Teaching Manto and South Asian Literature in the U.S. : Interview with Amardeep Singh

“I do not think Manto was particularly obsessed with prostitution. It might be more accurate to say that he was part of a broader movement in Modern literature to depict sexuality more honestly and sincerely than earlier generations had done, and writing stories with characters who were prostitutes was one way for him to do that.”

Amardeep Singh and Sadat Hasan Manto have something in common-both come from the same Indian side of Punjab. But that’s not the only connection they have.

Dr. Amardeep Singh, who teaches English literature at Lehigh University, is a second-generation Indian raised in the U.S. working on a new book on Sadat Hasan Manto. He is studying the Progressive Writers movement and other movements like Naya Kavita and Nayi Kahani that came after it. In this project he is trying to work with literature written in multiple South Asian languages, including Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and English. In some cases he is working with translations, while in other cases he is looking at material in the original languages.

His first book, “Literary Secularism: Religion and Modernity in Twentieth Century Fiction,” was based on his Ph.D. dissertation, and was published in 2006. Dr. Amardeep has also written a number of articles on British and contemporary world literature, focusing on authors such as E.M. Forster, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rabindranath Tagore, and G.V. Desani. In 2010 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to pursue research on the new book project, “Modernism and Progressivism in South Asia.”

In this interview he talks candidly about Manto, his work and pedagogical issues in teaching South Asian literature in the U.S.:

1.    Sadat Hasan Manto was the product of an era when the subcontinent was going through significant political changes that ultimately ended in dividing the region into two separate countries. He wrote a lot on the impact of these changes on individuals and families. How would you analyze his understanding of the partition as portrayed in his short stories?  

Manto, as is well-known came out of what is today the Indian part of Punjab – Ludhiana and Amritsar. He grew up in a pluri-religious environment and felt a very deep sense of loss in the disappearance of that sense of shared community across religious lines. He was also influenced by the emerging Progressive Writers group he encountered at Aligarh Muslim University in 1934; they wrote in Urdu and had a generally secular and reformist outlook. Manto was living in Bombay in 1947, and he did not initially jump to join Pakistan at that time. However, as he found his career in the Bombay film industry suffering, in large part due to the discrimination against Muslims that began to appear in the industry around that time, he did finally decide to relocate to Lahore in 1947. From what I can tell, he did not love Lahore, but he did provisionally accept the idea of himself as a Pakistani during the last few years of his life.

Manto’s short stories about the Partition, particularly “Toba Tek Singh,” “Khol Do!” (Open It), and “Thanda Ghosht” (Cold Meat) are some of his most famous stories. Stories like “Khol Do” and “Thanda Ghosht,” both of which feature shocking scenes of sexual violence, show how disappointed he was in the way people on both sides of the religious divide acted during the Partition. These are stories where people seem to behave like animals, thinking only of revenge and the crudest sort of satisfaction. “Toba Tek Singh,” for its part, is more about the strange sense of dislocation many people felt as the identity of large regions near the border changed status overnight. What was “India” one day became “Pakistan” the next, even if people still spoke the same languages, drank the same chai, and lived the same lifestyle they had the day before. The conceit of “Toba Tek Singh” is to have a mentally ill person attempt to digest the arbitrariness of this sudden transformation.

2.    Manto was tried in India and Pakistan for “obscenity” as he used images of women as sex object and prostitute in several of his short stories. How would you compare obscenity and portraying sex as a social reality in literature? Who defines standards of pornography and sex in fine arts and literature in South Asia?

