Ujagar Singh admits his memory is rusty. he is, after all, close to a 100 years old. but when he talks about the little things he does remember, his heavily lined face further creases into a smile. “He (Manto) really liked playing football. he would get one himself. for all the years he was here, I never heard him utter a single swear word.” his disjointed memories of the time he spent with his childhood friend are frequently punctuated with “Bahut hi changa banda si (he was a very fine man).”
As young kids playing in the wheat fields that surround Paproudi even today, Ujagar Singh says he never imagined his playmate Sa’adat Hasan Manto would some day become one of the greatest short story writers the Indian sub-continent had ever seen. Being unlettered, he has never read Manto. but he knows Manto was written about in the papers. he remembers nothing of the time when the writer was charged with obscenity and tried in court for six of his stories. “Maybe something like that happened. I don’t know,” Ujagar Singh says, the words tripping over each other as they come out of his mouth in a near-incomprehensible mumble.
in its absence, Ujagar Singh’s memory mirrors that of Samrala. there is a vague sense of acknowledgement that a writer of renown once belonged to these parts. but it’s easy to find vignettes of rustic Punjab in Manto’s stories like ‘Thanda Gosht’ (Cold Meat). Gurbhajan Singh Gill, president of the Punjabi Sahit Akademi, calls Manto a “real son of the soil” . Manto’s characters worked to shock and turn societal stereotypes on their heads. for example, Mozel, the Jewish woman who accepts, spurns and then dies for her Sikh admirer. or Babu Gopi Nath, who does all he can to get a young prostituted woman married off to a rich man. Manto’s accounts of the riots and violence that followed Partition are chilling yet remarkably sensitive at the same time. ‘Khol Do’ is one stand-out example that immediately comes to mind. ‘Toba Tek Singh’ , perhaps his most famous story, is a telling commentary on the madness of Partition.
Manto’s treatment of sex and sexuality was something that earned him the ire of the British government as well as the rulers of Pakistan, where he had migrated to in the late 1940s. his openness and direct approach to the subject was taken for obscenity and perversion then. Today, though, he finds place even in the Delhi University syllabus, regarded as a man ahead of his times. Manto, however, did not stay in his village of birth for long. he studied in Amritsar and later moved to Bombay for work.
but had Manto been around, he’d be happy to see that finally, after all these years, a small group of people are putting all their might to revive the writer in Samrala and neighbouring Ludhiana.