Manto Ka Muqaddama: Obscenity Trial-1

Posted on September 29, 2009
Filed Under >Mast Qalandar, Art & Literature, History, People
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Aziz Akhmad

Occasionally, we go back to the books and stories that we had first read years ago, in school or college. It can be fun – sometimes more than when we first read them.

When we re-read a book, we are not bothered about finding who does what to whom – we already know it. Rather, we pay attention to the language and other niceties of the writing. Plus, the additional education and exposure we may have acquired over the years provides a new perspective from which to look at the story. Also, while re-reading, we are more likely to read the author’s foreword, introduction or pesh lafz than we were when we first read the book. Personally, I always skipped the forewords.

Recently, when I revisited Saadat Hasan Manto’s Thanda Gosht (‘Cold Flesh,’ literally), a collection of stories so named because his famous (or infamous?) short story Thanda Gosht is part of the collection, I read the foreword first. It is a fascinating read.

It is titled Zehmat-i-Mehr-i-Darakhshan. A daunting name for most of us, but has a charming explanation once we understand its meaning and the context. In it, Manto describes, in great detail, his thoughts, feelings and tribulations when he migrated from Bombay to Pakistan, in 1948. He also tells the story of his obscenity trial, which is absorbing and educative, perhaps more educative today than it was when written, 60 years ago. Manto was probably the first writer tried for obscenity in Pakistan.

Here is the story, translated, paraphrased and abridged:


Having left Bombay, I came to Karachi and then proceeded to Lahore, arriving there probably on the 7th or 8th of January 1948. Initially, for 3 months, I was totally lost. I didn’t quite know whether I was in Bombay, Karachi or Lahore. I was confused, and unable to decide what to do for living. I would spend days sitting in a chair, lost in my thoughts.

Finally, one day, I woke out of my stupor to find that I had virtually no money left. I had spent all the money that I had brought from Bombay, some on day-to-day household expenses and some at the bars in Clifton, Karachi.

Gradually, I reconciled with the reality that I was in Lahore. I started looking for work.

I met my dear friends Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and Sahir Ludhianvi, and others. Everyone seemed to be in a state of paralysis like myself. It seemed as if the volcano of Partition that had just erupted had still some lava left trapped inside, still simmering. I thought, perhaps, there might be a few more tremors before things settle down and the air clears up.

I wanted to write, but could not focus my thoughts. I would roam around Lahore all day, aimlessly, listening to what others said – incoherent, illogical arguments and unfounded political commentaries. My aimless wandering helped clear my mind though. I started writing light and humorous articles such as “Naak ki qismayn” (Different types of noses), “Deewaron par Likhna” (Writing on walls), which were published in Imroz, a daily started by Faiz and Chiragh Hasan Hasrat.

Even though I did not notice the change, the humor in my articles gradually began transforming into satire. I even managed to come up with sharp and hitting articles like “Swal paida hota hai” (The question arises) and “Swairay jo kal meri aankh khuli” (When I woke up early yesterday).

I was pleased with myself that, finally, I had managed to grope my way out of the surrounding gloom and haze. I began writing vigorously. The articles I wrote during that time were later published in a collection titled “Talkh–o-Sheereen” (Bitter and sweet).

I was not inclined to write short stories. I found this form of writing very difficult.

About this time, my friend Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, having tired himself of writing trivial stuff, had resigned from Radio Pakistan Peshawar and moved to Lahore. He started producing a monthly magazine, Naqoosh. He requested me to write for his magazine. But I couldn’t. In spite of his repeated requests, I was unable to write anything. So much so, that Qasmi Sahib became upset with me. Finally, I brought myself to writing my first short story, in Pakistan –Thanda Gosht.

Qasmi Sahib read the story, silently, in my presence. While he was reading, I could not tell what he thought of the story. When he finished, however, he said apologetically, ‘Manto Sahib, the story is very good, but a bit too hot for Naqoosh.’ I didn’t argue with him and took the manuscript back, and told him: ‘No problem. I will write another story for you. You could collect it tomorrow evening.’

Qasmi Sahib came the next day. I was busy writing the last lines of the story “Khol do” (Open!). I told him, ‘please wait. I will complete the story in a few minutes and give it to you.’ Since the last lines were the most important lines of the story, Qasmi sahib had to wait for some time before I finished the story and handed it to him.

Qasmi sahib started reading the story and I watched his facial expressions change. When he reached the end, he looked shaken but remained quiet. ‘How do you like it?’ I asked.

He simply said, ‘OK, I will take it’, and left.

