For the last one month, a strange excitement has gripped the town of Samrala located on the busy Chandigarh-Ludhiana highway. A burst of energy has had 80-, 90- and 100-year-olds travelling miles to be here in memory of a man who was once their friend or whose writings touched their souls. Three kilometres away, a village called Paproudi which sends hardly any girl to college is suddenly on the literary map of south Asia. A bespectacled man wearing a frown that creases his well-defined features looks out of large posters put up in the middle of the town by the busy highway, as if taking in the developments and planning another story around them.
Saadat Hasan Manto, one of most evocative and controversial Urdu short-story writers of the twentieth century, is back in his birthplace. He left when he was a teenager and has returned at 100, 58 years after his death. Once, while drawing a Mantoesque sketch of himself, where he saw Saadat Hasan as one entity and Manto as another, he wrote: “We were born together and I suppose we will die together. But it may also come to pass that Saadat Hasan may die and Manto may not.” Saadat Hasan died at the age of 42 years, eight months and seven days. At 100, Manto lives on. Samrala and nearby Paproudi, where he was born and where he also remained forgotten for years thereafter, are today living examples of this conviction.
The road from Samrala to Paproudi is narrow. Till a few months ago, the fields that dot it would have been a rich green. But on this scorching May afternoon, they are on fire. The flames that leap out of the earth are reminiscent of the blaze that engulfed most of north India in the madness that came with Partition and which found its way into Manto’s stories. This time, the fire has been lit by the farmers. The wheat crop has been harvested and the fastest way to clear the field for the next one is to set it ablaze. For years, the agriculture department has banned this damaging slash-and-burn practice. For years, farmers across Punjab have ignored the ban.
It’s through these bare, fiery fields that we reach Paproudi — its residents choose to call it Paroudi, ignoring the ‘P’ in between. It’s a small village with a population of 1,100. Since Manto was last here, the village has burst through the wall which once enclosed it and spread out. The houses are big, several of them have cars parked outside and the drains are all covered. It’s a modern village. Would it have anything of Manto’s time left? An ancient gateway answers that question. “This,” says Amar Singh, 80, “was once the only way in and out of the village.” On its other side is what used to be Manto’s house. Stepping into the gateway is like stepping into one of Manto’s stories. It leads into a world where the lines that divide religion and community seem to blur. At the very entrance, inside the gateway of this predominantly Sikh village, is housed an ancient vermilion statue of Hindu god Hanuman. “Every Tuesday, puja is held here,” says Gurmeet Singh “Miha”, 42, a kabaddi commentator from the village who heard about Manto only three years ago and is now determined to name the next local kabaddi cup after him. The village also has a temple.
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The past appears to sit alongside the present. Ancient houses made of the thin Nanakshahi bricks, the kind seen in Jallianwala Bagh — Manto’s first story, Tamasha, incidentally, was based on the Jallianwala massacre — stand next to new brick-and-cement constructions. Most of these old houses are now crumbling. It’s easy to imagine that some of Manto’s characters came from this village. Through a small dark window close to the roof of a desolate old building which has a thick wooden door with chains around it, one can almost picture Bishan Singh, the protagonist of Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, standing on his swollen legs and peeping out. The story of this inmate of an asylum traumatised at the thought of Partition is often seen as autobiographical. Manto was himself sent to an asylum to treat his alcoholism. “And when he came out, he said, ‘Mein ek chhote pagalkhane se bade pagalkhane mein aa gaya hoon (I have come out of a small madhouse into a bigger one),” remembers his friend and contemporary, 93-year-old Kashmiri Lal Zakir who met Manto for the first time in 1930. Zakir, who is among the oldest Urdu writers in the sub-continent, has come all the way from Chandigarh to Samrala for Manto’s 100th birth centenary celebrations.
Back in Paproudi, the house where Manto was born is now owned by Ram Singh, the former sarpanch (headman) of the village. His ancestor, Rala Singh, bought it at an auction after Partition for Rs 1,200, he says. “It was a mud house back then and in a state of ruin.” Today, it’s a pink concrete structure. If there is one thing that hasn’t changed about it, it’s the alley which leads to its main door. “That’s just the way it used to be when Manto’s family lived here,” says Shamsher Singh, a 40-something village resident. He has heard these stories from his elders. The house today has colourful streamers outside, remnants of the celebration the villagers had on Manto’s birthday, May 11. That night they also got to see Manto’s work for the first time — a film, Toba Tek Singh.
