Danuska Da Gama I NT BUZZ
Along with her academic pursuits and teaching stints, Vandana Shukla has dedicated over twenty years to mainstream journalism, in varying capacities, besides being a witness to the changing social matrix of post-militancy Punjab. She documented the farmer’s suicides, deserted NRI wives, orphans of the decade long militancy and women’s challenge against militancy, led to deeper probing of the region’s cultural roots. She has also recently published a book titled ‘A Monk Postpones Nirvana’, based on a study of Ladakhi society documenting the social transformation owing to modern education, environmental concerns and communal harmony.
Against the political interpretations woven around the two-nation theory, which often tends to be manipulated, Vandana believes that the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) offer a possibility of stark reality. These writings are an undistorted view of the past: uncoloured and bold. Manto wrote what he saw, what he felt, without diluting reality, yet maintained sensitivity and empathy for his characters. The time is pertinent to look into Manto’s role in shaping an understanding of the bloodiest chapter of Indian history.
Manto who was prosecuted for promoting vulgarity and obscenity during his lifetime found more readers a century after his birth. Posthumously, the uncompromised honesty in his writings, especially at a time of increasing polarisation around ‘identities’, gives people a sense of an unbiased worldview.
And now, while the film directed by Nandita Das is scheduled for release on September 21, Indians are gearing up to understand the man, his work and draw parallels with the reality that existed, and still exists, but spoken about in whispers.
Excerpts from an interview
- Why do you think it is necessary to remember Manto in current times?
Manto was in Bombay, now Mumbai, around the time when communal violence erupted in north India, prior to the Partition of 1947. The subtle nuances of religion-based identity started creeping in the film industry too, where he worked all his life as a dialogue and script writer. It affected him. When identities are narrowed down to mere race, religion or colour of one’s skin, all other parameter begin to fade, sadly, it applies to human values too, as we witnessed in the arson, loot, rape and massacre of millions before and after the partition.
We are once again being polarised on religious lines overtly, it’s always been there, not that it has come suddenly, but there is a kind of legitimacy given to it now, which is dangerous. That’s why it’s important to go back to Manto and see, where would it lead us. I’m sure, nobody wants another partition.
- His writings on violence bring forth the consequences of what it does to humanity. Comment.
Manto doesn’t clothe the savagery of his times, he tells it how it was, it is supposed to shock us, and it’s supposed to wake us up from our stupor. Because human beings are capable of defying what entire civilisation stands for, all in the name of different names of God! He once said, his writings are like Neem leaves, which are bitter but they purify blood. Unless we admit, there is an ailment, we can’t find a medicine. His writings make us aware of the social malaise, at multiple levels.
- Though criticised and condemned, he stayed true to his principles and refused to be sold. What kind of fate would Manto have met with if he were a writer in today’s India?
I don’t think Manto will get published in the times of capitalist compromises. But we must also remind ourselves, he was shunned in his times by none other than the Progressives, who claimed to be the intellectual and moral custodians of our society. Manto exposed the DNA of hypocrisy, he was hated then, he is hated now, by a few, but the interesting part is, the younger generation on both sides of the border has shown great interest in his writings. Reputed publishing houses have therefore started publishing his translations into English. Research papers are written on his writings, his stories are prescribed in text books. Collections of his short stories sell. He is also translated into other Indian languages.
- Do you feel that his distinct storytelling has been acknowledged and recognized way too late?
When people got over the shock of Partition, when enough was experienced on the promises of freedom, and there was disillusionment on both sides of the Radcliffe Line, it was time for introspection. To diagnose, what ailed our society, what turned friends into foes. One found, only very few addressed the bloodiest chapter of Indian history, in art and literature, of course history was twisted on both sides to meet political correctness. Among those few, Manto’s voice turned out to be most nuanced, versatile and honest. Apart from its literary merit, his body of work also provides an honest documentation of the turbulent times, we thought are best forgotten. But forgetting doesn’t take away the long shadows cast by history on our present. One has to deal with it.
- There are several portrayals, depictions of Manto, yet these are interpreted differently. Aren’t we distorting him, his works and his insights in the bargain?
Popularity has its own price to pay. There is fear for dilution of the content, because each one interprets the content according to one’s own level of maturity. I have seen a few theatre adaptations of Manto’s short stories, which try to titillate the audience. One witnesses Manto being used as a statement of being liberal, as a mere fashion statement. I guess, it’s fine, as long as we read his works with sincerity. Shakespeare has been interpreted by school kids and the stalwarts alike. It opens up more layers of the text. Multiple perspectives only enrich our understanding.
- Can you tell us a bit about your book ‘A Monk Postpones Nirvana’ and what it entails?
This is an amazing story of a soldier of the Indian Army, who decided to be a Monk, at 22. He was re-christened Bhikkhu Sanghasena. As a true Buddhists monk, he lived in a cave and decided to work towards his Nirvana. One day he realised, as long as his people are ignorant, poor and sick, there was no point of his nirvana. He started helping people in the remotest regions of Ladakh, in the late 70s, when Ladakhis had not seen even a bicycle. He began by distributing sunglasses in Zanskar region where people would lose their sight and hearing capacity due to extreme cold conditions. Today, with the efforts of this single man, thousands have come out of poverty, girls are given the best opportunities in education, and few have turned out to be top professionals. He modernised the education of Buddhist monks and nuns and opened the first old age home in Ladakh, along with a state of the art hospital. His initiatives to bring communal harmony are laudable too. Ladakh lost about 73,000 square kilometres to Pakistan, in 1948; it affected the cultural fabric of Ladakhi society.
- Much of your work is around communal rife and harmony and culture. Why?
I belong to Lucknow, the city of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, of composite culture. Lucknow is also a city of great cultural institutions. You breathe good poetry, music and dance in the air. Even though now the air is polluted with political cacophony, one tries to understand, what went wrong.
- Documenting and writing at ground zero, can you tell us how increasing polarisation and communal discord is altering our society?
We are a complex society, it goes without saying. The kind of plurality we have can turn any other society crazy with discord, added to that a great burden of history weighs us down. Seeing these factors, we haven’t done badly.
In 1947, there were few tools of communication and see the catastrophe that brought because of the communal strife! Today, communication is more sophisticated, it can help us get over misgivings but it can also flame the fires beyond control, as we have witnessed in a few cases. We are more educated now, so our biases are also nuanced. What is visible is only the surface. We need to keep hammering these issues, silence won’t help. I guess this is what Manto’s message would be. But we need to address these issues with intellectual and moral honesty, across board.
Everything is interrelated, if one part of the fabric is tangled, it will cause strain on the rest.