Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Of Poetry and Prose and the Pain it Comes From

Collected short stories by Manto

I have only very recently become acquainted with the works of Saadat Hasan Manto and Shiv Kumar Batalvi and I regret not having discovered them earlier. For those who may not be familiar, Manto was an extremely prolific Urdu short story writer, famous for his writings on partition and its aftermath and Batalvi, a famous Punjabi poet, known for his passionate poetry on love, longing and loss. While reading both Manto and Batalvi, what struck me were the similar experiences of both men, even though they were each lamented by two completely different aches; Manto mourning a nation broken into two and Batalvi nursing a broken heart. 

Both men wrote about completely different matters, but highlighting the same pathos and pain. Manto chose the medium of the short story to convey his grief about the rabid hatred and bestiality that had taken over people during partition. A landmark moment in history, brimming with hope and promise, where a new nation had been carved out of India to create a safe homeland for Indian Muslims, was marred by violence, rioting, looting, killing and rape. In Manto’s writing one can identify a sense of detachment where you almost feel that he’s laughing at the madness and absurdity of it all. I think it was the confusion and later the pain of being identified as a “Muslim” in post Partition India which drove Manto to write powerful satires, brimming with dark humour, such as Toba Tek Singh and The Dog of Titwal, which are still widely read and quoted till this day. His writing, especially towards the end was a portrayal of prevailing social conditions and his own financial difficulties. 

Reading Manto, there are times I want to close the book and cry, just cry noisy and remorseful tears for what happened after a line was drawn across a map in the summer of 1947.

By early 1948 Manto had moved to Lahore from Bombay. He was by then a popular film writer, who was making good money and many of his friends, who were also popular film actors tried to stop him from migrating. By then Manto had already sent his family to Lahore and was keen to join the. Upon reaching Lahore, Manto discovered that the film industry in the city was pretty much non-existent, since most Hindu film makers and studio owners had left for India. Racked by financial troubles and the responsibility of a family, he started writing articles for newspapers and eventually took to drinking excessively, which led to his death by liver cirrhosis in 1955. He was 42 at the time of his death.


Shiv Kumar Batalvi (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Shiv Kumar Batalvi is one of the most popular modern Punjabi poets whose work is appreciated on both sides of the border. Batalvi was pained by the fact that he could not marry the girl he was in love with and turned to alcohol for comfort. He eventually married a girl his parents chose for him, but only because she bore a striking resemblance to his lost love. It was during this period of longing for his lost love that Batalvi wrote some of his most celebrated works, including the famous "Ajj Din Chhadeya Tere Rang Varga", which has been adapted as a popular song in the Bollywood film Love Aaj Kal. Batalvi too eventually developed liver cirrhosis due to excessive drinking and succumbed to it in 1973 at the age of 36. 

At this point I would like to clarify that I do not speak or understand Punjabi and my exposure to Batalvi has solely been through English translation, which I understand is not the “real thing”. Though the beautiful thing about Batalvi’s writing, is that his anguish about his lost love transcends the borders of language and is hence not entirely lost in translation. Such is the magic he wove through his words, which is true for Manto as well. 

I may have chosen to write about both Manto and Batalvi a little too early, since I’m only just discovering them and this post may not have done complete justice to their craft, but let that not stop you from discovering these two greats. 

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