Anatomy of an obscenity trial

By Sarah Waheed

1 July 2013

An unearthed file gives new insight into Saadat Hasan Manto and his short story ‘Bu’.
All images provided by author

All images provided by author

Inside the first floor of the National Archives in Delhi, the tube-light was buzzing. It was a noise I had grown accustomed to, along with the soft rustle of pages being turned, in an otherwise quiet catalogue room. Under its grey-blue hue, I accidentally stumbled across an entry in one of the catalogues. It listed a file from 1944 documenting some of the earliest obscenity legislation enacted against Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), one of the most controversial Urdu writers of the twentieth century. I quickly jotted down the notation and submitted my request to the archival staff. I had so far been feeling dejected in the archives. Many of the files I had requested were missing or non-existent. But luckily, not this time. My request was answered with a bundle of documents: a small but telling sample of the colonial state’s widespread censorship of Indian publications during the Independence movement.

This was not the first nor last time that Manto would be brought to trial on obscenity charges. His short stories were banned six times: thrice before Partition in colonial India (‘Dhuan’, ‘Bu’, and ‘Kali Shalwar’), and thrice afterwards (‘Khol Do’, ‘Thanda Gosht’, and ‘Ooper Neeche Darmiyan’) in Pakistan. Today, Manto’s writings – which remain seminal for understanding Partition – are more available to English audiences than ever before. Like others of his generation, Manto wrote powerful responses to the carnage of 1947.  But Manto’s literature had long focused upon themes of violence and sexuality in the more quotidian sense. These stories were often set in Bombay, where Manto lived as a struggling writer, traversing film studios and footpaths. In them, readers see the world through the eyes of prostitutes, pimps, gamblers, dadas and rickshaw drivers negotiating the jagged, painful spaces between ghar and ghat. It was through his often frank treatment of sex and sexuality that Manto boldly criticised social hypocrisy. Accusations of obscenity were often hurled his way. In the case of his short story, ‘Bu’ (Odour), those accusations were also hurled in the courts.

Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto

The late colonial-era file on Manto’s trial for ‘Bu’ is several pages long. In between the bureaucratic correspondences and transcripts of Manto’s trial, the file also contains the very first English translation of ‘Bu’. The type-written translation is littered with grammar corrections, on the text as well as in the margins – in red ink no less. The translator’s name is nowhere to be found. As my eyes gazed over the documents I realised that I had wandered on to a crime scene. There lay the translated short story, flat and dead. It had been beaten violently by the coloniser’s language. As I turned the pages, parts of the translation would reappear in memos and notes as state officials came to pick apart the dead body, exhume it, probe it and use it as evidence in the courts.

I also realised I had to re-read ‘Bu’. The first time I read it, I had found the story deeply troubling and it had made me uncomfortable. But that is what it is supposed to do, I hear the literary critics say in my head. Manto’s writing has a stinging quality, lacerating the reader with dark irony, with prose and diction that is abrasive and bears into you like a twisted knife – this is the hallmark of his genius.

But ‘Bu’ is different, I realised, after reading it once again. There was something disturbingly un-ironic to me, about the silence of its low-caste, tribal female lead, known only to the readers by virtue of her smell and sexual availability. Unlike so many of the women in Manto’s short stories – robust human characters like Sultana, Saughandi, Mozail, Mrs. Stella Jackson – the girl in ‘Bu’ is a caricature. In addition to being considered backwards, tribal peoples are often represented in literature and film as sexually exotic, depicted as being particularly prone to ‘carnal passions’.  Re-reading ‘Bu’ complicated my initial impressions of Manto’s nuanced portrayal of female characters in his fiction. I wondered what others had to say about it. I came across some interesting voices: contemporaries of Manto including a communist critic and a feminist short-story writer. But, I will get to them in a moment. For this is as much a story about the banning of ‘Bu’ as it is the story of how I came to make sense of ‘Bu’ for myself.

