Me on Manto: Interview in "Viewpoint"

Qaisar Abbas of UNT interviewed me on Sa'adat Hasan Manto by email for a magazine he writes for called "Viewpoint." You can see the interview here.  Also see a new essay on Manto by the great Tariq Ali here. There are a number of other essays in the special issue on Manto, which I haven't read yet. The magazine in general is at:

Probably the most arguable (interesting?) section of the interview might be this one:

Manto was tried in India and Pakistan for “obscenity” as he used images of women as sex object and prostitute in several of his short stories. How would you compare obscenity and portraying sex as a social reality in literature? Who defines standards of pornography and sex in fine arts and literature in South Asia?

Manto wrote about prostitution because it was a part of life in his era. Once he was asked this same question, and he had the following rejoinder: 
“If any mention of a prostitute is obscene then her existence too is obscene. If any mention of her is prohibited, then her profession too should be prohibited. Do away with the prostitute; reference to her would vanish by itself.” (via Harish Narang)
I do not think Manto was particularly obsessed with prostitution. It might be more accurate to say that he was part of a broader movement in Modern literature to depict sexuality more honestly and sincerely than earlier generations had done, and writing stories with characters who were prostitutes was one way for him to do that. Even within Urdu and Hindi literature, Manto was not the only one to push the boundary with regards to explicit sexuality in his writing. The first wave of Progressive Writers, emerging from the Angarey group, also did this. One infamous story by Sajjad Zaheer, for instance, was called “Vision of Paradise” (Jannat ki Basharat) which featured a Maulvi who begins to have erotic dreams while he intends to stay up late praying. The story was controversial at the time because it was seen as blasphemous, and reading it today there’s no doubt that Zaheer intended to be provocative regarding religious piety. But it is no less provocative because of its use of explicit sexuality.
Alongside the Angarey group, Premchand himself was often more direct about matters of sexuality than many people realize. His famous 1936 novel Godaan, for instance, features a cross-caste sexual relationship described quite frankly – though it’s by no means pornographic. Finally, it should be noted that Manto’s friend and rival, Ismat Chughtai, also pushed the line regarding the depiction of sexuality.
That said, there’s no question that Manto takes things a step further. A story like “Bu” (Odour) is significantly more explicit in its depiction of a random sexual encounter than anything written by Zaheer or Chughtai. As a side note, this story, which is one of Manto’s most infamous ones, is not actually about prostitution, but rather a middle-class man’s encounter with a poor woman (a Marathi “Ghatin”) working as a laborer. Other stories do deal directly with prostitution, but often with a focus on the hypocrisy and weakness of men. Manto’s prostitutes are often honest and even noble individuals – trying to survive in a society that treats the exploitation of women’s bodies as merely another kind of financial transaction. 
On the question of who sets the standards for obscenity. Here I think there’s no question that by the standards of his time, some of Manto’s stories could be found to be “obscene.” As is well-known, he was tried for obscenity six times during his career, some by the British Indian government before 1947, and some by the independent government of Pakistan. I certainly oppose the censorship, but I think Manto knew what he was doing in writing stories like “Bu,” and I don’t think he or his career suffered greatly because he got in trouble for it; if anything, it may have gotten him more attention and thus helped his career in some ways. That said, with the sexual elements in “Khol Do!” or “Thanda Ghosht,” I do feel these are worth defending, since Manto is referencing sexual violence not for titillation but to make an important ethical point.