“Khol do” was published in Naqoosh. Readers liked it. The last lines of the story seemed to have a jolting effect on everyone who read it. But then something else happened that shook us all. The government [of Punjab] saw the story as a threat to public peace and order and promptly banned the publication of the magazine for 6 months. Newspapers wrote against the ban but the ban stayed.

Later one day, I jokingly told Qasmi sahib that had he published Thanda Gosht instead of Khol Do, perhaps he would have escaped the catastrophe that befell his magazine. However, the ban was eventually lifted even before the 6-month period.

Sometime after the ban on Naqoosh was imposed, the deputy editor of the monthly Adb-i-Latif came and took the manuscript of Thanda Gosht from me for publishing. The manuscript was set into type, proofread, and was almost ready to be printed when someone in the staff noticed the story, and the story was withheld. Again, another attempt was made to print the story but without success. Finally, Adbe-i-Latif returned the manuscript to me.

Meanwhile, Mumtaz Shireen in Karachi had written me several letters requesting for a story for her magazine, Naya Daur. I sent her Thanda Gosht. After considerable time, she replied saying the story was good; that she liked it very much, but was not sure if the government would allow it to be published. Thereafter, I decided not to publish the story anywhere.

As it happened, however, young Arif Abdul Mateen was appointed editor of monthly Javed. He started insisting that I should give him Thanda Gosht for publication. I finally relented. Arif published the story in Javed’s special addition, which appeared in March 1949.

When the magazine hit the newsstands, nothing happened. One week, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, and still no sign of any trouble. I was satisfied that no calamity was going to strike Thanda Gosht anymore. I was wrong.

The reins of the Government Press Department at the time were in the old and shaky hands of Chaudhry Muhammad Hussain. Even with those shaky hands, the old chaudhry managed to pull at the reins with a sharp tug and the police jumped into motion. The office of the magazine and all its distribution outlets were raided and the copies of the magazine seized.

The matter was referred to the Press Advisory Board, which would decide whether the case against the magazine be pursued in a court of law or dropped. The board consisted of prominent editors and publishers of major newspapers and magazines of the time.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was then the editor of Pakistan Times was also the convener of the board. Other members were F.W. Beston (spelling?) of Civil and Military Gazette, Maulana Akhter Ali of Zamindar, Hameed Nizami of Nawa-i-Waqt, Waqar Anbalvi of Safina, Amninuddin Sehrai of Jadeed Nizam.

Naseer Anwer, publisher of Javed, represented the offending magazine while Chaudhry Mohammad Hussain of the Press Department appeared from the government’s side.

Chaudhry Hussain began by presenting the special issue of the offending magazine and mentioned the politically “rebellious” and “provocative” nature of the articles and poems usually published in this magazine, naming specific articles and poems. Faiz did not agree and refuted the government’s allegations. Other members agreed with Faiz and the political accusations fell flat. However, when the discussion shifted to Thanda Gosht, all hell seemed to break loose.

Faiz declared the story not obscene. Maulana Akhter Ali, however, thundred: “No, never, this kind of literature will not be allowed in Pakistan!” Mr. Sehrai agreed with the Maulana. Waqar Anbalvi, too, condemned the story. Hamid Nizami sided with Nawa-i-Waqt. Mr. F. W. Beston, editor of The Civil and Military Gazette, an Englishman, did not quite understand the story. Therefore, Chaudhry Mohammad Hussain proceeded to explain in English: “The essence of the story is”, he said, “that we, Muslims, are so characterless that we even allow Sikh men to rape our dead women.” Faiz and Naseer Anwar could hardly suppress their laughter and tried to reason with Chaudhry Hussain, but the chaudhry did not relent. Finally, the board decided to refer the matter to a court of law.

Within days, Naseer Anwer and Arif Abdul Mateen, the publisher and editor, respectively, of the offending magazine were arrested. A few days later, a police sub-inspector rang my doorbell.

When I opened the door, it was police sub-inspector, Chaudhry Khuda Bakhsh. He had been looking for me for the past few days, but each time I wasn’t home.

He greeted me very politely and told me to come to the Civil Lines police station the next morning, and helpfully added, ‘bring along a friend so that bail could be posted.’ He was an extremely decent person.

Next morning, I presented myself at the police station, along with my friend Sheikh Salim. He signed the required papers and we were done with the first stage of the case.

Arif Abdul Matin, the editor of the “offending” magazine, however, was very worried. [He, too, along with the publisher was released on bail.] But his throat would get dry when talking about the upcoming case. I wondered, being a member of the communist party, why was he so scared of a court trial.