The odour
Ideally, in this search for a better understanding of Manto and his story, I would begin with the original text. It first appeared in the 1944 edition of the Urdu literary magazine Adab-e-Latif. However, I have not been able to locate this version yet. This is partly because those who would still own the once-banned original copy of Adab-e-Latif belong to a generation of literary specialists and contemporaries of Manto who are passing away. There are also no copies of the original edition available in the Urdu collections of university libraries such as Jamia Millia, Osmania, or Aligarh. Since the text was banned by authorities on the grounds that it was a “corrupting influence on youth”, copies were unlikely to have been made officially available on college campuses. But the original text surely exists somewhere, most likely in private collections in Lahore, or with literary critics who compiled the earliest Urdu anthologies of Manto’s writings. I continue to search for this original document. What I have currently are two contemporary collections of Manto’s writings: the six-volume set from Pakistan by Sang-e-Meel Press, Lahore (2003), and another collection from India, by Educational Publishing House, New Delhi, (2005). I also have several English translations of the short story, including those by Hamid Jalal, Khalid Hasan, M. Asaduddin and Muhammad Umar Memon. And of course, there is the translation that was used as evidence against Manto during his trial. For the purposes of this essay, these are enough.

‘Bu’ is about the sexual exploits of a young college educated man named Randhir. It opens in Randhir’s apartment during the rainy season, explaining how he found himself with a Ghatan girl lying in bed with him, “clinging to his body”. The word “Ghatan” leaps off the page. It refers to a tribal or low-caste group of migratory laborers in Maharashtra, associated with the Western Ghats of India. Incidentally, in colonial legislation over familial litigation about intermarriage, conversion and adoption in Bombay, the term ‘Ghatan’ was also used to refer to lower-caste Hindu converts to Christianity.

In ‘Bu’, the reader is told that Randhir had seen the Ghatan before, as she worked at a nearby hemp factory. Randhir is lonely, because “the war was on, and most of the Christian girls of Bombay who were easily available in the past had joined the auxiliary force, many opening dancing schools near the Cantonment where only white soldiers were allowed”.  Feeling jilted by a former Christian lover who lives in his building, Randhir spots the Ghatan woman from his balcony. She is dark-complexioned and “earthy”, standing beneath a tamarind tree in the rain, and Randhir calls her up to his flat. What follows is a narration of their sexual encounter. Randhir is drawn to the woman’s odour, one that is “both pleasurable but which simultaneously disgusts him”. The story ends with another description of Randhir’s flat during the rainy season, in a jagged doubling that is common in Manto’s narratives. This time, he is not clinging to the sleeping woman lying on his bed. This other nameless woman is fair and her whiteness is revolting for Randhir. She is his newly-wed wife, “the daughter of a first class magistrate”, but Randhir has no sexual desire for her, and the story ends with him yearning for the odour of the Ghatan woman.

Regarding obscenity
Manto and the editors of Adab-e-Latif first faced the proscription of the short story through the Defense of India Rules, under a clause that sought to curb publication of material against the government. The first time the short story was noticed by the state was when it caught the attention of officials in the War Department in the spring of 1944. In a flurry of memos, ‘Bu’ was deemed objectionable because of its references to the Women’s Auxiliary Corps of the British Indian Army. On the 29th of May, a memo from General Wade read: “The story is certainly most … detrimental to recruiting insofar as it suggests that associations in the W.A.C. (I) may be those of prostitutes [and we] wish to press for prosecution.” Other memos reiterated this point about military recruitment. In fact, the person who first brought the story to the attention of British officials was M.K. Khan, the Honorary Secretary of the Indian Christian War Bureau. He stated that, “unless immediate action to rebut the allegations is taken, the recruitment to W.A.C. will stop to great extent… I shall give free publicity to its proscription in the press, because I am very much interested in the War efforts and have proved it by labor and material sacrifice”. Manto’s short story had clearly upset military officials in the Punjab.  

The Women’s Auxiliary Corps was made up of both Indian and European women. It had been formed in 1942 to reinforce the needs of an over-extended imperial military, in the shadow of World War II and during the Quit India movement. The references in the short story to the war effort had obviously made state officials anxious, given the immediate political context of strikes, mass demonstrations and popular rebellions against the core institutions of imperial life, including the military. By 1943, Subash Chandra Bose had revived the Indian National Army, which fought against British troops in Burma and elsewhere in Southeast Asia: Indian soldiers and personnel were turning their guns against their soon to be erstwhile imperial rulers. As revolutionaries were organizing violent resistance as a means to end the British Raj, all kinds of printed materials were seized by the panicking colonial state and deemed seditious. ‘Bu’ was proscribed under the Defence of India Rules, before it was transferred to the Home Department. Officials there began to determine whether it should be proscribed on grounds of obscenity.

