To remember Manto is to remind oneself of an era in black & white. The stories by the man/writer/activist who wrote against hypocrisy that society is surrounded in. Even today his writings stand true to its words.
Manto was ethnically a Kashmiri, born in Ludhiana, British India. It is still not known why Manto left Bombay, which he loved, for a new home in Pakistan, especially considering his deep anguish with partition and its human loss that punctuates much of his work.
He questioned society and his writings were a deep reflection of the barbaric human to human relationship during partition, when religion played one against the other.
He was a communist and did not follow the diktats of religion and the boundaries it created for human beings. He stood steadfast in his convictions, even during the troubled times with his writings, that was tearing open the comfortable lies that human beings always tried to find refuge in.
Manto has come back to a much-deserved limelight these days because of the movie Manto, in which Nawazuddin Siddiqui did a beautiful job portraying this complex, sensitive and troubled man, skillfully directed by Nandita Das. It looks like the film did one of the things it set out to do, which was magnify an interest in his writing and the themes he explored.
I have always gone back to a story I read as a teenager written by Manto called Boo, which means “odour”.
Like so many of his writings this one haunted me with its sheer lack of dressing up a piece of writing that was so boldly unhindered, irrespective of how society would digest this truth.
As a young girl my mind was repulsed yet astonished with his honesty. Randhir the protagonist in Boo and the Ghati woman’s sexual encounter.
In the story Manto went on to write about Randhir finding love and a sense of calm in her body that had the odour of a common factory girl. He went on to write how he kissed the Ghati girls hairy armpit and was not repulsed with the truth of her body.
In Boo he brings out Randhir’s inability after marriage to love his aristocratic wife and her perfumed body. He yearned for the Ghati woman and the smell of the wet earth that he found in her and how he couldn’t get over this permeating smell from his senses.
Only Manto could’ve dared to write about the unwritten, unspoken, hushed voices that remains frightened to leave our souls.
Boo is about the senses that sometimes never leave you. Like I have felt tremendous nostalgia when the first drop of rain touches the dry earth.
One cannot hold on to smell or express it you can only feel it. Just like the smell of my Ma’s sari, or the tee shirt that my child leaves behind every time he travels back to his university in London. I hold on to that smell because I can feel him next to me and it seems that the empty space remains filled in again.
In Boo Manto writes about of the truth in sexual relationships between two individuals, where most are scared to voice their innermost desires in spite of the years of familiarity. Manto questioned this conditioning.
He was way ahead of his times. The pedestal he put women on in his stories are that of a feminist man.
He died from an alcohol overdose at the age of 42. But Manto remains the man whose pen would break but he wouldn’t stop revealing society and its shams.
Manto was ostracised by the conservatives. He remained proudly immoral inspite of the moral din that tried to silence him.
Manto was a revolutionary and his writings even today give us a glimpse of the world that he inhabited, where deception, hypocrisy and lies had no place.
It takes courage to be Manto the Man.