People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 44

November 03, 2013





Literature Helps Understand Society: Yechury


A Kumaresan


TO change the society, we need to understand it. To understand life, the fellow human beings and the society, even a whole life time will not be enough. But literature, including stories, makes you understand the human minds and society fully.


So said Sitaram Yechury, member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau, while addressing a function organised by Tamilnadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association (TPWAA) in Chennai on October 20, 2013, to celebrate the birthday centenary of Saadat Hasan Manto, an Urdu writer. He said, “Manto wrote stories related to the pathos of human beings. After reading his stories one cannot remain unmoved. He joins the world famous writers such as Paulsak, Mapasan and O’Henry.”




Saadat Hassan Manto (11 May 1912 – 18 January 1955) was a British India-born Pakistani short story writer of Urdu language. He is best known for his short stories, "Bu" (Odour), "Khol Do" (Open It), "Thanda Gosht" (Cold Meat), and "Toba Tek Singh."


Manto chronicled the chaos that prevailed during and after the Partition of India in 1947. He started his literary career by translating the works of literary giants, such as Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde and Russian writers such as Chekhov and Gorky. His first story was "Tamasha," based on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Amritsar. His earlier works, influenced by the progressive writers of his times, showed marked leftist and socialist leanings, while his later works progressively became stark in portraying the darkness of the human psyche, as humanist values progressively declined around the Partition. His final works, which grew from the social climate and his own financial struggles, reflected an innate sense of human impotency towards darkness and contained a sarcasm that verged on dark comedy. No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him; he sincerely brought out stories of prostitutes and pimps alike, just as he highlighted the subversive sexual slavery of the women of his times. To many contemporary women writers, his language portrayed reality and provided them with the dignity they long deserved. He is still known for his scathing insight into human behaviour as well as revelation of the macabre animalistic nature of an enraged people that stands out amidst the brevity of his prose.


Saadat Hasan Manto is often compared with D H Lawrence and, like Lawrence, he too wrote about the topics considered social taboos in Indo-Pakistani Society. His concerns on the socio-political issues, from local to global level, are revealed in his series, Letters to Uncle Sam, and those to Pundit Nehru. On his writing he often commented, "If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth."


It was to commemorate this giant writer that the Tamilnadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association organised his birth centenary celebrations at Chennai. At the inaugural function there were cultural programmes. One of them was a play “Insult,” based on the story “Hatak” written by Manto on the ordeal of a sex worker, enacted by Kattiyakkari troupe and directed by Srijith Sundaram. It may be noted that this troupe’s significance is the prominent participation of transgenders. Yechury referred to this play, saying, “Through the character of a sex worker Manto showed the other side of life and left it for you to decide about the morality of society. A novel is broad and extensive whereas a short story touches the point directly. In a novel, characters are important but in a short story the moment of the story is important. Manto was able to present the moment in such a way that we begin to discuss who is wrong --- that woman or the men who exploited her.”




Yechury referred to the love Karl Marx had for literature. Marx liked to read as many literary works as possible and used to refer to them in his writings. It took 12 years for him to finish the book Das Kapital and whenever Engels asked about the delay, he would say that he was perfecting it. After sending for publication, Marx happened to read a short story “Unfinished Masterpiece” by Paulsak. In the story a great painter takes 10 years to complete a painting, as he has been redrawing it again and again to make it perfect. After that he invites two of his students and shows his work. The students feel shocked and disappointed, and reveal their feelings to the master. They say it had lost its nature as the master had repainted it repeatedly. The painter accepted the criticism and then committed suicide in mental agony.


Marx wrote to Engels that if only he had read the story before he started writing, he could have finished his book earlier. He said the reactions of some of the people who had read the book were similar to that of the two students. It shows the significance Marx attached with literature.


