Delhi this weekend: On Saadat Hasan Manto’s 106th birthday, watch two plays based on his stories

In his short and tragic life that ended with liver failure at 43, Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto produced a prolific body of work. Though he wrote 22 collections of short stories, five radio plays, a novel, three essay collections and several film scripts and articles, Manto is best remembered for his short stories that describe in simple, crisp and hard-hitting prose, the chaos and horrors of Partition.

One of the finest short story writers of modern Indian literature, Manto was born on May 11, 1912, in Ludhiana, Punjab. On his 106th birth anniversary, two plays — Toba Tek Singh and Miyan, Biwi Aur Manto — based on his stories are being performed this weekend in Delhi at the ongoing Saksham Theatre Festival at the India Habitat Centre.

While Toba Tek Singh, the dark satire set in a madhouse post-Partition where the lunatics seem saner than the people outside, was written by Manto in 1955, the year he died, disillusioned and impoverished in Lahore; Miyan, Biwi Aur Manto, a comedy, is sourced from his early, and less famous work written during his stint with the All India Radio in 1941.

“Miyan, Biwi Aur Manto is based on his Aao series of four radio plays, which were translated into Hindi by Azara Rizvi,” says Sunil Rawat, the director. “These stories revolve around the witty banter and everyday tiffs of a couple,” he adds. “Manto writes in the introduction that he wrote these comedies for his bread and butter,” says Rawat, who makes an appearance in the play as Manto and delivers a monologue defending himself against charges of obscenity and alcoholism.

This battle with offended sensibilities was one that Manto fought all his life. The bluntness and realism in his writing — whether he was writing about an upper class man’s attraction to the body odour of a tribal woman during intercourse (Bu), or a gang-rape survivor mechanically undoing her salwar (Khol Do), or the savagery the Partition unleashed (Thanda Ghosht) — invited lawsuits and censure. He was taken to court six times on charges of sedition and obscenity.

Manto was conscious of his role as a writer, says author, translator and literary historian Rakhshanda Jalil. “He wrote that he was not a dressmaker or tailor, his job was to take off the clothes of society. He was acutely aware that he was writing it as he was seeing it. His autobiographical essays give a clear-sighted view of his writings in his own words,” she says.

Director Sunil Rawat says he relied on Hindi translator Vidya Shankar’s excellent script for his stage adaptation of Toba Tek Singh.
(Photo courtesy: Saksham Theatre Group)

While Manto’s clinical and terse prose lends his short fiction its punch, the best example being Toba Tek Singh, it makes adapting his stories for a visual medium somewhat of a challenge.

Rawat says he relied on Hindi translator Vidya Shankar’s excellent script for his stage adaptation, which is inspired by the short story. The play, he says, makes certain changes to the original story without diluting its powerful message. “The other madmen in the story have been fleshed out in detail as have been the debates and arguments that follow once they learn about the creation of India and Pakistan,” he says.

Big-screen adaptations

Ketan Mehta’s 2016 film Toba Tek Singh also featured characters from Manto’s other short stories, including that of Manto himself, to make the short story work as a film. Veteran actor Pankaj Kapur, who played Bishan Singh (or Toba Tek Singh), believes the short story to be the best piece ever written on the Partition.

“Ketan created Manto’s character (played by Vinay Pathak) as the narrator of Bishan Singh’s story. And he included a couple of other stories in the film such as Khol Do,” says Kapur.

Alok Rai, formerly professor of English at Delhi University, says that through Toba Tek Singh, Manto rejects the rationality that produced the Partition. “Unlike others who were taking sides, Manto’s response to the serious business of independence was the only logical one to have — which is to reject the whole stupidity. I think Manto was ahead of his time in that respect.”

The very act of getting British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe — someone who had never been to India and knew nothing about it — to draw the borders was absurd, Rai points out. “Manto (in Toba Tek Singh) invents this figure of an angry old man who says, ‘F**k you, I don’t want any of this’. Toba Tek Singh refuses to choose between two equally unacceptable options — India or Pakistan,” he says.

The man himself

Manto’s turbulent life was the subject of Pakistani film-maker Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s biographical drama Manto (2015). Actor-director Nandita Das’s soon-to-release biopic on him, also titled Manto (2018), will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival this month. It looks at the critical pre- and post-Partition periods in the writer’s life.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto in Nandita Das’s forthcoming film Manto.

Das says it is the honesty in Manto’s work that appealed to her. “And the fact that he continued to fight against all forms of orthodoxy. He didn’t spare any kind of religious bigotry whether it was from the government or the mullahs or the right-wingers of that time,” she says. “These are things that we are also grappling with, and Manto responded to in a very honest and effortless manner,” she says.

Jalil says the fact that Manto’s stories were included in undergraduate courses in the 90s, along with the easy availability of his work in translation and transliteration have made him accessible to a younger audience. Also, the clarity in his writing finds him admirers even now, unlike his contemporaries whose rhetoric or picturesque prose may not be widely appreciated today.

“His simple and sharp stories have no fluff. They take you right away to the nub of the issue. Manto keeps his descriptions to a bare minimum,” she says. “Urdu has appealed to a certain grey audience always, but Manto and Ismat Chughtai have managed to reach younger audiences because of their quality of writing,” says Jalil.

“We are losing our stomach for risk in the arts,” says author Jerry Pinto. “And this is understandable, given our current situation. So it seems better to rely on tried and tested writers like Manto, Chughtai and Tagore,” he says. “Manto is canonical now and he would have been horrified by it. We should be wary of looking for relevance in the same names again and again.”

Though Pinto admires Manto for his fearlessness in taking risks, he feels it is time to look at writers beyond the canon.“If Manto was around today, he would not do Manto. He would be reading other Urdu texts and short stories and looking for something that would get people angry.”

What: Saksham Theatre Festival 2018 (April 8 to May 13)

Where: Amphitheatre, India Habitat Centre (IHC), Lodhi Road, New Delhi

When: 7.30 pm, May 12 (Miyan, Biwi Aur Manto) and 13 (Toba Tek Singh)

Nearest Metro station: Jor Bagh (Yellow Line) and Khan Market (Violet Line)

Buy tickets online at BookMyShow or at the programmes desk at IHC.

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