Showing posts with label Urdu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Urdu. Show all posts

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. 

A Challenger in Pakistan

We're starting to see real signs that Pervez Musharraf's hold on power in Pakistan may not be absolute. Pakistan's suspended Supreme Court Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry gave a speech in front of thousands of supporters in Lahore yesterday, expressing dissent with the current government. Chaudhry has been under house arrest in Islamabad since March, and it isn't completely clear to me how he was permitted to address the public on the grounds of the Lahore High Court. But he's clearly become a popular icon of secular dissent with Musharraf's rule, and his speech has to be making authorities nervous:

Speaking to the crowd, including many lawyers, the suspended chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, said, “The concept of an autocratic system of government is over.” He added, “Rule of law, supremacy of the Constitution, basic human rights and individual freedom granted by the Constitution are essential for the formation of a civilized society.

“Those countries and nations who don’t learn from the past and repeat those mistakes get destroyed,” he said.

He said the government had no right to impose laws that violated basic human rights.

Mr. Chaudhry spoke at the compound of the Lahore High Court, under the scorching Lahore sun. Seventeen judges from the Lahore High court also attended. Many of the supporters covered their heads with newspapers to escape the heat. Banners urging the independence of the judiciary and denouncing the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, hung on boundary walls surrounding the compound. Political workers, who were not allowed inside, listened to the speech outside the boundary wall. (link)

Chaudhry was also greeted by thousands of cheering bystanders on the side of the road between Islamabad and Lahore; the fanfare was so intense that what is normally a four hour journey took twenty-five hours!

I briefly and irreverently mentioned this brewing crisis back in March, but a much more thorough analysis of the back-story of Justice Chaudhry's dissent by Anil Kalhan can be found at Michael Dorf's "Dorf on Law" blog.

As Anil maps it out, probably the most important issue is actually Pakistan's prosecution of the war on terror, specifically its policy of "disappearing" hundreds of people accused of being Al-Qaeda supporters. While Pakistan's hunt for terrorists has resulted in some important catches, including especially Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, its growing dependence on authoritarian practices has become increasingly unpalatable to many Pakistanis. And the presumed cooperation between the ISI and the CIA, the latter with its secret detention facilities, has to be galling to both Pakistan's secular liberals (they do exist) and the Islamists on the right.

There are other issues on the table too (human rights in Balochistan, and corruption surrounding the privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills), and Justice Chaudhry has apparently built up a reputation as an activist and a progressive over some years, as this detailed analysis suggests.

Of course, it's an open question as to whether Musharraf will continue to let Iftikhar Chaudhry speek freely. And one has to wonder whether the feeling of dissent represented by the support for Justice Chaudhry can be transformed into an actual political movement in Pakistan.

As a final note, the following Faiz Ahmed Faiz ghazal was being played over the loudspeakers at Justice Chaudhry's rally. The Times gave it to you in English, but here it is in transliterated Urdu as well:

Jab Zulm-o-Sitam ke Koh-e-garaan
When the mountains of cruelty and torture

Ruii ki Tarah Urd Jain Gay
Will fly like pieces of cotton

Hum Mehkumoon ke Paun Talay
Under the feet of the governed

Yeh Dharti Dhard Dhard Dhardkay gi
This earth will quake

Aur Ehl-e-Hukum ke Sar Uper
And over the head of the ruler

Jab Bijli kard Kard Kardke gi
When lightening will thunder

Hum Dekhain Gay
We shall see (source)

Yes, Hum dekhain gai. That is probably about all that can be said at this point.