A Stormy Relationship: Manto and the Progressives

Extracted from ‘The Progressive’, Introduction to Saadat Hasan Manto, The Armchair Revolutionary and Other Sketches, translated by Khalid Hasan, Prologue by Nandita Das, LeftWord, pp. 231, Rs 325.
The first major rift between the leadership of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) and Manto took place after the publication of Manto’s 1942 story Bu, which was famously charged with obscenity by the colonial government along with Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf (The Quilt). In the joint trial that followed, a defiant Manto and Chughtai refused to apologize, but were eventually acquitted. Despite the fact that Bu was published in Adab-e Lateef, a progressive magazine edited by Ahmad NadeemQasmi (who was also one of the co-accused in the trial), the story seems to have irked some among the leadership of the PWA, especially Sajjad Zaheer, who thought that “the portrayal of the sexual perversions of a satisfied member of the middle class, no matter how much reality it is based on, is a waste of the writer’s and the reader’s time.” Consequently Zaheer, along with Dr. Abdul Aleem, drafted a resolution against obscenity, which was presented at the PWA conference held in Hyderabad in 1945. The resolution was also meant to warn other writers against the trend of anti-progressive anarchist-conservatism emerging within European literature, which Zaheer felt was unduly influencing the writers of the PWA.
For an organization that had its roots in Angaare(Embers) — a collection of short stories that itself faced the charges of obscenity — this was a strange development. Fortunately for the PWA, the resolution, which the leadership had expected to be passed without fuss, was scuttled in a dramatic fashion by Maulana Hasrat Mohani, a PWA stalwart as well as elder. The Maulana pointed out that the obvious problem with the resolution lay in the fact that obscenity was impossible to define, and that the vast majority of Urdu and Farsi poetry could easily be considered obscene by some. He proposed instead that the resolution include language endorsing sophisticated eroticism (lateefhavasnaaki). The intervention had the desired effect, and the resolution was withdrawn in its entirety.
While this is pointed to as evidence of the PWA’s inability to deal with issues of gender and sexuality, the story of this resolution highlights the crucial point that far from being a monolithic organization, the PWA often represented a heterogeneity of opinions on key issues. Rather than seeing the issue in a way that pits Manto and Ismatagainst the PWA, one can read it as reflecting the growing pains of a young but dynamic movement. What the Hyderabad conference also highlighted were differences between the positions of certain doctrinaire figures in the PWA’s leadership (such as SajjadZaheer and SardarJafri) and those of others such as MaulanaHasratMohani. 
It is also worth noting that relations between Manto and the Progressives did not sour in the aftermath of this debate within the PWA. In fact, when Manto left Bombay for Lahore after the Partition, he handed the manuscript of a collection of his short stories, Chughad, to Kutub Publishers, and wrote to Sardar Jafri requesting that he write a foreword for it, adding that “whatever you write will be acceptable to me.” In response, Jafri wrote: “I will be very happy to write the foreword, though your book needs none, and certainly not one by me. You know that our literary outlooks differ considerably, but despite this I respect you a lot and harbor great hopes for your work.” Manto wrote back saying that, in that case, it was best to let the book come out without any foreword. However, by the time his letter reached Bombay, the book had already been published along with what proved to be an ill-conceived foreword by Jafri.
On the one hand, Jafri’s foreword reflected his evident respect for Manto’s work: “Manto’s craft is a jewel that sparkles on the tip of his pen. He paints vivid pictures of those characters whose humanity has been snatched from them by the capitalist rule, who have been turned into savages by a society that is founded on the principle of loot. Manto looks into the depths of their souls and sees the human heart beating within.” However, Jafri in a strange turn of affairs also seems to have decided that this foreword was an appropriate place to advance a critique of Manto. According to Jafri, the problem with Manto was that although he clearly loved humanity, was keenly aware of the wretchedness of society, and had shown the ability to launch a strident critique against the capitalist system, his fixation with protagonists who were either broken by the system or perverted by it (or both) rather than those who had taken the path of struggle and resistance in order to recover their lost humanity kept him from being a true progressive.
This was however not a categorical indictment of Manto. Jafri felt that despite these “shortcomings,” Manto’s current point of view was not too far removed from a revolutionary one. Manto had occupied this position as a young writer, and a return to it was eminently possible. Jafri concluded with the following declaration: “Today, the masses are on the road to revolution. Their enemy is right in front of their eyes. The demon of capitalism is on its way out. This caravan of people, its entire army calls out to SaadatHasanManto: Bring the sharpness of your pen, the loftiness of your thinking, and the intensity of your emotions. You are ours, and there is no place for you in the entire world, except among our ranks.”
Jafri’s critique — the idea that Manto’s stories had become too focused on the pathological aspects of society without any redeeming characters or story-lines to alleviate their overall pessimism — was neither odd nor unexpected, coming from a leading member of a movement organized around the principle of “life-affirming art.” It was also not the first time that Manto had faced such charges. The problem was with the choice of platform. The foreword to Manto’s book, moreover one whichJafri had been invited to write by the author, was hardly the place to articulate it. Manto rightfully felt blind-sided as well as slighted by Jafri. The timing and context of the critique was also unfortunate, coming as it did at a time when Manto was already struggling with feelings of loss, alienation and despair. It is hardly surprising, then, that he should have reacted strongly to it. Manto later excised the foreword from the 1950 edition of Chughad(published in Pakistan), and in its place wrote a scornful critique of what he saw as the confused and hurtful actions of the “so-called Progressives.” This essay is usually anthologized under a phrase Manto used to describe Jafri’s act: Taraqqi Pasand Socha Nahin Karte (Progressives do not Think).
Despite all this, Manto remained close to several key members of the PWA in Lahore in the period following independence. The only consistent job he had as a writer in this early period in Pakistan was for Imroze, a leftist Urdu daily edited by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. He was a frequent visitor at the office of Savera, another key progressive publication. His closest friends at the time, such as Ahmad NadeemQasmi and Ahmad Rahi, were significant Progressives. The first short stories that Manto wrote after his initial period of introspection following the move to Lahore were published in PWA journals: Khol Do (Open It) in Naqush, which was edited by Ahmed NadeemQasmi, and ThandaGosht in Javed, edited by Arif Abdul Mateen and published by ChoudhryNazeer Ahmad. Naqushwas consequently slapped with a several month long ban, and the charge of obscenity against ThandaGosht by the Punjab government swept up Arif Abdul Mateen and Nazeer Ahmad along with Manto. During the trial Faiz and other Progressives appeared as witnesses for the defense on Manto’s behalf.[1]


[1]       Even though Faiz unambiguously rejected the charge of obscenity leveled at Manto’s story, his testimony can be seen as less than full-throated. Some argue that Faiz was responding to the PWA call for Manto’s boycott issued during the 1949 conference. One can only speculate about this, but there are two factors that make one question this reading. One, Faiz was not the sort to abide by the PWA’s pronouncements in such matters; he faced his own share of censure during this period for holding independent opinions. Two, Manto himself writes about the fact that the trial was essentially an endeavour to go after Javed, a leftist publication. By Manto’s own account, Faiz tried hard at the meeting of the Press Advisory Board to dissuade the state from bringing a case against Thanda Gosht, but failed. Further, in Manto’s recollection of the trial, there’s never any sense that he felt betrayed by Faiz.



Related Articles