Manto wrote about prostitution because it was a part of life in his era. Once he was asked this same question, and he had the following rejoinder:
“If any mention of a prostitute is obscene then her existence too is obscene. If any mention of her is prohibited, then her profession too should be prohibited. Do away with the prostitute; reference to her would vanish by itself.” (via Harish Narang)

I do not think Manto was particularly obsessed with prostitution. It might be more accurate to say that he was part of a broader movement in Modern literature to depict sexuality more honestly and sincerely than earlier generations had done, and writing stories with characters who were prostitutes was one way for him to do that. Even within Urdu and Hindi literature, Manto was not the only one to push the boundary with regards to explicit sexuality in his writing. The first wave of Progressive Writers, emerging from the Angarey group, also did this. One infamous story by Sajjad Zaheer, for instance, was called “Vision of Paradise” (Jannat ki Basharat) which featured a Maulvi who begins to have erotic dreams while he intends to stay up late praying. The story was controversial at the time because it was seen as blasphemous, and reading it today there’s no doubt that Zaheer intended to be provocative regarding religious piety. But it is no less provocative because of its use of explicit sexuality.

Alongside the Angarey group, Premchand himself was often more direct about matters of sexuality than many people realize. His famous 1936 novel Godaan, for instance, features a cross-caste sexual relationship described quite frankly – though it’s by no means pornographic. Finally, it should be noted that Manto’s friend and rival, Ismat Chughtai, also pushed the line regarding the depiction of sexuality.

That said, there’s no question that Manto takes things a step further. A story like “Bu” (Odour) is significantly more explicit in its depiction of a random sexual encounter than anything written by Zaheer or Chughtai. As a side note, this story, which is one of Manto’s most infamous ones, is not actually about prostitution, but rather a middle-class man’s encounter with a poor woman (a Marathi “Ghatin”) working as a laborer. Other stories do deal directly with prostitution, but often with a focus on the hypocrisy and weakness of men. Manto’s prostitutes are often honest and even noble individuals – trying to survive in a society that treats the exploitation of women’s bodies as merely another kind of financial transaction.

On the question of who sets the standards for obscenity. Here I think there’s no question that by the standards of his time, some of Manto’s stories could be found to be “obscene.” As is well-known, he was tried for obscenity six times during his career, some by the British Indian government before 1947, and some by the independent government of Pakistan. I certainly oppose the censorship, but I think Manto knew what he was doing in writing stories like “Bu,” and I don’t think he or his career suffered greatly because he got in trouble for it; if anything, it may have gotten him more attention and thus helped his career in some ways. That said, with the sexual elements in “Khol Do!” or “Thanda Ghosht,” I do feel these are worth defending, since Manto is referencing sexual violence not for titillation but to make an important ethical point.

3.    How would you compare Manto with short story writers of other languages, especially the known English writers of his time?

Manto was actually more influenced by Russian short story writers like Chekhov and French writers like Maupassant than he was by English literature. The Russian influence goes back to his time in college at Amritsar, where his mentor Abdul Bari Alig encouraged him to read the Russian short story writers. In fact, Manto’s very first book was his translation of French writer Victor Hugo’s The Last Days of a Condemned Man. He also published a book of translated short stories from Russia (often translated from translations: English to Urdu rather than Russian to Urdu) called Russi Afsane. In fact I do not think Manto can be usefully compared to any major English writers.

4.    For Manto, South Asia and the U.S. had astonishing paradoxes and similarities in 1950. When Manto was being tried in Pakistan for obscenity, for example, writers were also facing similar charges in the U.S. How would you compare these two societies in the 21st century?

Manto was actually highly aware of the obscenity trials taking place in the United States. In one of his Letters to Uncle Sam (in Urdu as “Chacha Sam Ke Nam”), he actually acknowledged the obscenity trial surrounding Erskine Caldwell’s novel God’s Little Acre. At that time (1950) the United States was seen as the source of racy images and scantily dressed starlets within South Asia, so this was especially surprising to Manto. As he put it, “You are the king of bare things so I am at a loss to understand, Chachaji, why you tried brother Erskine Caldwell.”  The judge in the Caldwell case, of course, dismissed the obscenity charge with some famous lines: “I am absolutely certain that the author has chosen to write truthfully about a certain segment of American society. It is my opinion that truth is always consistent with literature and should be so declared.” Manto claims he quoted these lines to the judge in his own case, but to no avail: “That is what I told the court that sentenced me, but it went ahead anyway and gave me three months in prison with hard labour and a fine of three hundred rupees. My judge thought that truth and literature should be kept far apart. Everyone has his opinion (‘raee’).”

