“Aao Radio Sunein”: Manto’s Radio Plays

On December 3, 2015 by admin

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Aakriti Mandhwani

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[i] Saadat Hasan Manto is arguably best known for his oft-acerbic, yet true-to-life depiction of the tragedies that befell India during the partition. “Khol Do” is one such popular narrative; Manto pens the short story of a young girl who is separated from her father during the Partition and, upon her rescue raped so persistently by her “rescuers” that she, even after having been returned to her father, mechanically opens her shalwar when the hospital doctor has merely asked someone to open the windows in the room. Manto’s skilful climax brings to the fore the painful understanding of how, following the carnage of the Partition, language itself loses its complexity and results in the fixing of one particular meaning; indeed, “Khol Do”, for the girl, has come to mean only one thing.

Of “Toba Tek Singh”, another of his pungent stories on the Partition, prescribed in numerous university syllabi, which, in many senses, can be deemed partly responsible for Manto’s name in contemporary popular circulation, M. Asaduddin paradoxically says, “The name ‘Toba Tek Singh’ creates all this resonance… It is only some moments later that one thinks of Manto, the writer who created the character. It is the classic case of a fictional character overshadowing its creator”.

However, even as the power of Manto as short story writer is noted and feted, he did not only pen short stories. He is equally well-known for his biting account of the film industry of pre-Partition Bombay and its stars, in a post-Partition series of essays titled “Ganjey Farishtey”. Before the Partition, along with his other illustrious contemporaries like Krishen Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi, Manto was also a writer of film stories. His other professions included being a translator, critic and editor.

However, another fact—noted by every biographer, yet always in passing and, therefore, not chronicled well enough—is that Manto worked at All India Radio (AIR) in Delhi for 18 months from the beginning of 1940 to August 1942, writing more than 110 radio plays during his time there.

I would like to uncover Manto’s relationship with this forgotten archive, that is, the radio plays he wrote for AIR. Manto self-confessedly turned to radio as a means of sustenance, at a time when he could not get any other work that paid him nearly as much[ii]. Through a close examination of some of the plays written by Manto for AIR, the essay shall seek to understand how Manto, as an artist, dealt with the material that was meant to be broadcast over radio, to examine the contradictions between writing for what seems to be commercial gain. Manto’s treatment of this difference between writing for AIR as against writing short stories for publication shall be uncovered through his own views on it, and the contradictions that lie within the artist that provide the logic for such demarcations shall be probed. Even as the Manto oeuvre ranges well over 110 radio-plays, because of language limitations and difficulty in accessing the archives at AIR[iii], I shall only examine the plays included in Dastaawez Part 3[iv] .

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Manto the “Artist” vs. Manto the “Commercial” Writer

An artist, writing and making a living in the modern marketplace, is understood to make a distinction between the art he makes for personal satisfaction and the art he seeks to sell. More often than not, both these kinds of writings are simultaneously available in the public domain, since the writer seeks appreciation for the art that gives him personal satisfaction. Pierre Bourdieu, in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field says of writing:

“It is instituted through two principal mediations: on the one hand, the market, whose sanctions and constraints are exercised on literary enterprises either directly, by means of sales figures, numbers of tickets sold and so forth, or indirectly, through new positions offered in journalism, publishing, illustration and all forms of industrialized literature; and on the other hand, durable links, based on affinities of lifestyle and value systems, and operating especially through the intermediary of the salons, which unite at least a portion of the writers to certain sections of high society, and help to determine the direction of the generosities of state patronage.”

It can, therefore, be understood that a writer, at any time, has to deal with both these questions simultaneously. In Manto’s context, the second option—that which seeks to “unite at least a portion of the writers to certain sections of high society”—was not feasible in the sense that Bourdieu thinks of it, namely, that of “state patronage”. However, for Manto, it indeed was “based on affinities of lifestyle and value systems, and operating especially through the intermediary of the salons, which unite at least a portion of the writers”, and that was a movement called the Progressive Writer’s Association (PWA).

Instituted in 1936, the PWA united and perhaps even encouraged the form of the Urdu short story, a fairly recent phenomenon in the history of Urdu literature, to grow. The similarities between the intent and value judgements of Manto’s short stories—even as he, throughout his life, completely sought to disengage from movements of any kind—and the work of other pioneers of the progressive Urdu short story form, do stand in agreement with the general collective judgments that are so essentially a part of the PWA. Asaduddin mentions that, at the time of Manto’s joining, other personalities like Ahmad Shah Bukhari, N.M. Rashid, Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, Miraji and Upendranath Ashk were also associated with AIR. Though a perfect delineation is difficult to make—especially in the case of an artist such as Manto who actively avoided being grouped in any institutional way—at this point, the essay tentatively proposes to set up a dichotomy between Manto’s art and Manto’s commercial work, with Manto’s art leaning towards the expectations that the PWA, during its formative years, had from its literature.

