Thursday, Jun 01, 2023

They Fought For Freedom Of The Pen

Cover Story

They Fought For Freedom Of The Pen

Through trials for obscenity, Saadat Hassan Manto and Ismat Chughtai remained friends for life

Rude underbelly: Prostitutes in Mumbai Photo: Getty Images

In Franz Kafka’s The Trial, when Josef K. finds himself arrested, he is unable to figure out what is he accused of. Clueless and ens­nared in the labyrinths of a serpentine legal structure, he keeps on doing the things that make him look guilty. Ergo, it is decided that he must be guilty and he is executed. “For Josef K.,” writes Kafka, “the proceedings gradually merge into the judgment.”

Born in Ludhiana, Saadat Hasan Manto was among the most controversial Urdu writers of the 20th century—partly because his fiction stirred the horizons of his times, and chiefly because he was tried for “obscenity” in his fiction several times. Many of his short stories, often dealing with themes of Partition, violence and sexuality, dragged him into acerbic courtroom battles, and like Josef K., he beheld the horrors of the State from close quarters.

“A court is a place where every humiliation is inflicted, and where it must be suffered in sile­nce,” writes Manto about his fifth trial, when in 1952, a Karachi magistrate judged his Upar, Nee­chay aur Darmiyan to be obscene. “I pray that nobody has to go to the place we call a court of law,” he writes in The Fifth Trial, “I’ve seen no place more bizarre.” Manto’s short stories were banned thrice in the colonial era, and thrice afterwards, in Pakistan.

Although his fiction bore the allegations of being obscene and was on many occasions tried, his short story Bu (Smell) invited the attention of the intolerant British colonial masters because they found references to the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (WAC) unsettling. The WAC (India), which comprised both Indian and Euro­p­ean women, was established in 1942 to release officers and male corps from sedentary posts during World War II, so that they could serve with active units. Bu tells the story of a man called Randheer who lives in Bom­bay. One day, as the monsoon rains pour down raucously, Randheer sees a tribal woman from his balcony, seeking shelter under a tree. Ran­dheer had been feeling lonely for a while as “the War was on, and most of the Christian girls of Bombay who were easily available in the past had joined the WAC.” The man calls the tribal woman up to his flat and the story progresses with a deta­i­led narration of their sexual encounter.

Partition File photo of Muslim refugees fleeing India, 1947
Partition File photo of Muslim refugees fleeing India, 1947 Photo: AP

Although the short story was tried for being obs­cene, the Britishers were irked solely because of the mention of the WAC in the story. In her book, Hidden Histories of Pakistan, Sarah Fatima Wah­eed mentions a memo dated May 29, 1944, in whi­ch General Wade notes, “The story (Bu) is cer­t­a­inly most detrimental to recruiting, insofar as it suggests that association in the WAC may be those of prostitutes and we wish to press for prosecution.” Given the immediate political context of strikes, especially during the Quit India Movem­ent, mass demonstrations and popular rebellions against core institutions of imperial life, including the military, and references to WAC in the short story, had deeply annoyed the War Department of the British Indian Army. “The person,” writes Wah­eed, “who first brought the story to the attention of British officials was M.K. Khan, the Hono­rary Secretary of the Indian Christian War Bur­eau.”

Surprisingly, Ismat Chughtai, an Urdu novelist, short story writer and Manto’s contemporary and friend, was simultaneously being charged for her short story, Lihaf (Quilt). Chughtai’s story was also facing the charges of being obscene for explicitly exploring the themes of female homoeroticism and homosexuality.

India was the first country to ban The Satanic Verses in October 1988. It also barred the author, Salman Rushdie, from entering the country. Eventually, the book instigated Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini into issuing a fatwa in 1989 that triggered the knife attack in 2022.

In her autobiography, Kaghazi Hai Pairahan, Chughtai recalls while she was traveling to Lahore for the trial, she stayed with Aslam Sah­eb, a writer and an acquaintance of her husband. Aslam alle­ged that her stories were “filthy” and told her to apologise in court. This had made Chu­g­htai furious. “I retaliated like a woman possessed,” writes Chughtai.

When she pointed out that Aslam’s stories were obscene too, and asked him why he wrote them, he proudly retorts: “My case is different. I’m a man!” That’s when Chug­htai scathingly told him, “You have the freedom to write whatever you want. You don’t need my permission. Similarly, I don’t feel any need to seek your permission for writing the way I want to.”