The CPI(M) leader explained the background and the situation in which Manto decided to go to Pakistan after partisan. When he was asked where he would want to live, he said as the poor people were leaving for Pakistan he too wanted to go with them. His friends termed his decision as mad. But he replied, “Who is mad? Those who are responsible for the Partition and brutalities or me?” In this regard, Yechury referred to another story by Manto in which he brings to the readers’ vision the cruel tragedies of Partition through the life of a pimp.


Yechury said that Manto had a clear Marxist understanding of the relation between an individual and the society. Manto wrote, “If one man could become immoral, other men could also turn to be immoral and if one woman can become a prostitute all women too become so. So don’t blame individual persons without understanding the social conditions. Try to change society.”


Manto had a dialectical understanding of life. He wrote there can no fullness as human life is continuously evolving. When you reach fullness there is a failure and when you reach fullness you go for the next step. With such broad views and commitments towards society, Manto lived fully as a creator even though he died at the age of 43, Yechury pointed out.


Yechury also revealed that he had urged the prime minister that the government of India must celebrate Manto’s centenary, but that there was no response from the government. Anyhow a translation of Manto’s works, which would be in about 500 pages, is approaching the stage of completion.


“Our basic responsibility is to work to change the social conditions. Whenever the poor people are deceived and misguided in the name of religion and other things, Manto’s writings will prove much useful in the fight against the communal and divisive elements. Those who are committed to people’s movements must not only read literature including Manto’s but also take them to the masses,” said Yechury.




Commenting on the present political situation, Yechury said, “A very intensely dangerous cocktail of communalism and corporate industry is seeking to occupy the centre stage of Indian politics. Corporate houses are projecting Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate because they see him a selling product. It may be recalled how the corporate houses in the US made a huge profit by releasing T-shirts, key-chains and other products bearing the image of Barack Obama. India’s corporate houses want to make use of Modi for the same purpose. The situation in the country is akin to what existed during the Great Depression when the fascist forces and industrial houses joined hands for mutual benefits.”


He said, “What India needs today is not alternative leaders but alternative socio-economic and political policies. I hope progressive writers and artists will work among people to create awareness for such alternative policies too.”


S Venkatesan, general secretary of the TPWAA, who inaugurated the function, called for taking Manto’s creative works to the masses in the movement against communalism and casteism.


“Literature helps us to know the joy, grievance, kindness and cruelty which lie deeply in human minds. In the 1940s when the Japan’s forces entered Burma, about 40 lakhs of people left the country for India. But only about four lakhs of them were able to come to India; 36 lakhs of Burmese refugees pathetically met their death. There was no literary work about this gruesome event in the history. But Manto was able to reveal the tragedy of India’s partition in a short story of just five pages,” said Venkatesan.


“Manto did not write about the death of human beings. He actually wrote about the killing of human values that had developed over hundreds of years. When the communalist and casteist forces are trying to divide the people, we have to take to the society his message of love and humanity,” he said.


The function was organised by Tambaram, Chromepet, Anagai and Adampakkam units of the TPWAA in South Chennai. The inaugural session was chaired by senior journalist Mayilai Balu. Trotsky Marudhu, who had sketched the painting of Manto and translators of Manto’s writings, Ramanujam and Udhayasankar, were felicitated.


Writer P K Rajan, Prof Annadurai, publisher Malar Vizhi, Prof Haja Kani, Prof Nirmala and Prof M Abdul Razak spoke in the seminars on ‘Women in Manto’s stories,’ ‘Manto in Urdu literature,’ ‘Creativity in Manto’s Works’ and ‘Manto’s Life and Aesthetic Values.’ One of the works of Manto was presented in story-performing style which was coordinated by Padmini. Pudhuvai Safdar Hashmi Troupe, Viji cultural group and transport workers presented various cultural programmes. Saidhai J, duputy general secretary of TPWAA, gave the valedictory speech. K Anbarasan, district secretary of the TPWAA, delivered the welcome address and S Sadhasivam proposed the vote of thanks.