This dichotomy is proposed not only because of Manto’s personal interactions and timorous debates with other members of the PWA, but also, more concretely, through his collaborations with them in the commercial realm. Wadhawan writes about Krishen Chander’s account of an incident where Manto and Krishen Chander jointly wrote a film story called Banjara, and how it was treated by Seth Jagat Narain, the film’s producer:

After hearing the story the Seth said, “It’s a good story. I’ll buy it. But Manto Saheb, you have painted the Mill Manager in very lurid colours. You should show him as a nice kindly man. Otherwise it will have an adverse effect on the mill workers.”

“Then, we will show him in favourable light.”

I looked at Manto in surprise. I was just going to tell the Seth that it was not possible to make this change, when Manto stopped me with a gesture of his hand.

The Seth continued, “What about this Manager’s wife? Why not depict her as the Manager’s unmarried sister and cast her in the role of a vamp and let her flirt with the hero. What do you say to that, Manto Saheb?”

“Sure, sure, we will change the story accordingly,” Manto promptly replied. I was taken aback. Was it the same Manto who would refuse to change even a single word of his story? I wondered. If it came to that, he would withdraw the story rather than allow it to be published in its altered form.

When we came out after meeting the Seth, Manto remarked, “Bhai, this is not literature. It is material for a film which has something to do with uncouth, illiterate Seths… Therefore, it is child’s play for us to change a mother into a sister and a sister into a sweetheart and a sweetheart into a vamp. Stand by literature but adopt films as a means of making money. What’s wrong with it? Do you get my point?”[v]

This dichotomy is proposed as vital precisely because Manto’s readership, in his own time, was the progressive group of educated individuals. Manto’s films and radio plays—writing that he admitted that he compromised upon on a regular basis—however, reached the everyday man more than his short stories. Unlike many progressives, like Krishen Chander who, as illustrated above, had difficulty in handling the dichotomy between art and commerce, or Rajinder Singh Bedi, who purposefully—and quite vocally—tried to merge the two, Manto professed no such interest at all. Of the “Aao” radio plays that shall be discussed in the first section, Manto wrote:

“These plays are born from the problem that plagues every Urdu writer in Hindustan until his soul is crippled completely. I was hungry, therefore I wrote these plays. What I deserve praise for is this: that my mind entered my stomach to write these comic plays, and they make others laugh but cannot produce even the faintest smile on my lips.”[vi]

It becomes particularly interesting then, to probe Manto’s radio plays, which he claims to have written with the unequivocal intent to please, and spot if this rationale indeed finds him compromising upon the value system he sets up so stringently in writing his short stories. The effort, therefore, is to hope to reconcile two images that the artist projects through what the artist himself has deemed a lesser work. Even as Manto himself did not care for demarcations, switching often from one position to another, the purpose of the essay is to enquire into the rather old question asked by culture studies, namely, how is a literary product aimed for popular consumption.

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Manto’s Radio Plays: A Close Examination

As presented in Dastaawez Part 3, Manto’s radio play oeuvre includes the following: a series of ten domestic plays, featuring three recurring characters— Lajwanti, her husband Kishore and his friend Narayan—called the “Aao” series; several histories, like “Cleopatra ki Maut” and “Napoleon ki Maut”; and the many plays that do not deal with the tragedies of great historical figures or humorous domestic themes, but are about the man or woman in the marketplace.

Aao Khat Suno”, the third play in the “Aao” series, starts with Kishore wanting his wife to listen to a letter that his friend Narayan has written to him. The scene is wrought with ornamental domesticity and the usual humorous repartee between husband and wife; the wife constantly rejects the husband’s appeals of listening to the letter which apparently recounts Narayan’s misfortunes and, instead,  wishes to fight over other things, such as the disappearance of Kishore’s books. The domestic scene, after having deflected from the main intent, predictably returns to the question of reading the letter, upon which Lajwanti yet again deflects, scolding Kishore for having broken her spectacles. After another page and a half of being patient with his wife, who is mysteriously refusing to hear the letter out, Kishore loses his temper and bursts out: “Two full hours have passed! I’ve been trying to tell you something, but you have to start ranting every time…”. The matter becomes serious when, even after Kishore’s complaint, Lajwanti refuses to listen to him. Kishore responds thus: “I will beat my head against the walls and die, Lajwanti… You, you have choked me for the thirty-fifth time!” Matters have heated up, albeit in a comical way, and the reader/listener expects Manto to head to some conclusion. Instead, the reader/listener is confronted with Narayan’s entry into the scene.