The colonial state then charged Saadat Hasan Manto, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi (the editor of Adab-i-Latif) and Ch. Mohd Nathu Publishers and Printers with ‘obscenity’, under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code. Manto was summoned to Lahore.  Snippets of his responses to the judge can be read in Ismat Chughtai’s autobiographical Kaghazi Hai Pairahan (Dressed in Paper). Chughtai was simultaneously being charged for her short story, ‘Lihaf’ (‘The Quilt’). During the trial, Manto was nearly thrown out for contempt of court when he rose to his feet suddenly and asked, “What else did you expect me to call a woman’s breasts—peanuts?”

From proscription to acquittal, the decision about ‘Bu’ took over a year. During that time, several copies were made of the English translation and distributed to state offices in almost all of the provinces: Madras, Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, United Provinces and Sindh, amongst others. Manto’s short story now was relegated to the limited audience of the state: it was stripped of its literary nuances. What counted as ‘obscene’ was never defined of course, though an attempt was made. As a magistrate in Lahore put it, “the test of obscenity in all cases is whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscene is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences”. The English translation, however, reduced the short story into a titillating, almost pornographic, account, given its private audience: in fact, many of the memos do not even refer to it as a story at all, but as an article.

An early English translation of 'Bu' .

An early English translation of ‘Bu’ .

The English translation was rendered solely for the purpose of identifying and cataloguing ‘seditious’ or ‘obscene’ passages. Words, such as “breasts” were translated as “bust” – mis-spelled at first as “lust”, before being corrected. In fact, the translation in the trial file looks more like a student’s exam copy, pock-marked with grammar corrections throughout. Colonial officials not only had a problem with the passages about the military and the sexual encounters. They also seemed keen on correcting Indian English grammar.

The Urdu short story had apparently raised some eyebrows within the Indian Christian community. One of the prosecution’s witnesses was B.L. Rallia Ram, the general secretary of the Indian Christian Association in Lahore. According to him, ‘Bu’ had been “the subject matter of dispute” in a communication he had exchanged with the editors of Adab-e-Latif. Taking the charge seriously, the editors “offered him an unconditional apology”, for a short story that “had unintentionally caused annoyance within the Christian community”. They published the apology in a subsequent issue of Adab-e-Latif. According to the court transcripts, B.L. Rallia Ram stated “in the most explicit terms, that this apology satisfied him and he considered the matter as closed”.  The witness considered the short story offensive, but not obscene. It was decided that ‘Bu’ did not “obstruct or have a tendency to obstruct the war effort” and the Magistrate, Mehdi Ali, concluded that “even though the article ‘Bu’ was written in Bombay, and related to Christian girls of Bombay, neither the Bombay Government, nor the Christian society of Bombay, [have taken] any action against the writer and publisher in question.”

Manto’s Bombay stories reflected the cosmopolitanism of the city – a place full of rich religious and linguistic diversity, and inter-cultural mixing. In ‘Bu’, the narrative focus is on racial difference, with repeated contrasts between ‘whiteness’ and ‘darkness’. Manto showcases Randhir’s stereotypical thinking about Christian women, who by virtue of their proximity to European-ness, are viewed as easy and sexually available. Manto then clarifies: For Randhir, all women are easy; it is simply that he has a taste for Christian women. This clarification is followed by a passage that appears in the first English translation used for the trial:

To bed Christian girls is as simple as buying patent medicines. Because the ‘Directions for Use’ are there. Then there is no danger of a Hindu-Muslim riot, nor is there any apprehension of the collision of temple and mosque.

This passage, as well as two others referring to the Women’s Auxiliary Corps, were highlighted and interpreted as ‘seditious’. And yet, this is the only passage that is not available in the several of the current Urdu editions. In fact, the only other place the passage appears – albeit partially – is in Hamid Jalal’s translation, the second time the story was translated. None of the contemporary Urdu versions contain it. It is unclear how and when this happened. The passage quoted in the file, and in Hamid Jalal’s translation, sounds like vintage Manto. The obscene tragedy for Manto is that women are treated as though they are replaceable, literally dispensable. Moreover, the sexual desires of men, especially men of privilege, are as structured by misogyny as they are manufactured out of political convenience. Randhir, denied entry to the cantonment’s prostitutes because he is not white, seeks a placeholder for his sexual desire. Manto is clearly critical of colonial racism. In a world where fair skin colour is associated with beauty, upper-class status and ‘civilization’, and where dark skin colour is reviled, Manto’s story – at first glance – seems to overturn such assumptions.

