Much blood has passed under the bridge in the last sixty years. As a third generation descendant of a ‘partition’ family, I never saw the tragedy. I just heard about it. It’s more of a mental abstraction, as is erstwhile Punjab. When I was young, my grandfather would sing “Gaddi aayi Gaddi aayi narowaal di” at night. He never told me where Narowal was. But it nevertheless became a part of my identity. Just like India is, and just like Pakistan is. Fortunately, the human brain has not yet mastered the technique to compartmentalize the mind.
I read Manto for the first time when I was twenty one. The first story of his that I read was Toba Tek Singh. His stories stuck to me because they painted the missing gaps of the picture in my head. Although ethnically a Kashmiri, Manto’s stories were rooted in the secular ethos of Lahore and Amritsar. He captured the extraordinary lives of the ordinary men and women of Punjab, and thus brought to life those who otherwise figured as statistics on the pages of history. Sadly, Manto also narrates how the dream was shattered. The ugliness of that summer when rape and murder occupied the minds of those who, just months ago had sung Heer and had sworn by the message of Baba Bulleh Shah.
In Titwal ka kutta (The Dog of Titwal), I remember an incident when a soldier calls out to the dog, singing “Chan kitthe guzari aa ve raat”, a popular Punjabi folk song. I don’t quite remember whether the soldier was an Indian or a Pakistani. And that’s the beauty of it. The backdrop of the song serves as an effective backdrop to the futile nationalism displayed by the soldiers at the border between India and Pakistan. The song almost becomes a tragic irony, mocking the singer and his so called loyalties.
There are two ways to study history. There is a conventional top-down method. See what this or that leader did or did not do, and then spice it up with some theoretical framework based on one’s particular taste in ideology. Easy peasy. There is also an ugly way to study history, a gutter rat’s view if you will. That is to see history being made by unknown, unnamed actors, and study their individual ugliness. For one can’t really understand collective ugliness without taking into account individual ugliness.
This is the prime reason for Manto’s endearing popularity. He showed people what they don’t like to see. His stories showed the extent to which human perverseness could go, and he did so without any ideological bias. He was neither a taraqqi pasand nor a rujaat pasand, nor a leftist or a rightist. This is not to say that he didn’t espouse liberal/human values; he just loathed the politics of the various camps. In many of his essays, his bitterness towards the progressives is evident, not so much because of differences in values, but the way the progressives used the knife of takfir. All of a sudden, he became a kafir to their cause. Ironically, there has always been a glaring similarity in the modus operandi of the progressives and the religious fundamentalists.
There is yet another reason why Manto appeals to me. I have spent a good part of my life in Bombay (Mumbai in case the reader belongs to the Shiv Sena) and Pune. Manto too spent a lot of time in these cities. What he wrote about those cities still holds true today. Bollywood scripts are still far from reality, the producers run the show and there is no respect for the ‘art’ as such. The only difference is that nepotism is far more entrenched today than it probably was in those days…Oh and we managed to get Akon sing in Hindi…Sigh…
However, Manto, like me, fell in love with Bombay, despite, or rather because of the beauty of its ugliness. Maybe he saw a certain similarity between the city and his stories, for Bombay, like his stories, represents the best and the worst of humanity. Approximately sixty four years have passed since Manto’s abrupt departure. Bombay has grown since. It has become bigger, dirtier and uglier. But what holds the 15 million people wedded to the city is its soul which still remains unchanged.
I don’t know what Manto would think of India if he came back. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn’t. The rich are richer, the poor are poorer, the mansions are bigger and the slum houses are smaller. People still fight over caste and religion, albeit now it has been legitimised as national politics and democracy. Chacha Sam is still there. Now he sells everything from hamburgers to nuclear technology. Probably Manto will just laugh because it evolved according to his script…or he might just get frustrated and say "Upar di gur gur di annexe di bedhiyana di moong di daal of di Pakistan and Hindustan of di durr phitey mun."