Picking up from the most recent topic of the domestic spat, i.e., Lajwanti’s eyeglasses, Narayan, with his usual easy flamboyance, starts to tell the couple about a fellow traveller on the train back from Pune—from where he’d written his letter to Kishore—and his misadventures as a result of wrongly numbered eyeglasses. The reader is left hanging on to Narayan’s every word, in the expectation that Narayan will ultimately lead the reader to a strong conclusion—one that will reveal why Kishore was so insistent on reading out Narayan’s letter, as well as Narayan’s own relationship with eyeglasses. The end, however, is anti-climactic: the whole story of the fellow traveller’s misfortunes turns out to be a falsehood, created just so that Narayan can sell his new product, an eye-liner that can cure ailments of the eye:

“Narayan: Bhabhijaan, I’ve now started selling this eye-liner. I’ll do this till the time I get a job.”

Manto, in this play, gives in to the general expectations from a haasya play, giving his listeners the easy laughter that they were perhaps looking for. Manto, the artist, is clearly absent. Similarly absent is any ideological intent on Manto’s part when he pens many other plays in the “Aao” series; for instance, “Aao, Radio Sunein” seems to revolve purely around tricking Lajwanti off some money to go gambling and drinking. The tragedies, especially “Cleopatra ki Maut”, are steeped in pathos and appear to be direct adaptations from historical sources.

In contrast to the above is another play in the “Aao” collection, “Aao Kahaani Likhein”. In the play, again ostensibly about domesticity and its surrounding drama, the character of the wife, Lajwanti, is introduced with particular aplomb, with her asking her husband to, as the play’s title suggests, write a story along with her. The play’s central character is decidedly Lajwanti who, even as her husband humorously protests, does not let go of the idea of writing a story; while his idea of the story is more idle humour than anything else, Lajwanti constantly insists on seriously penning one.

Even as Lajwanti and her husband find themselves constantly arguing through the first two pages of the play—as always having completely deflected from the real intent and arguing about how to deal with an errant guest instead—Narayan makes an entry into the scene, bringing the issue gently back into focus, and gladly offering assistance to the couple by writing the story on paper while they narrate it out loud. With Narayan’s playful discourse, the mood of the play turns from domestic sparring to that of ease:

Narayan: Kishore, I didn’t know you were a story writer too… What sort of stories do you write?

Kishore: I’ve never written one actually, but she’s been after me since morning saying, come, let’s write a story, come, let’s write a story.

Narayan: So come, let’s write a story.

Lajwanti: Come, let’s write a story.

This exchange ultimately results in the couple actually starting to write a story, with Narayan providing little interruption; encouraging the two subjects of domesticity to grapple with their different subject positions, Narayan gleefully sits aside, only waiting for instructions, mostly issued by Lajwanti, to continue writing.

Kishore starts by narrating the tale of a certain Babu Saaligram, who is walking towards his house quite late at night, gripped by fear. Lajwanti interprets this as a husband’s fear of his wife’s wrath, while Kishore is completely startled by the fact that his wife even insists on the Babu having a wife, since he only intended the Babu to be thinking of a dancing girl he saw at the club a little while ago: “You just made it up all on your own, that he was playing bridge and all that, while what I wanted was for him to return home late at night after having gone to watch a dancing girl.”

The play is now a veritable battle of the sexes, with Kishore wanting his protagonist to have no fear of his wife—indeed, not have a wife at all—wishing him, instead, to be in love with the dancing girl. Lajwanti, on the other hand, cannot imagine how Kishore’s protagonist—who is equally her own protagonist—can only live amidst romanticized visions of a dancing girl, fearless of a very mortal wife—constructed by her, of course—waiting for him at home. Ultimately, a wife is agreed upon. The play advances even as the couple keep arguing about the story, finally reaching the end, which, again, proves to be a battle. Narayan, the amused onlooker, ultimately decides to interfere in an extremely cutting way and finish the story:

Narayan: Babu Saaligram was deeply astonished. What was the matter? He could only manage to say timidly: “Kamla!”… Babu Saaligram couldn’t understand anything. He said: “What are you saying, Kamla?” Kamla answered: “This evening I went and danced at United Club without your permission… In return I got three thousand rupees which you can use to repay your debts.” A scream escaped Babu Saaligram’s lips. He embraced Kamla and said: “Were you the one dancing on the stage at United Club, dressed up as Radha… I too was there…”

Kishore: And then?

