Tuesday, 23 February 2016

This is not a Book Review: Sadat Hasan Manto; the Misogynist and Chauvinist

Stars from Another Sky: The Bombay Film World of the 1940sStars from Another Sky: The Bombay Film World of the 1940s by Saadat Hasan Manto
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It was J Devika who gifted me the book 'Stars from Another Sky' by Manto. that was four years ago. I read it recently when i was pushing myself to read more non fiction.One of my classmates and ex-friend had once told me that he had read one collection of short stories by Manto and then went on to read all of his work. The author was that addictive, he had said. I realized it was true for most Manto fans. I have not yet read his short stories or other works but from Stars from Another Sky i have come to realize how much of a misogynist he was. The ideas he nurtured and emanated about women and their sexuality are abhorrent. This is not a book review. It is a record of how the writer had wronged women in the pretext of writing about the Bombay Film World of the 1940s.

In the Introduction of the book, Jerry Pinto talks about these abysmal practices of Manto. He doesn't have a problem with it because he considers these to be a writer's freedom of expression. He writes in the end,

One may not agree with Manto, one may have serious misgivings about his politics, one may not feel completely comfortable with his negative strategies, but he is never less than entertaining. When you have put down this book, you will feel as if a friendly voice, cheerfully malicious and yet vulnerable in its self-revelation, has been stilled. You will miss it.

I did not miss it. Nor will any woman who think they are people. In the translator's note by Khalid Hasan we will find one such woman. Her name was Nayyar Bano. She had written to Manto stating her problems with the book. To me it appears too rooted in family values, morality etc which are things i do not subscribe to but i respect her and her opinion because it was a lone voice calling a spade a spade. Look at what she had to say about Manto's writings.

Regardless of how far a person has strayed from the path of virtue or how morally depraved he is, can you imagine him sitting at home, surrounded by his wife and children, and regaling them with the experiences-...-that you have described?...He would never talk such filth, he would never talk about women as if they were mere condiments spicing the main dish. How is it then that whenever the word woman has come to his (Shyam's) lips, it has invariably been prefixed with the epithet sali? How, come that when he finds his bed without a woman, he sets it on fire"? What service to mankind or public morals is being performed by printing such things in newspapers?...
...After all, this world is not the sole property of men that they should wallow in filth and contaminate not only themselves but the innocent as well. Is there no reckoning? Where should one seek refuge?...Perhaps fathers should now teach their sons splash around in pools of liquor and drag these sali women with them for amusement. Perhaps mothers should now teach their daughters how to lay fresh and clever traps for men...

She wrote. And what did Manto have to say to this woman critic of his?

I felt pity for Nayyar Bano and her mental condition. I said to myself that...I should make it up to her. But then I thought if I tried to do that in the manner that I wished, she might faint...I did not want her to suffer a shock; she might not survive the experience
...there is only one way to bring them (people like Nayyar Bano) back to health. They should be forced to witness thousands of bottles of liquor being opened, with their corks flying all over the place, and their contents poured into a pool. After that one should...scream every obscenity one knew-and if one couldn't do it oneself, men should be hired for the purpose-read aloud every filthy advertisement for aphrodisiacs and remedies for private male and female ailments from magazines such Shama, Besween Saddi and Roman, not once but repeatedly.

Manto wanted all this to be done simply because a woman had questioned him and his writing. I feel it was because he had no answers to her. In the above portion he is a scared writer who has resorted to shunning a woman as mad. Last time i heard that was done was in 17th century or something.

I shall now point out the way the writer's style and vocabulary itself are misogynistic. I am one of those who believe that there is a male language and female language in literature. There are also attempts to create more male literature and hide female literature by never talking about it. Manto in the book is the epitome of male language.
In Ashok Kumar: The Evergreen Hero Manto says about actress Devika Rani,

...he talked her into abandoning the warm bed of her lover Najmul Hasan in Calcutta and return to Bombay Talkies where her talents had a greater chance of flourishing

Later about Ashok Kumar he says,

Ashok was not a professional lover but he liked to watch women, as most men do. He was not even averse to staring at them, especially at those areas of their anatomy that men find attractive

In Rafiq Ghasnavi Manto makes clear his attitude about women once again. Like what has been suggested in the above occasions he truly believes women are commodities to be tested out.

Those days, I was wholly idle, restless and bored all the time…On seeing a bunch of schoolgirls on the street, I would pick one out and imagine that I was having an affair with her.