While Pakistan and the U.S. were not so far apart in 1950, during the time of one of Manto’s obscenity trials and the trial of Erskine Caldwell, I think as time has gone on, they have grown further apart. In the 1960s, the U.S. moved away from the censorship model of the Hayes Code in the film industry, to a “ratings” model, wherein adult material would effectively always be legal as long as it was rated for adults only. Both India and Pakistan have, however, kept the censorship model alive, meaning that many legitimate and important works of art run the risk of censorship sometimes for arbitrary or simply

5.    You have been teaching literature in the U.S. for some time. Do you think there are major pedagogical issues in teaching South Asian literature to students of South Asian origin and white Americans?

I should preface by saying that I myself have been raised in the U.S., albeit in a pretty conservative Sikh community with strong and continuing connections to South Asia. One problem with raising issues such as caste or debates about gender roles within Indo-Islamic culture with students who aren’t familiar with the society is that you can very quickly give the students a very negative picture of South Asian society. If you bombard them with the depth of poverty in India, or the repressiveness around gender and sexuality that still pervades in some parts of the society, you can make it less likely that they’ll want to seriously engage with South Asia in the future. In my teaching I strive for a balanced look at the society, pointing at the way some things have improved (for instance, the growing middle class in both India and Pakistan) alongside the things that aren’t improving (growing religious conservatism in Pakistan, extreme disparities of wealth in India). In that respect I may differ from some of my colleagues on the left: I think trends such as globalization have been beneficial at least in some respects in South Asian societies.

6.    Urdu and Hindi are spoken by a large South Asian diaspora all over the world. Some say, combined together, it becomes the second largest language after Mandarin Chinese.  How do you see the future of teaching South Asian languages and literature in the U.S?  

The outlook for teaching South Asian languages in the U.S. is complex. On the one hand, languages like Urdu and Pashto have actually seen somewhat of a boom in recent years, though the boom is entirely due to the post 9/11 “war on terror,” and the source of the interest is the U.S. State Department and intelligence agencies. Languages predominantly spoken in India are not receiving the same kind of interest. That said, even the study of those languages was, during the cold war, supported by the State Department.

Away from the question of official government support, the economic and prestige disparities in the publishing world have been quite detrimental to the study and publication of literature in South Asian languages. Authors know they will get paid more if they write in English, and have broader readership and recognition as well. This does not mean that good literature in Indian languages is not being written (indeed, in my own experience visiting Punjab not long ago I found the state of Punjabi poetry in Chandigarh to be particularly lively – though it’s mainly a live scene, without much in the way of economic support from the publishing world).

I do not teach at the kind of university where I would have a significant number of students interested in reading Hindi, Urdu, or Punjabi literature in the original. However, there is certainly interest among some students in reading literature in translation from Indian languages, perhaps in conjunction with literature written in English.

One interesting development is a growing community of writers working in South Asian languages here in North America. I was at the University of British Columbia for a Punjabi literature conference a few years ago, and I was overwhelmed at the number of students studying Punjabi, often at quite a high level. There is an entire community of diasporic Punjabi writers (novelists and poets), mainly living in Canada, and publishing in their own small publishing houses here in North America (some of those writers also publish their work in Punjabi in India). I do not know if something similar exists with other South Asian languages, though I have seen some collections along those lines.

I should add that I am a person who does not see the choice of language as absolutely determining of authenticity. There are very good, representative novels of South Asian life written in English and very poor ones written in Hindi and Urdu. I have always been inspired by the case of Ahmed Ali, who in mid-career shifted from Urdu to English without really losing much in the way of his ability to describe the Indo-Islamic culture of Old Delhi. I think authors who make a strong attempt to use words from South Asian languages in the midst of their English prose when necessary – and who don’t worry about the possible incomprehension of western readers – can be every bit as “authentic” as their peers writing in South Asian languages.

(From Viewpoint Online)

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