Anyway, we received our summonses, and turned up at the district courts on the date fixed for court hearing.

This was nothing new for me. I had been to these courts before, in connection with my last three cases [before Partition]. They call the place district courts (zilla kutcherry), but it is a squalid place. There are flies, mosquitoes, insects – and dust – everywhere. You hear the clatter of ancient typewriters, the jangling of shackles worn by prisoners brought by the police for their court hearings. There are these rickety wooden chairs, mostly with one leg missing and their cane seats sagging and torn. In the rooms, the plaster on the walls is peeling off. The grounds, devoid of any green, look like the bald head of a wretched and grubby Kashmiri [Manto, incidentally, himself was an ethnic Kashmiri]. Burka clad women sit on bare, dust-covered floors. People curse and shout.

Inside, magistrates, sit at cluttered and dirty tables, hearing cases and, at the same time, chatting with pals sitting next to them.

It is not easy to describe this place in words alone. Everything is weird here – the atmosphere, the language, the jargon. It is truly a strange place. May God keep everyone away from these courts.

Everything here moves on “wheels” (bribe). If you need a copy of a court document, you need to have “wheels” (bribe) to your application; if you need to scrutinize a court document, again, you need “wheels” to your request; and, if you need to meet with an official, it’s the “wheels”, again. If you need something to be done urgently, the number of “wheels” increases.

You don’t have to look too hard to know how things move here. Even a casual observer will notice that every thing in the district courts moves on “wheels” – four wheels, from one office to another, eight, from the second office to the third, and so on …

Back to our court hearing. I needed a lawyer. I ran into Tassadaq Hussain Khalid in the courts, who volunteered his services and said he would be delighted to be my defense lawyer. I gratefully accepted his offer.

All the accused, Naseer Anwer (publisher), Arif Mateen (the editor) and I, appeared before Mian A. M. Saeed P.C.S., Magistrate Class-I. The magistrate had been a captain in the army, but, now, was wielding the scales of justice rather than a gun.

He was a dark complexioned, slim man with small but sharp eyes. He sat rather pompously in his chair while we stood in the dock, the enclosure meant for the accused.

The magistrate didn’t seem to notice us. Rather, he looked at my lawyer and said something to him. Our respective bail papers were processed and a new date for hearing was fixed. We said salaams to the magistrate and came out of the court.

It was June, and very hot. Our throats were parched. But Arif Matin’s throat, especially, was bone dry. I wished there were a member of the [communist] party present there to watch him.

We went through two or three more similar, perfunctory, hearings in the next few weeks. The court procedures were such that, on the day of hearing, your turn to appear in court could come any time. Therefore, we had to hover outside the courtroom, in the extremely hot weather, lest our name was called and we weren’t there. That would have terribly upset the magistrate. We couldn’t afford doing that. His attitude was already hostile.

It seemed as if the magistrate had already made up his mind to judge against us. My lawyer, in fact, suggested that we file a request for transferring the case to another court. But I didn’t agree, thinking that another judge may not be much different. So, we went through the next two or three short hearings.

Persons who appeared from the prosecution side were: Mr. Mohammad Yakoob, manager Kapoor Art Press, Lahore; Sheikh Tufail Haleem, Assistant Superintendent D.C. Office, Lahore; Syed Ziauddin, translator for Punjab government and few others.

Syed Ziauddin stated that, in his opinion, Thanda Gosht was obscene – all of it. Answering a question from my lawyer, he said even though the writer means well, but the words and expressions he has chosen are bad.

To a question by the lawyer, “shouldn’t the writer put words in the mouth of his characters that they normally use and which reflect their true personality?” the witness answered: “Yes, the words of conversation should reflect the personalities of the characters.” The witness also agreed that it was the writer’s job to create both good and bad characters.

After the statements of the prosecution witnesses, the magistrate went through the formality of asking us some procedural questions, which went something like this:

Court: You are accused of writing Thanda Gosht, which was published in a special edition of the magazine called Javed. This is an offense under section 292 of the Pakistan penal code. Why shouldn’t you be punished for this?

Manto (through Mr. Khalid, the lawyer): Yes, I did write Thanda Gosht and gave it to the said magazine for publication. No, I do not consider it obscene. On the contrary, I believe it is reformative.

Court: Then why were you charged?

Manto: The police would know better. Their standpoint on morality and reform is different than ours.

Court: Do you want to say anything more?

Manto: No, not at this point.

The court then asked us to give a list of our defense witnesses. We had already worked it out. There were 32 names, which we presented to the court.

