Cutty Snark: Manto and other ramblings

 "If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don't even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that's the job of dressmakers."  (I can’t read Urdu, so if you can and this says something entirely different, let me know.)

"If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don't even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that's the job of dressmakers." (I can’t read Urdu, so if you can and this says something entirely different, let me know.)

Yesterday, I was patting myself on the back for having got the hang of this strict word count business, until I realised that my colleague had taken pity on me and assigned a bigger chunk of space so that I don’t have to cut my column much. You can read it here.

The only significant bit that I couldn’t fit into the final column was the note that Manto had written, prefacing his self-published edition of “Upar, Neech Aur Darmiyaan”/ “On Top, Under and In Between”:

“My publisher refused to print this story. That upset me. I somehow scrabbled around for the money to publish this on my own, so that you could read it. I’m quite certain you will honour the piece—for you are my dear reader, not my publisher. Yours, Saadat Hasan Manto."

(This is from Why I Write, a volume of Manto’s writings translated by Aakar Patel.)

There’s so much bitterness and hope folded into these few sentences. For what it’s worth, Manto’s readers have certainly honoured his writing, so good on us for that at least. That note also made me think of the invisible reader/ audience for whom the imaginers (not a word, I know, but it should be one. Sounds less poncy than “artist” and covers more ground) create. A lot of us write for ourselves, but even in the most introverted and extreme of these cases, we’re still writing in the hope of that dear reader.

Probably because we’ve seen a spate of caste-based killings, I’ve been remembering a less famous story of Manto’s (less famous = not charged with obscenity). It’s called “The Licence”, and is about the consequences of a young woman named Niti falling in love with a tonga driver. While reading this excellent thread on Twitter last week, bits of the story kept coming back to me. In “The Licence”, the police suddenly show up and charge Abbu Coachman with abducting Niti (he hasn’t) and throw him in jail. Niti struggles and then manages to make a living by driving Abbu’s tonga. Except that is as unacceptable to society as her love story with Abbu. The committee of tongawallahs calls her to a meeting and tells her that she isn’t allowed to earn from Abbu’s tonga without a licence and women won’t be given licences. When she says she’s earning her livelihood from the tonga, the committee tells her she could earn more in a brothel. The story ends with a broken Niti and a dead Abbu. Like I wrote in my column, the tonga may be history today, but these attitudes aren’t and neither is the punishment that is ruthlessly meted out to those who dare cross caste, class, community line.

Then yesterday, the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport kept popping up on my timeline — stories of men and women dismissed, ignored, silenced; confessionals that make you shake your head at the tissue-thin credibility of the “official record” that we hold so dear as journalists and historians. It was a rabbit hole of pain and disillusionment — scabs ripped, bruises repurpled, memories dragged out from safe places. All in the hope that this moment, this hashtag, will acknowledge the victim and how difficult it is to go from victim to survivor.

I cherish the internet and social media for its ability to bring people together, to build supportive communities, which a hashtag like this provides (even if it is temporary). But looking at the stories that were shared, I couldn’t help but wonder who was reading this and thinking, “Whaa? Who knew?!” The only thing that hashtag confirmed is that nothing has changed for generations, and you shouldn’t need to have been abused to know that. Not after all the art that survivors and imaginers have created to both document those experiences and as catharsis.

Because the terrible truth is that there was nothing new in that hashtag. These are stories we’ve heard and read and seen forever. They’ve been circulating in myth cycles, fables, songs, old wives’ tales, fairy tales, written literature, cinema, art, take your pick. Even though modern societies have become far less unequal than communities were in the pre-modern era, power imbalances and inequalities are very much a present-day reality. We’ve been disbelieving and silencing victims in the same way for hundreds of years. If you need a hashtag to make you ‘aware’ of this, I despair.