Even though the following belongs to another topic altogether I am also quoting Manto’s views on partition. It throws light on how things were during that time and it’s by a person who had experienced all that himself. Historically it is relevant.

In Bombay, the communal atmosphere was becoming more vicious by the day. When Ashok and Vacha took control of the administration of Bombay Talkies, all senior posts somehow went to Muslims, which created a great deal of resentment among the Hindu staff. Vacha began to receive anonymous letters that threatened him with everything from murder to the destruction of the studio. Neither Ashok nor Vacha could care less about this sort of thing. It was only I, partly because of my sensitive nature and partly because I was a Muslim, who expresswed a sense of unease to both of them on several occasions. I advised them to do away with my services because the Hindus thought that it was I who was responsible for so many Muslims getting into Bombay Talkies. They told me that I was out of my mind.

Out of mind I certainly was. My wife and children were in Pakistan. When that land was a part of India, I could recognize it. I was also aware of the occasional Hindu-Muslim riot, but now it was different. That piece of land had a new name and I did not know what the new name had done to it. Though I tried, I could not even begin to get a feel for the government which was now said to be ours.

The day of Independence, 14 August, was celebrated in Bombay with tremendous fanfare. Pakistan and India had been declared two separate countries. There was great public rejoicing, but murder and arson continued unabated. Along with cries of ‘India zindabad’, one also heard ‘Pakistan zindabad’. The green Islamic flag fluttered next to the tricolor of the Indian National Congress. The streets and bazaars reverberated with slogans as people shouted the names of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

I found it impossible to decide which of the two countries was now my homeland-India or Pakistan. Who was responsible for the blood that was being shed mercilessly every day? Where were they going to inter the bones that had been stripped of the flesh of religion by vultures and birds of prey? Now that we were free, had subjection ceased to exist? Who would be our slaves? When we were colonial subjects, we could dream of freedom, but now that we were free, what would our dreams be? Were we even free? Thousands of Hindus and Muslims were dying all around us. Why were they dying?

Back to his objectification. In ‘Nargis: Narcissus of the Undying Bloom’ he describes the actress thus

‘She was a thin-legged girl with an unattractive long face and two unlit eyes. She seemed to have just woken up or about to go to sleep. But now she was a young woman and her body had filled out in all the right places’

‘Nur Jehan: One in a Million’ begins this way:

‘I think I first saw Nur Jehan in Khandan. She was certainly no ‘baby’ then, no sir, by no stretch of imagination. She was as well stacked as a young woman would wish to be with the assets women bring into play when required by the situation.’

In ‘Sitara: The Dancing Tigress from Nepal’ he once again stoops to page three journalism.

‘Tara had many affairs, including one with Shaukat Hashmi who was married to Purnima who later divorced him. Alaknanda passed through many hands and in the end settled down with the famous Prabhat Studio actor Balwant Singh. How long she lived with him, I do not know.’

In my memory such descriptions of personal (read sexual) life of women existed only in some Malayalam films written by Shaji Kailas starring Suresh Gopi or Mammootty. When did Manto graduate from the Mallu school of misogyny?
Again he says

‘Sitara was made of different clay and even a man like Nazir could not keep her from hopping into bed with other men.’

Later on we will come to know that Manto’s problem was that he could not handle a sexually independent woman. First of all none of them slept with him or wanted to sleep with him. Hurt male ego/penis ego. Then these women whom he painted in such crass style in his page three journalistic venture were all successful and couldn’t care less about what Manto thought about them. Manto himself says that ‘Sitara hated the sight of me’. In fact the woman had a problem with his journalism. Subsequently they ended up being some sort of Femme Fatale for Manto.

‘I ran into Arora on the street. He was walking with the help of a stick and his back was bent. He had always been thin but he looked in extremely poor shape that day. I felt that he had difficulty even walking, as if there was no life left in him…Expressing surprise at his appearance, I asked him what was wrong. Almost out of breath with fatigue, he managed a faint smile and replied. ‘Sitara…Manto, Sitara.’

