‘He loved cleanliness and order,’ said Nighat Patel, the eldest of Saadat Hasan Manto’s three daughters on a recent visit to India. Disarming in her simplicity and complete lack of pretensions, literary of otherwise, Nikhat inadvertently offered us a clue to what made her father write – with a relentlessness that few writers can possess – of the horrors and brutality that scarred an entire generation. A witness to history, Manto has been accused of being a voyeur and a pervert for his ceaseless exploration of the dark underbelly of society. When Nikhat spoke of his great love for cleanliness, of sweeping the floor of their one-bedroom flat in Bombay, of putting a few drops of Dettol when he shaved, of wearing clean white clothes at home, she has at long last opened a small window, one that allows us to understand why and how the times he lived in outraged his sensibilities, affronted his sense of the way things should be and violated his sensitivity towards disorder and filth.
Dressed in simple salwar suits, Manto’s three daughters – Nikhat Patel, Nuzhat Arshad and Nusrat Jalal -- spoke in halting, simple sentences in a mixture of convent-school English and Punjabi-inflected Urdu. While Nuzhat has recently retired as a teacher and Nusrat volunteers with a hospice near Lahore’s Mayo Hospital, the eldest admitted, quite cheerfully, to doing ‘nothing’! Looking like upper-middle class ‘Aunties’ from any South Delhi neighbourhood, they were a far cry from the Sultanas and Sugandhis of Manto’s ouvre. Yet they did tell us of how their father would make their mother, Safiya, read all his stories, even the most explicit ones and ask her what she thought of them. Safiya, the daughters say, was a remarkably simple, even innocent person; she would read the stories with a perfectly blank expression causing Manto to ask her (in Punjabi) if she had understood and, knowing she hadn’t, proceed to explain what he had meant to say through his latest shocking take on the life around him, as he understood it.
On an ‘emotional journey’ to India, to visit Papraudi, near Samrala, the three confess to being overwhelmed. Though unconnected to the world of letters, they know that their father is now widely translated into many languages and is recognised as a ‘global writer, they are nevertheless astounded by the love and affection that they have been continually receiving virtually since the minute they crossed the border at Wagah and stepped, quite literally, on a red carpet. A host of organisations have come together to make this visit a memorable one: the Aalami Urdu Trust, the Samrala Lekhak Manch and the Manto Foundation, the last being an Amritsar-based organisation of energetic Manto-lovers who plan to hold Manto-related events all through this year that marks Manto’s centenary. In Amritsar, Delhi and Samrala, local organisations have gone out of their way to host the three sisters and extract memories of a man who is more loved and more read in India than the country that became his home in the last years of his life.
Nikhat, the eldest and also the slightly more talkative of the three, talks of the crowds that lined the roads, showering flower petals at them as they travelled to lay the foundation stone of a gateway in their father’s memory. However, as Nusrat pointed out, more than Samrala – where Manto’s father was posted as sub-judge at the time of his birth – it is Amritsar that can lay claim to its lost son. For, the Manto family had lived in the Kucha Vakilan neighbourhood of this historic city and it was Amritsar that shaped the young Manto’s literary and political sensibilities. It was in Amritsar, too, that Manto heard of the October Revolution from mentors such Bari sahib and learnt to write ‘Russia-inspired’ stories.