Otherwise, there are few in the village who remember the time Manto and his father, who was a subjudge in the Samrala civil court, lived here. One person who does is Parsinni Devi, who is nearly 100. She’s hard of hearing and can barely see. But her memory hasn’t failed her. “After Partition, a letter came from Manto’s family to the village to inform us that they had all reached Pakistan safely,” she remembers. As one villager introduces her as Parsinni Devi, another says, “Call her Parsinni Kaur. We’re Jat Sikh.” But to her, it doesn’t seem to matter. That’s another thing about this village of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. Who is who doesn’t matter. It’s a life lived together, eating the same things, dressing alike, speaking the same language. The only thing that perhaps tells one from the other is the name. The divide that traumatised Manto does not exist in the village of his birth.
On the day Manto died, another writer was born in this village: Gulzar Mohammad Goria. Shamsher Singh points to his now crumbling house. Like Manto, Goria was also fond of his drink and would often joke, “I am Manto.” Goria died in 2009.
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For the last one year, a room in the village’s Kalgidar gurudwara has housed a “Manto Yaadgari” library which was opened by Punjabi Sahit Sabha. Here, 100-year-old Ujagar Singh sits flipping through the pages of Manto de Rang(translated by Mohan Bhandari). He can barely read Punjabi but now does pick up a Manto story once in a while. He remembers the time Manto would come here to spend his vacations. “He was tall and fair. We used to play on the mango trees, have a lot of musk melon and bathe in the open. He was very fond of missi roti.” Ujagar Singh has suffered two heart attacks, his words are barely discernable, but insists on riding his bicycle. Every morning, this former sarpanch of the village is off to Samrala 3 km away to spend time with friends and returns only by five in the evening. He will not take a lift in a car, no matter how much the villagers insist. These days he is also the star of the village as one of the few alive from the Manto era.
The villagers who have rediscovered Manto do not want to let go of him. The next day at the Samrala civil court, where his birth centenary is being celebrated, many of them land up to participate. Ujagar Singh is among them. But the one person who has not been able to make it is Hira Lal Sibal, the man who fought for Manto when he was slapped with obscenity cases. Hira Lal Sibal, who is union minister Kapil Sibal’s father, is 97 and is ailing. He lives in Chandigarh. Zakir, who was among the writers in Lahore who had approached Hira Lal Sibal to fight Manto’s cases, says, “Hira Lal didn’t just do a great service to Manto. He did a great service to the entire Urdu language and saved it from restrictions.” He recalls a particular incident. “We were all in Lahore. Nanak Chand Naaz, the editor of daily newspaper Parbhat, had raised serious objections to Manto’s writings. Hira Lal asked him, ‘What word do you object to?’ Naaz replied, ‘aashiq’. Hira Lal said, ‘So, what should we change it to?’ Naaz kept quiet. So, Hira Lal suggested, ‘Would you be okay with the word yaar?’ Naaz fell silent but the magistrate smiled.”
Speaking from Pakistan, Manto’s youngest daughter Nusrat Jalaal who could also not make it for the Samrala event, which included a play, Ik Si Manto (There was One Manto), says, “We were caught up with functions for Abba here. The visa got delayed and I could not chase it.” She hopes to be in India along with her other two sisters in October when more events are planned and the weather is cooler. About her memories of her father, she says, “I was only five when he died. Those were not happy times for us. There were financial problems… but I am told he was fond of buying clothes for my mother, and combing her hair.”
It seems apt that Manto’s centenary was celebrated in a court complex — a place where battles are fought and often lost, where life is sometimes put on hold for years, and where time does not offer a closure. Courts were part of Manto’s life throughout. Any sanitised, posh venue would have been the ultimate irony. But it wasn’t by any grand design that the event was held in the court’s bar room. Besides being president of Lekhak Manch, the organiser, Daljeet Shahi, happens to be an advocate.
That Manto chose to be born in Samrala, however, might have been a grand design. “Samar” means “fruit” and “ala” stands for “finest”. Put together, Samrala would be “finest fruit”. True to its name, it did give birth to one of the most extraordinary writers of our times.