Narayan: And then what? Babu Saaligram and Kamla went off happily into their room to sleep, and all night their ears were echoing with the sound of anklets… Okay bhabhi, I’ll take your leave. Good night, old boy. I hope that, tonight, your ears too will echo with the sound of anklets. [Fade out]

Therefore, Narayan, and in turn Manto, deceives the couple’s scene of apparently convivial domesticity, wrenching it out of perspective into another form of reality that has uncomfortable underpinnings for the very scene of domesticity that the husband-wife project, thereby bringing the whole joviality and comfort of the same into question. This play is Manto at his best, unsettling the specifications here of writer-as-producer as opposed to writer-as-creator.

With respect to narratives and their inherent meanings, Bourdieu asks a pertinent question:

“What indeed is this discourse which speaks of the social or psychological world as if it did not speak of it; which cannot speak of this world except on condition that it only speak of it as if it did not speak of it, that is, in a form which performs, for the author and the reader, a denegation of what it expresses?”

As the above two instances suggest, Manto, even as he gives in to the normative expectations of a humorous domestic scene and engages with melodrama and pathos in his historical tragedies, also plays with them. If Manto’s explanation for this split lies in the fact that he was ready to bend the rules according to the medium through which his art was broadcast to the world, then, as Bourdieu suggests, he is also an artist who “speaks of the social or psychological world as if it did not speak of it” and much more.

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The Counter-Arguments and Complications

That Manto was experimenting with the space allocated to him within AIR indeed becomes clear in the above section, however, in order to understand what—and how effective—these limitations imposed actually were, a brief history of the AIR radio play becomes necessary.

The first mass radio station in India was set up by the British Government in Bombay on 23 July 1927, while the second was established in Calcutta on 26 August 1927. However, these stations, till the 1930s, only catered to English speaking and European audiences. The Delhi station, a comparatively later development, came into being on 1 January 1936. The first radio plays were broadcast from Calcutta; over three hours long, these plays were no different from the usual stage plays.

These radio plays, however long, were avidly welcomed by the public. The mid-1930s and 40s were also a time when radio subscriptions—though at no time at all immense in comparison to BBC’s subscription base—went shooting up, almost doubling in number. Overwhelmed by the popularity of its radio plays, AIR recruited artists like Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishen Chander and Upendranath Ashk specifically to meet the public’s growing needs.

Two major revelations arise from the above history. The first is purely connected to the question of technique. A historian of the AIR, G.C. Awasthy records that a BBC appointee called Lionel Fielden came into AIR in the mid-thirties and was largely responsible for reducing the length of radio plays to thirty minutes. Even as this does not directly address quality questions, the value of the work produced by Manto indeed is enhanced by virtue of Manto being a pioneer in the art of radio play writing in India. Also, the very fact of Manto’s having briskly written 110 radio plays over a period of 18 months, all the while working with newer formats and techniques of production, makes the project of assessment that much more valuable. It must be noted that the other ‘pioneers’, like Ashk himself and Uday Shanker Bhatt, did not write many radio plays specifically—Jai Bhagwan Gupta notes how their stage plays were merely broadcast on the radio in an abridged form. The questions of art and commerce, therefore, also become deeply entrenched with the questions of new technologies and techniques, as well as the limitations that arose from the urgency with which new material to be aired was required, thereby further complicating any attempt at a pure value judgment of Manto’s writing for the radio[vii].

The second revelation arises from Gupta’s account of the public’s interest in the plays broadcast over AIR, with public opinion compelling the AIR to make more appointments. Of the earlier plays in existence, and their allocation according to regional requirements and expectations, Awasthy notes:

In Calcutta, the Bengali theatre was a marathon affair in which an average production on the stage lasted at least half the night. Radio plays were broadcast by the station for three hours at a time. At Bombay, the Parsi, Gujarati and Urdu theatre were put on the air; and in Madras, the mythological play held sway.

