The first time this question-Why does one write?- started floating about, it may not have been to feed the curiosity about the craft of writing, as it is today. But it seems like it may have been to introspect what leads a person to pursue this activity.
If we attempt to travel deeper into the past when human beings began to write and question what inspired them to develop this technique, we may come closer to the source of the answer.
Another route would be to delve into the introspections of the people who write. But here we fall into the danger of certain filters that could come in between the truth and what they chose to confide in you. And if they are ready to bare their soul open to you and through you to the whole world, then we would suspect that no human being is capable of such courage.
In a sense, we are as close to finding out why one chooses to immerse oneself in art, commerce, science- a form of expression or manifestation of the world around us-, as we are to finding out why we exist.
Since it is my first reading of Manto today, it almost gives me an independent perspective on the book ‘Why I Write’- Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto. Though it shall remain an almost independent perspective since the essays have been edited and translated by Aakar Patel into English.
He also tell us in the introduction to this book a lot about Manto. Some intriguing revelations about this writer. He was one of the writers who had to suffer the aftermath of the heart-wrenching India-Pakistan partition. And like every good writer they will express with honesty and in beautifully crafted words, their disdain of such events.
The liberal environment of British Bombay and its mixing of many cultures produced the fertile material that Manto needed for his writing, particularly his short fiction, but also his essays. His outstanding skill was for grasping Indianness.
One thing that emerged from Manto’s migration was his transformation as a writer. The playfulness of Bombay was gone. His darkest pieces and some absurdist ones were written in the new country.
He is a great Indian writer, who wrote in an Indian language to an Indian audience about his Indian experiences. This is why he should be read in any language he can be accessed in. Most of these pieces were written for newspapers, and except for two, so far as I now, none have been translated before. I have edited, clipped, trimmed and rewritten a few of them, perhaps more than I should have. For this, Manto will forgive me.
-Writes AAkar Patel in the introduction to his book.
With this background and assurance that not much has been lost in translation, I go on to understand Manto the writer through his essay.
Why I write
Ladies and gentlemen, I have been asked to say how it is that I write. Now I don’t really understand the question and what “how” means. My dictionary informs me it means “in what manner?”
What can I say about this?
The best way of putting it is to say, well, I sit on a sofa in my living room, pile up a sheaf of paper, unscrew the cap of my fountain pen and begin to write.
My three little daughters play in the same room. I chat with them every so often. I settle their quarrels, sometimes while I’m tossing a salad for myself. Should someone drop in, I play host and chat with them too. But through all of this, I continue to write.
Though it seems like he finds the question ridiculous enough to reduce it to literals he is merely painting the first layer of his answer for you.
Through all of it, Manto writes. As life happens around him he writes. He indulges in the world and he writes.
That is how Manto writes.
He poses another question to himself and continues to answer.
Now if I were to be asked WHY is it that I write, I have an answer for that too.
The most important reason is that I’m addicted to writing, just as I am to drinking. When I don’t write, it feels like I’m unclothed, like I haven’t had a bath. Like I haven’t had my first drink.
Before we discard him as an addict we must admit that the metaphoric analogy opened the door to the heart of the matter. There may have been other metaphors which could be used to remain in the boundary walls of political correctness. But this confession of a personal kind is a clue into the honesty with which he chose to address the question.
I don’t actually write the stories, mind you, they write themselves. And that shouldn’t be surprising. You see, I haven’t had much education. I have, however, written twenty books and I’m often astonished at the thought of who their writer could possibly be.
When he admits to feeling like a mere scribe, someone who writes but isn’t the storyteller we feel the layers peeling off, inching closer to the writer.
When the fountain pen is not in my hand, I’m merely Saadat Hasan. A man who knows and is able to express only little. It is the pen that transforms me into Manto.
Perhaps, this is why we write, hoping for those clandestine rendezvous with the writer.