Monday, January 6

India and these Manto-esqe times

This summer, whilst drowning in pension accounting and yield curves, I was tempted time and again to turn the pages of the ever growing stack of books I had been dreaming to read ever since I acquired them. Finally, one lazy afternoon, saturated with finance formulae, my brain ever so sneakily guided me to a recent acquisition, a book of Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories translated by an author whose books I’d read and liked, Aatish Taseer.
Some books fail to stimulate you even a tad bit, some keep you thinking for a day or two, from some you learn and some have the power to change your life. This story I read that fateful day, called Khol Do (open it), a controversial piece by Manto in his heyday, and even now many years after his passing, left me feeling downright exploited. He is of course notorious for that – and never fails to hit the bull’s-eye. What took the book a mile further, in my opinion, was its relevance today. It has now been a year since that diabolical incident in New Delhi, the brutal rape of “Nirbhaya”, outrage to which was almost exceptional. The crime unfortunately has become the norm, the unexceptional.  
In Khol Do, a young girl, Sakina is separated from her father, the only surviving member of her family, in the chaos of partition of the country. The group of young men who her father had sought help from, to hunt her, literally hunted her. She was raped by her protectors. In the last scene of the story, she is re-united with her father, who eventually finds her at a hospital. The doctor indicates to the nurse to open the window on the warm day, saying “khol do” (open it), when a somewhat unconscious Sakina undoes (opens) her pants and lowers them.
History has repeated itself time and again. The helpless in the society have been humiliated, hurt and harmed. There has always been an inherent violence that formed the very fabric of our society, leaning on the modesty and honour of the women and the cultural codes of integrity. We have lived in denial for too long. Manto, a brave soul, had challenged the status quo by writing Khol Do almost half a century ago. His writings, Khol Do and Thanda Gosht had created such a furor that he was tried six times for obscenity.  How could he have the audacity to call a spade a spade, right?
We lived in denial then. But I think most of India (and perhaps other places) still does. Yes, we’ve had a woman serve the country as president and the Congress Party is virtually run by one too, but this really means nothing in terms of the way women are treated on a day to day basis. Our society continues to be predominantly patriarchal, even in the light of women breaking barriers and advancing towards greater accomplishments.  And while it can’t be denied that has been enormous progress in the face of adversity in recent decades, I don’t think it is even the tip of the iceberg. Broad attitudinal shifts are vital, culturally and socially, even more than legally.

Here’s hoping that the rage brewing in the minds of Delhiites, and of Indians brings about change.  
Harleen A.


  1. Very impressive Harleen. I completely agree with you that these changes can not be made in a day. However, this itself is a step towards that change.

  2. Do you think Kejriwal's election in Delhi will change anything?