Re-Membering Toba Tek Singh: Looking for Manto

Between works censored for “obscenity” and those pirated and then censored for nationalism, which censorship is more obscene?

by Huma Dar

Sa'adat Hasan Manto
Sa’adat Hasan Manto

In today’s edition of, Jan 1, 2012, the renowned feminist poet, Fahmida Riaz has an article, “Understanding Manto,” about Urdu literature’s enfant terrible, Sa’adat Hasan Manto.  This year will mark Manto’s birth centenary.  Thank you, Fahmida Apa, for writing this moving tribute!  Sad indeed is the day when Pakistan cannot or does not publish Manto’s work, uncensored, unedited.  Despite justified indignation, knowing our “guardians of morality and piety,” it aches my heart to confess, I am not surprised.

Ironically, the “Indian pirated edition”—even if we overlook the immense ethical difficulties with the issue of piracy, and the direly-needed resources that were (and are) thus withheld from Manto and his family—is still no guarantee of accessing the “original, uncensored text.”  Christine Everaert in her book, Tracing the Boundaries between Hindi and Urdu: Lost and Added in Translation (Brill, 2009) painstakingly records many elisions, omissions, and additions in just a few of Manto’s stories as they’re carried from their original Urdu to the [pirated] Hindi versions.  Some of these transformations are, of course, to ease the transmission of the literary register in Urdu to Hindi; others to simply make things more palatable for Indian nationalism.  (Please especially see the Chapter II of this book for many examples…)

Even more curious is the case of “Pandit Nehru ke naam Pandit Manto ka pehla KHat.”  This was published in lieu of the preface in Manto’s collection BaGHair ‘Unwaan Ke (1954) [Without Title] published in Pakistan a few months before Manto’s tragic death.  With  typical (Heptullah) humor, Manto critiques Indian policies vis-à-vis Kashmir—Sheikh Abdullah was thrown into prison without charges in August 1953—and openly mocks Nehru even as he dedicates that particular book to him:

I have one more grievance against you. You’re stopping water from flowing in our rivers, and taking a cue from you, the publishers in your capital are hurriedly publishing my books without my permission. Is this proper? I thought that no such unseemly act could be perpetrated under your regime. You can find out right away how many publishers in Delhi, Lucknow, and Jallundhar have pirated my books.
Several suits have already been filed against me on charges of obscenity. But look at the injustice that in Delhi, right under your nose, a publisher brings out the collection of my stories and calls it The Obscene Stories of Manto. I wrote the book Ganje Farishte. An Indian publisher has published it as Behind the Curtains…  Now tell me, what should I do?
I’ve written a new book. This letter addressed to you is the preface to it. If this book, too, is pirated, then by God I’ll reach Delhi some day, catch you by the throat and will not let go…  I’ll cling to you in such a manner that you will remember it your whole life.
In 2006, while in India for my fieldwork, I bought from Urdu Bazaar, Delhi, the Kulliyaat-e Manto [Collected Works of Manto], edited by Dr. Humayun Ashraf (Educational Publishing House, Delhi, 2005).  From the multivolume collection, this fantastic letter doing double-duty as a preface is precisely what is missing!
It thus looks like we might need to fumble around in that no man’s land—the land between Pakistan and India, the void between vulnerable “purity” of Islamic Republic of Pakistan and obscene piracy of “secular” Republic of India, the space between élitist nationalism of Pakistan and Brahminical colonial nationalism of India, the land which exemplified the sanity of madness in Manto’s  Toba Tek Singh—to feel the bite of Manto’s scalpel on our souls, just the way he experienced the world: uncensored, unedited, madness unmeditated.
P.S: Fehmida Apa, Manto did not just have two daughters but three: Nighat, Nuzhat, and Nusrat.
Manto with his daughters
Manto with his three daughters: Nighat, Nuzhat, Nusrat

This is dedicated to Nighat, Nuzhat, Nusrat, Safia Khala (RIP), and Zakia Khala.

7 thoughts on “Re-Membering Toba Tek Singh: Looking for Manto”

  1. His story “Bu” is a true piece of art in every aspect and was shamefully censored even in the english translation that I read alongside urdu…

    1. Unfortunately, “bū” is a short story I find deeply problematic due to the fetishized representations of caste and class…

  2. My heart cries for him and others who have suffered while they were living….
    My heart says a prayer for all those who have tried to bring Manto alive through his long forgotten writings…
    Thank you for sharing!!

  3. Manto’s single sterling quality was his irreverence. His manner of mocking the idols of the day and of forcing society to look at the so-called taboo topics in the eye make him stand head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

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