By Sana Hussain
This stained light, this night-bitten dawn –
this is not the dawn we yearned for.
this is not the dawn
for which we set out so eagerly
~ from “Morning of Freedom” by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (translated by Daud Kamal)
The pall that stretches over the horizon of a newly liberated country in Faiz’s “Morning of Freedom” is also echoed in Saadat Hasan Manto’s perception of this freedom. Manto lived most of his life in Bombay before migrating to Lahore in 1948. After the move, he described his predicament in the first of a series of letters to Uncle Sam as being like “a bird whose wings had been clipped”, never coming to termswith the inhumanity and bloodshed he witnessed during partition. The brutalities humanity inflicted upon itself were permanently etched onto his consciousness and are communicated vividly in much of his work; lacking a better coping mechanism in dealing with the sadism shown by both countries during partition, for a man as insular as Manto, there was only one way to comprehend the madness: rendering his horror into his work.
As a humanist, Manto’s idea of freedom never quite matched the conventional perception of his contemporaries. Even today, despite their author posthumously being given the highest national award for his contribution to literature by the Government of Pakistan, Manto’s stories continue to be considered salacious and immoral, shocking twenty-first century readers with their progressiveness. The idea that prevails in Pakistan is that Manto was against independence, and consequently against Pakistan. This, however, is untrue. He was against the damage the War of Independence unleashed: the senseless killings, irrepressible hatred, opportunistic plundering, and brutalities against both women and children. In his short story For Freedom’s Sake, Manto, through his protagonist, voices his indignation, saying “To strive for freedom is fine. I can even understand dying for it. But to turn living people into mere vegetables, without passion or drive, is beyond me. To live in poor housing, shun amenities, sing the Lord’s praises, and shout patriotic slogans– fine! But to stifle the very desire for beauty in humanity! … Students coming out of these madrasas and ashrams look like the udders of a cow from which every drop of milk has been squeezed.” In retrospect, it is perhaps not completely incomprehensible that the conservative, orthodox citizens of the country declared Manto an anti-state, anti-Islam reactionary.
Perhaps a strong reason why Manto’s attitude reflected partial ambivalence towards Pakistan’s independence was his affiliation with Bombay. From a material perspective, the city was home to his success and fame, both things lost after his arrival in Lahore. That the graves of his parents were in India could not have made the decision to migrate an easy one –leaving behind family, friends and memories only to be welcomed by an acute sense of longing in post-partition Lahore. He spoke of his predicament, saying, “Despite my best efforts, I could not dissociate India from Pakistan and Pakistan from India”[i]. But more upsetting than the ache of nostalgia was his disillusionment with the concept of liberation and its gruesome aftermath. For essentially, Manto’s contention with freedom was not one of “India versus Pakistan”; he criticized the actions of both equally, condemning them for their hawkish and inhumane actions. He believed that it was wrong to say that a hundred thousand Hindus and a hundred thousand Muslims died – “say [instead] that two hundred thousand human beings died. But this is not the biggest tragedy. The real tragedy is that both the murderers and the murdered count for nothing at all. By killing a hundred thousand Hindus, Musalmans thought they had killed Hinduism but it is alive and will remain so. By killing a hundred thousand Musalmans, Hindus were happy that they had killed Islam. But those people who think religions can be hunted with guns are stupid…” (Sahay)
Today’s Pakistan would not provide Manto with any real answers either, a fact he may already have perceived when he aptly chronicled the fate of both nations decades ago. “Hindustan had become free. Pakistan had become independent soon after its inception but man was still [en]slave[d] in both these countries – slave of prejudice … slave of religious fanaticism … slave of barbarity and inhumanity.”
Manto’s questioning of the sacred concept of freedom is probably what brought him so much ire and condemnation in the country he now claimed as his own. But the questions he asked continue to resonate today when thoughts and actions are still policed and true “freedom” of thought, expression and belief is hard to come by. The government may have given Manto an award, but as long as people run the risk of being censored, or of being branded blasphemers, it will remain at best, a hollow gesture.
Sana Hussain is Features Editor of the magazine.