One of the earliest critics of the short story was Sajjad Zaheer, a leading member of the Communist Party as well as the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association. He condemned ‘Bu’ at the All-India Urdu Congress in Hyderabad in 1944: “The portrayal of the sexual perversion of a self-indulgent member of the middle-class, however realistic, is a waste of time of both writers as well as readers.” This was a rather surprising comment coming from Zaheer. He had himself faced proscription for a collection of short stories (‘Angare’) one of which was about a Muslim maulvi who falls asleep dreaming about the pleasures of paradise and wakes up to find himself fondling the Qur’an.

Ismat Chughtai, a feminist short-story writer and friend of Manto had a different interpretation. “In ‘Bu’ (The Smell) there is only the body at first reading, but if you examine the story carefully you will find a soul inside the body: the soured, unsavoury soul of the rich, pleasure-seeking classes, and the unpretentious reality of the down-trodden class.” What she found thought-provoking about the story is that Manto “finds the squalid washerwoman more sweet-smelling than the bride drenched in perfume”.  

To me, there was nothing provocative about this. ‘Bu’, in fact, reinforces a widespread cultural trope in India, about the sexually exotic tribal woman, who is at once earthy and magnetic, in some other-worldly way. Such ideas had long been written into colonial histories about Indian peoples, and tribal and migratory low-caste women were viewed as being sexually promiscuous. The Ghatan, marked as ‘other’ due to her peculiar smell, belongs to the earth. The implication is that she is not fully human, since her sexuality is tethered to the natural world. Manto writes that in this sexual encounter, Randhir had discovered some “authentic and real” experience, one that is explicitly juxtaposed against the gilded trap of predictability, the artificiality of bourgeois marriage. Randhir’s wife is described as something that had been recently unwrapped out of a box. She is not ‘natural’ like the Ghatan girl.

But, what are we actually told about the Ghatan’s “unpretentious reality”? Her perspective is missing altogether. Of her desires, sexual or otherwise, Manto tells us nothing.  All we know is that she is alone, lacking shelter, and thus available as a placeholder for Randhir’s fetish for Anglo-Indian and Christian women. She barely speaks, and when she does, the dialogue is about her tight-fitted choli (blouse-bra). The reader hears what Randhir hears: “What do I do? It won’t open.”

At the same time, I also think that Manto’s narrative hints much more towards the exploitation of the Ghatan girl than some existing English translations of his story might suggest. Take for example, this passage:

Randir ne jab ghatin lardki ko ishaare se uuper bulaya tha to usay hargiz hargiz yaqeen nahin tha ke voh us ko apne saath sulayga. Lekin thodhi hi der ke bad jab us ne us ke bheegay huay kapde dekh kar yeh khyaal kiya tha kahin aisa na ho bechari ko pneumonia ho jaaye, to Randhir ne us se kaha tha “yeh kapde utaar do, sardi lag jaaye gi. Voh us ka matlab samajh gayee thi. Kyunke us ki aankhon mein sharm ke laal dauray teer gaye thay.

When Randhir gestured to the Ghatin girl to come up, he had not, on any account, ever believed that he would have her sleep with him. But, after a short while, when he saw her drenched clothes, the thought crossed his mind, should the poor girl catch pneumonia, so Randhir said, “Take off these clothes, you’ll catch cold.” She understood what he meant. Because the viscous lines of shame that filled her eyes had swum away.

Manto here is mocking Randhir’s purportedly innocent intentions. But what of the Ghatan girl who “understood” Randhir’s meaning? While the idiomatic phrase “ankh ka daura” may refer to bloodshot eyes, here it indicates that she was flush with shame. Perhaps what could have swum away from the Ghatan girl’s eyes were tears? Since the story is written exclusively from Randhir’s perspective, readers are left with the impression that it celebrates a love that aims to be free from social restriction, and at least one critic has offered this interpretation. But what did the impoverished labourer feel? Had she become accustomed to trading sex for shelter? After all, the sexual exploitation of women labourers continues to be a problem today, just as it was in Manto’s time. In the end, the Ghatan in Manto’s story is, at best, a victim. This is why I think that ‘Bu’ turns out to be one of Manto’s weaker stories. It has, however, been elevated to canonical status because it was once banned. While his literature bravely raised uncomfortable, taboo topics, Manto, like his progressive contemporaries, was also constrained by the cultural assumptions of the age.