When the magistrate saw the list, he blew up, saying, “This is a crowd. I can’t have all of them”. My lawyer argued that each witness was important for the defense, but the magistrate did not agree. Rather, he proceeded to make fun of some of the names. Going down the list, when he came to Mumtaz Shireen’s name, he asked: “Who is this Mumtaz Shanti?” The court staff thought it was funny and, dutifully, they all laughed. We remained silent, suppressing our indignation.

After a great deal of discussion, the magistrate agreed to a shortened list of 14 defense witnesses. Summonses were issued to them.

I did not purposely meet any of the witnesses beforehand because I wanted to hear them comment on the story independently, and wanted to know what they really thought of it.

On the given hearing date, the witnesses had to be present in the court early morning. I felt guilty for them because they had to leave whatever they did to come to the court, and had to wait outside the courtroom for hours, waiting to be called at any time.

Our first defense witness was Syed Abid Ali Abid (M.A., LLB), Principal Dayal Singh College Lahore. He stated: “I have read Thanda Gosht. It’s an outstanding piece of literature. I have read all of Manto’s writings. Among the prominent short story writers, after Prem Chand, Manto has a special position. The predominant impression one gets from reading Thanda Gosht is of the punishment that Isher Singh (the main character of the story) is meted out by nature, by turning him impotent – for his inhuman act (trying to rape a dead woman).”

Answering another question from the court, Abid Sahib said: “From Wali to Gahalib, everyone, at some time, has written what is generally labeled as obscene. Literature can never be obscene. And, what Manto writes is literature.”

Prosecution: Is literature produced for the sake of literature?”

Abid Sahib: “I have already said, literature is criticism of life. And that should answer your question. The words and deeds of every reasonable person have meanings. But everyone is not reasonable. Every word and deed can be good or bad in the eyes of society. And there are several yardsticks to judge good and bad.”

Answering another question from the prosecution, Abid Sahib said: “All my sons and daughters have read this story. I have had academic discussion with one of my daughters, a fourth year student in college, on many subjects, including matters related to sex, which also happens to be part of her syllabus. On Thanda Gosht, I have also had discussion with several literary persons. They have all appreciated it.”

The next defense witness was Mr. Ahmed Saeed, Professor of psychology, Dayal Singh College, Lahore. He stated: “Thanda Gosht is not obscene. It discusses a serious sexual problem. In my view, obscenity is not something absolute. It is relative. A story like Thanda Gosht can only badly influence (in the sexual sense) a person who is mentally sick.

Our third witness was Khalifa Abdul Hakim (M.A, LLB, Ph. D.), former Director Education Kashmir. He stated: “Every human personality has elements of both good and bad. The writer’s job is to present different facets of human personality in such a manner that helps in understanding the realities of life. An evil character should be presented in a way that his evil deeds arouse disgust and repulsion.”

Khalifa Sahib also added: “Reading the story in question, you feel disgusted at Ishwar Singh, the main character in the story, and begin to hate him. His is an accurate characterization. Under certain circumstances, such characters, in spite of being otherwise healthy, can become psychologically impotent [as mentioned in the story].”

All these statements were pretty lengthy – and scholarly. The magistrate had to write them down, word for word. He would often get exasperated and say to himself: “Am I a magistrate or a muharrar (stenographer)?” However, he did manage to do what had to be done.

Another interesting thing that happened during the hearing was that I was holding a can of cigarettes, probably Craven A. (This brand of cigarettes, and several others, came in round attractive cans of 40 or 50 cigarettes those days). When the magistrate noticed it, he admonished me angrily. “This is a court of law, not your home”. I answered respectfully: “Your honor, but I am not smoking. I am just holding the can.” The magistrate shouted back, even more loudly: “Keep quiet! And put the can in your pocket!” I obeyed. The magistrate, then, picked up his can of cigarettes from the table, lighted a cigarette and started smoking. And, I, standing in the dock, kept breathing in – hungrily – the smoke that wafted through the courtroom.

To be continued

18 responses to “Manto Ka Muqaddama: Obscenity Trial-1”

  1. baber says:

    Thank you for the post. Enjoyed it.

  2. Hamid says:

    I am intrigued by the title, Zehmat-i-Mehr-i-Darakhshan, and looking forward to finding out why that was used.

    Nice translation. Thanks for this.

  3. Aslam says:

    I read this over three sittings because it is rather long. Enjoyed every minute and waiting for the third part now.

    I was also surprised by how vibrant the literary scene was right after partition despite all the havoc.

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