Al-Nasir, who lost his slim, upright and handsome figure after a few years, and became fat and flabby, was a sensation when he first came, with his fair, almost pink complexion, nurtured by the cool hill air of his native Dehra Dun. He was so good-looking that one could almost compare him to a beautiful woman. When I returned to Bombay from Delhi after accepting an offer from Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, I met him at Minerva Movietone. I just could not believe my eyes. His pink complexion had become ashen and his clothes hung loose on him. He seemed to have shrunk and all energy and strength appeared to have been squeezed out of him. ‘My dear, what have you done to yourself?’ I asked because I was worried about his health. He whispered the answer in my ear, ‘Sitara…my dear, Sitara.’
Sitara was everywhere. I wondered if Sitara’s only purpose in life was to infect men with pallor, from the England-trained Arora to the Dehra-Dun born Al-Nasir.’

‘Nazir had banished Sitara from his life and once his mind was made up he never changed it. Sitara he did not give a damn about, but he was worried about his nephew whom he had brought all the way from Lahore so that he could make something of himself, He did not want him to fall into Sitara’s clutches. He knew her well and he also knew that she fed on young men like Asif’
‘All I know is that Asif had married in Lahore with great fanfare and brought his bride to Bombay, settled down on Pali Hill and, in less than three months, the marriage was on the rocks. Who but Sitara could have been responsible for it? She was a woman of experience and knew how to make herself attractive to a man , rendering him useless for other women. That was how she had weaned Asif away from his new bride and that was why he had come back to her. That woman Sitara had something other women lacked. Asif left his wife because she probably did not have the qualities that he had found in Sitara. Was it that she had left Asif with no taste for inexperienced virgins?’

Of course in extra marital relationships or any relationship for that matter the woman was at fault. She is the one who ‘lured’ the unsuspecting man to her fatal ‘qualities’. I think compared to Manto people were more progressive during Sati.
The audacity with which the author talks about sex lives of women as if he was the person they were confiding in is pathetic. It is some voyeuristic way of putting down women who made choices in bed. Especially when the choice was not to have Manto in it, in my opinion. Look at the way in which he talks about Nur Jehan’s sex life as though she had told the author how she felt when she had sex.

‘And there was Nur Jehan who could produce the most perfect note from her throat but who found herself unable to make Shaukat depart from her heart. She could sing the khayal with the ease of a maestro but the only thing on her mind these days was the young and willowy Shaukat, who had given her the most joyous moments of her life, who had sent a tingle through her body that the finest music had been unable to transmit. How could she forget the man who had given her such perfect physical fulfillment?’

And later

‘Nur Jehan had blossomed after moving in with Shaukat. It is only physical contact with a man that gives the final touches to a woman’s beauty, and by now Nur Jehan was a full-blown woman. The slight, girlish figure she had had in Lahore had been transformed by Bombay. Her body was now privy to all varieties of carnal pleasure and, though some people still called her Baby Nur Jehan, she was no baby, but a woman who had known love and its ecstasy.’

A bit later we get to know what the author thinks of male-female relationships in general. It is no wonder that a person who thinks the only relationship possible when two people of opposite sex are alone is sex is only interested in the sex lives of his subjects.

The place did not offer much by way of privacy, so it is to be assumed that young Asif must have witnessed, and certainly heard, what a man and a woman do when they are alone.

His body was young, sinewy and powerful, his blood warm; all he wanted was an opportunity to prove his manhood

And the way in which a person’s manhood could be proved was by having sex according to Manto.
Another grotesque description can be found in ‘Baburao Patel: The Soft-hearted Iconoclast’. Let’s see how he is an iconoclast.

The door opened and a strong-legged, bosomy, dark-complexioned Christian girl walked into the room. Baburao winked at her. ‘Come here.” She walked up to his chair. ‘Turn around,’ Baburao told her. When she did, he slapped her bottom resoundingly. ‘Get some paper and a pencil.’

About the same woman he adds later, after telling the readers that she was Baburao’s mistress and stenographer and secretary all at once

Rita Carlyle was not a one-man woman but because of Baburao she had become more upmarket.

What a wonderful commodity woman is, in Manto’s world.
In ‘Paro Devi: The Girl From Meerut’ I found the most disgusting piece of writing by Manto. Talking about Asok Kumar’s shyness around Paro whom he found attractive Manto says ‘He simply did not have the courage to grab her and take her to bed.’ Later comes the horrendous description about Paro.

‘When she was squeezing water out of her clothes, Ashok and I caught sight of her leg all the way up to the thigh. When we had packed up and were driving home, Ashok said to me, ‘Manto, that was quite a leg. I felt like roasting it and eating it.’

In my opinion Saadat Hasan Manto has no place in journalism. He might have written unforgettable stories, created great art but his regressive views on women will land him in that heap of people who when it comes to women fail to realize that they are people.

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