An early English translation of 'Bu' .

An early English translation of ‘Bu’ .

Manto’s legacy
In the past year marking his centennial, there has been much reflection over Manto. While Manto has long been read, debated and discussed across the India-Pakistan divide, he has also acquired a quasi-iconic status that stretches beyond the Urdu-Hindi literary worlds. This is largely because of the English translations of his works and the use to which they were put in 1990s. During this decade, and well after, there was much new historical research and many questions raised about historical and literary ways of understanding and approaching the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. The commemoration of 50 years of independence led to a re-discovery of Manto for English literary audiences. His short story, ‘Toba Tek Singh’, was the only translation included in an otherwise Indian English set of stories in Salman Rushdie’s volume, Mirror Work: 50 Years of Indian Writing. In the past decade, Manto has been remembered in Pakistan with a postage stamp and at literary festivals. His life and writings have been the subject of stage plays in India and Pakistan, as well as in cinema, such as in the 2002 film, Kali Shalwar.

It would be a mistake, however, to render Manto as relevant solely to the history of Partition. There is widespread agreement amongst scholars of Southasian history and peoples that the traumas of that time can best be understood through works of fiction. Since Manto’s writings about Partition were amongst the most translated and widely available to audiences, his name has become nearly synonymous with accounts about Partition violence. Manto wrote prolifically, and on many topics. His trove of fiction focusing specifically on the figure of the prostitute underscored his larger point about the hypocrisies of respectable society. For Manto, nothing could match the obscenity of the moralising classes, people who hide behind a thin veneer of ‘respectability’. His writings showcased how sharafat itself could be nothing more than an obscene display, a claim that directly challenged the increasing conservatism of the Indian middle-classes.  But even when it came to the figure of the prostitute in Indian society, his concerns were shared by his progressive literary contemporaries, such as Ghulam Abbas and Rajinder Singh Bedi, and had been anticipated by his literary predecessors, such as Premchand and Qazi Abdul Ghaffar. Where Manto differed on this issue, was the extent to which he wrote about fallen women, and the psycho-sexual and psychoanalytic approaches with which he approached their characters in his writings.

Amongst the things that made Manto unique as compared to others in his literary milieu was the frequency with which he had run-ins with the law over his writings. The colonial state tried to punish and silence Manto, in line with emergency legislation of the period. And in Pakistan, Manto was the first litterateur to be tried by the new state for obscenity. Amongst Manto’s poignant observations about the times through which he lived, were his reflections about just how little things had changed after Independence. In the early 1950s, referring to his experiences with the courts, he remarked that everything still “moves on the wheels of bribery”, adding:

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 (zillah katcheri), but it is a squalid place. There are flies, mosquitoes, insects – and dust – everywhere. You hear the …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. …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.

I found Manto’s commentary here about the squalor of the newly independent state in relation to the squalor of everyday life thought-provoking. The courts are not distant, removed spaces of legal reckoning, but are intimately connected to the lack of justice and impoverished world of the streets.  It was here where Manto’s stories were banned and rubber-stamped, and where he was required to defend his literature. The discovery of Manto’s obscenity trial file prompted me to return to his short story, ‘Bu’. Reading over those documents made me wonder about what kinds of conversations had occurred over this story, and how these were cut short by the banning of the text. It had made me wonder about how texts are translated, interpreted and regulated by officials who determine what should not be read in times of crisis. As a long-time admirer of Manto’s writing, re-visiting ‘Bu’ had also raised uncomfortable questions, leading me to re-assess my initial impressions of the author’s depiction of women in literature.  And, it had made me wonder about what silences, elisions and representations of indigenous, tribal and itinerant peoples continue to exist by state officials, within popular cultures and amongst the literary circles of Southasia.

Sarah Waheed is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Oberlin College, in Ohio, USA. Waheed specialises in Islam, nationalism and colonialism in Southasia. She is currently writing a book about the politics and ethics of Urdu literature in late colonial India and Pakistan.

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