“Sexual obscenity is the basic theme of this story which focuses on and is obsessed with a sexually explicit encounter between a man and a woman… I am satisfied after carefully reading the story that it offends the morality of the reader and the same goes against the settled moral standards of our society… It will create an urge in an impressionable adolescent in terms of encouragement of vulgar thought. Those young people who would read the story, confident of the backing of an eminent writer like Saadat Hassan Manto, would want to emulate the writer resulting in a propagation of obscenity as depicted in the story.
“In view of the above, I hold Saadat Hassan Manto guilty of circulating an obscene piece of writing and sentence him to three months rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rupees 300 under section 292 of the Indian Penal Code [IPC].”
Thus wrote A. M. Saeed, Magistrate First Class, Lahore, in his verdict at the end of the criminal trial of Manto and a group of others for having circulated “obscene” material in the form of a short story titled Thanda Gosht. After having endured the “punishment” of a criminal trial in the sweltering heat of Lahore, this had not impressed Manto at all, not least because the visibly biased trial magistrate had not even attempted to conceal his contempt for the main accused.
A chain smoker himself, the best Manto could do was passively inhale the leftover fumes from the judge’s cigarette
During the course of the trial, when the magistrate saw a packet of Craven-A cigarettes in Manto’s hand, he snubbed and railed against him for lack of decorum. Moments later, he lit up his own cigarette, much to the writer’s chagrin. A chain smoker himself, the best Manto could do was passively inhale the leftover fumes from the judge’s cigarette. A “habitual offender” in police records, Manto had had adequate experience of producing “obscenity” in the past. Under the British Raj, he was prosecuted three times and convicted under Section 292 of the IPC, but acquitted every single time by the court of sessions at the appeal stage.
Manto’s short story Bu (Odour), for which he was prosecuted for obscenity, revolves around Randhir, a young man who fancies the liberal Christian Anglo-Indian girls whom he has dated and slept with. He feels neglected after the onset of the Second World War, since most of his paramours have joined the armed forces. In a perfect depiction of South Asian culture, where a man has numerous flings with women from a relatively liberal section of society and is then besotted with a nubile young girl of much lower social standing, Manto’s angsty character later marries into nobility for reasons of social acceptability, among other things. He quickly falls in love with her body odour – a hitherto unthinkable thing. Randhir’s natural abhorrence for body odour astonishingly becomes irrelevant – in fact, her body odour forms a large part of the sensuality that exists between the two.
As a master storyteller, Manto psychoanalyses his protagonists against the backdrop of some typically taboo topics in the Indian Subcontinent. Bu moves on to the scene where Randhir is lying with his newlywed wife – fragrant, light-skinned, the daughter of a first-class magistrate… and yet, Randhir’s body does not quiver the way it used to. The earthy body odour that had left a permanent mark on his brain that monsoon night now eludes him.
The journal Javeed went on to publish Thanda Gosht in newly independent Pakistan after a few publishers had shown their reluctance to do so. Smarting from his conviction for obscenity and after having been awarded the maximum sentence under the statute, Manto decided to appeal before the court of sessions. He was now represented by three energetic and highly motivated young lawyers (his original lawyer had stopped representing him on account of ill health midway through the trial). The three lawyers became prominent personalities in the legal history of Pakistan (Sheikh Khursheed Ahmad became a law minister, Sardar Iqbal rose to become the Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, and Ijaz Muhammad Khan became an advocate-on-record).
Before they drafted the appeal, Manto’s young lawyers were handed a short explanation from the author as to why he thought describing the story as obscene was unjustified:
“Nowhere in the story has the sexual relationship between a man and a woman been presented in terms of gratifying pornography. In fact such an inference is in direct conflict with the object of the story. The author is not known as an “adult” writer. It is, however, a painfully tragic story of a Sikh who was a normal human being till his attempt to rape a dead Muslim girl shocked his conscience so thoroughly that he lost his manhood. Esher Singh is an illiterate, uncouth and ill-mannered thug of a man. He gladly and willingly partakes in the carnage at the time of partition in 1947. Esher Singh’s strangely unusual lack of sexual arousal is the result of the state of frozen shock he is under. His voluptuous and big boned partner, Kalwant Kaur is consumed by an overpowering feeling of jealousy and slits his throat with the same karpan that he has used to slay the dead Muslim girl’s family. In an appropriately chilling last moment with drops of blood squirting on his moustache, Esher Singh says to Kalwant Kaur, “Jo hua, theek hua” (justice has been done) while struggling to admit his guilt in a breathless voice with a look that thanked and remonstrated at the same time.”
Given the charge of “obscenity”, it is hard to imagine what a present-day Manto would have had to endure
Manto was finally acquitted by the court of sessions in Lahore. His trial and appeal had gone relatively smoothly. It is hard to imagine what a present-day Manto would have had to endure, considering that Pakistan had not even experienced its first wave of religious and moral conservatism in the shape of the 1953 anti-Ahmadi riots at the time of Manto’s trial. In the current state of Pakistani society, vigilante action by one of the many jihadi outfits could not have been ruled out, even before a trial had concluded.
Tariq Bashir is a Lahore-based lawyer and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @Tariq_Bashir