed epitaph that does not appear on his grave says it all: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and mysteries of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, wondering who of the two is the greater short story writer: God or he.”