Fiery words Covers of books by Manto and Chughtai
Fiery words Covers of books by Manto and Chughtai

Chughtai’s persona was as unabashed as her stories—sharp, yet truest in form. She took the world head-on and in her stories, fought the oppression she saw women going through. She spent her early childhood “freely” and would play football, hoc­key and gilli danda with boys, including her many bro­t­hers. “The real culprits,” Chughtai writes in one of her essays, “were my brothers. It was their company that enabled me to think freely.” It was only when their family moved to Agra after her father’s retirement that she realised being a woman comes at a cost. Contrary to her earlier days, she found the new atmosphere “stifling, and oppressive”. “The washerwoman was beaten every night,” she writes, “the sweeperess received a walloping from her husband every other day, and in the adjacent neighbourhoods, husbands often thrashed their wives”.

Chughtai always fought against the stereotypes into which women were being rele­n­t­le­ssly fitted in. As a young girl, she once con­vinced her father to excuse her from lea­rning how to cook, and asked him to facilitate her education instead. “Women cook food, Ismat! When you go to your in-laws, what will you feed them?” Chughtai recalls her father asking her one day. “If my husband is poor,” Chughtai tells him, “then we will make khichdi and eat it. If he is rich, we will hire a cook”.

Manto’s sensibilities are reflected in his fiction, which was inspired by the woes of Partition— violence, bloodshed, rape and communalism.

Afraid of being caught and punished, Chughtai tore up many of her stories during her youthful days. Once, her elder brother Shamim came into her room and found the manuscript of a story. Reading it, he wondered how she could write such “filthy stuff”. Luckily, no one took the brother’s “allegations” seriously because of his lying habits. It would have been the first-ever trial Chughtai would face for her writing—not in a courtroom, but within the walls of her very home. Many years later, when she was facing trial for Lihaf, the judge called her into the court anteroom and told her that he had read most of her stories.

“Your stories are not obscene. Neither is Lihaf,” the judge told her, “but Manto’s writings are littered with filth.”

“The world is also littered with filth,” she said.

“Is it necessary to rake it up, then?”

“If it is raked up, it becomes visible and people feel the need to clean it up,” Chughtai quipped.

That day, in the anteroom that would become immortal in the years to come, Chughtai dauntingly defended the liberty of literature and took the side of her friend Manto. To Chughtai, Man­to was not just a literary figure. He was an influence, talking to whom, as Chughtai would often say, sharpened her sensibilities. “Having an argument with him was like sharpening one’s intellect,” writes Chughtai, “it was as if the cob­webs were being cleared, the brain swept clean with a jhadu.”

Manto’s sensibilities are reflected in his fiction, which, in more ways than one, was inspired by the woes that befell the subcontinent after the Partition—violence, bloodshed, rape and communalism. “India was taken, when it was at the point of Independence, and dragged into this enormous, dark pit,” he writes about the aftermath of Partition. He also wrote unabashedly, with poise and grit, on sex, desire, prostitutes, murderers and drunkards, without condemning anyone. No wonder that he found himself in the middle of a moral sla­ug­hter­house, where everyone, even at times his friends, condemned him.

Mohammad Tufail, editor and publisher of the reputed literary journal Naqoosh, where Manto would often publish stories, had once published an essay titled Mr. Manto. The con­tents of the essay were so intimate, personal and prying that Manto, after reading the essay, was left depressed. “No man is without his weaknesses, but why put them on display?” Manto wrote in an essay, “…what’s the point of such revelation, when it brings the writer into disgrace?”

In the last phase of his life, Manto fell victim to the very demon he was fighting with his pen—the moral hypocrisy of the upper class. He was not always loose with the booze, but with a plethora of afflictions—the excruciating trials, death of his infant child and being the bull’s eye for the mudslinging and character assassination—he was transformed, says his daughter Nuzhat, “from a social drinker to an irreversible alcoholic.”

On the night that turned out to be his last, he fell terribly sick, asking for whiskey while being driven in an ambulance to the hospital. His family obliged. On his way to the hospital, Manto breathed his last, and left behind a treasure of stunning short stories—some heart-breaking, some stifling, and some still “obscene”.

Chughtai, on Manto’s death, had said: “Those who die, inflict a wound that neither aches nor bleeds; it just smoulders quietly forever.”

(This appeared in the print edition as "Quilt, Smell and the Trials")