While the material proof for this argument is, due to lack of archival access, not substantial, the general premise that Manto’s art must be suffering from being stifled by the Government of India (GoI), as was the case with some of his pre-Independence obscenity cases, also gets complicated. This is supported by a study of the history of intervention in Radio by the British; as Alasdair Pinkerton notes, “By 1926, while there was a tacit acknowledgment within the GoI for the need to formalise the systems and structures of broadcasting”, the “public service model” was rejected in favour of “a less interventionalist approach to the broadcasting question, proposing instead to support an application for a commercial broadcasting license”.

Perhaps, the only effort at censorship lies in this position undertaken by the GoI: Pinkerton notes that “AIR’s news broadcasting was systematically depoliticised in terms of overt political content… Curiously, though, in their race to grasp the nettle of political sedition, the GoI also seem to have legislated away much of their own ability to communicate with the Indian public—as it, too, has been inscribed into the new editorial procedures”.

Again, even as the relationship between Governmentality and censorship cannot be directly forged in case of the radio plays at AIR, another plausible relationship that can be explored is that between Manto and his direct superiors. Due to the lack of availability of archives that can unlock Manto’s direct relationship with Ashk, the direct pressures leading him to compromise his art cannot still be pointed to. However, Wadhawan does tell us how Manto left his job at AIR:

Upendranath Ashk, who did not see eye to eye with him, had Manto’s radio play “Awara” vetted by a Programme Assistant and himself blue-pencilled it in many places. Manto objected the next day and the matter was again discussed at a meeting. The Station Director gave his verdict that the revised version should go on air… After running down his detractors including Ashk, Manto picked up his typewriter and left the room. He never returned to the office thereafter.

What exactly these objections were, one cannot trace. “Awara”, the play, too is inaccessible.

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Three Propensities

If one were to simplify Manto, one could perhaps say that in Manto’s radio plays there seem to be three tendencies of writing. One kind of writing is writing to soothe the artist’s need to create art, away from the everyday, bourgeois expectations of normative reality. The second tendency is to completely turn away from art and give the public or censorship what it wants. The third tendency, however, is where Manto tries to merge the two, to create something that simultaneously caters to both parties.

Unable to deliver any methodology that may unlock his relationship with his radio plays, I simply seek to open and probe the archive, wrapped in the contradictions of the personality and art of Saadat Hasan Manto. I would like to conclude with another of Manto’s radio play-illustrations, entitled “Hatak”, further complicating our reading of Manto’s agency at AIR. The play is adapted from his own short story about a young prostitute Saugandhi who, upon being rejected by a rich Seth, sets out to find what it means to be accepted. The story, as well as the play, concludes with Saugandhi unceremoniously disposing off the lover who only comes by from time to time to borrow money from her—and therefore, in many ways, is worse than a paying customer or a working pimp—showing how rejection provides agency to the prostitute who, in the end, chooses to go to sleep with her loving dog. Of lies and lying, an exchange between Saugandhi and another prostitute reads thus:

Kanta: Love… Love… Every damned person who comes here says the same thing: “I love you”… I know it all, I know what a pain this love is.

Saugandhi: Who cares? Let them lie. It’s not as if we tell them the truth. That’s how this work is, they also have to lie, we also have to lie…

Ultimately, Saugandhi rejects these lies. Between 1940 and ‘41, this play, with its prostitute protagonist forsaking her false lover and learning to love herself, was broadcast and heard all over the Urdu-Hindustani belt. The play was enacted in colloquial Hindustani; Manto, in keeping with the realism of a prostitute’s language, included several expletives in the play as well. Saugandhi’s rejection of her exploitation which was broadcast—with no record of any changes in the text—perhaps is the best way to sum up the enigma that is Manto.

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Selected Bibliography

Awasthy, GC. Broadcasting in India. Bombay: Allied Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1965. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Trans. Susan Emanuel. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995. Print.

Das, Sisir Kumar. A History of Indian Literature: 1911-1956. Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2006. Print.

Gupta, Jai Bhagwan. Hindi Radio Naatak: Agyatam Adhyayan. Rohtak: Manthan Publications, 1982. Print.

Manto, Saadat Hasan. Dastaawez 3. Trans. and Ed. Balraj Menra and Sharad Dutt. Delhi: Raj Kamal Prakaashan, 1993. Print.

Pinkerton, Alasdair. “Radio and the Raj: Broadcasting in British India (1920-1940)”. Web.  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 18.2 (2008): 167-191. Print.

Wadhawan, Jagdish Chander. Mantonaama: The Life of Saadat Hasan Manto. Trans. Jai Ratan. Delhi: Roli, 1998. Print.


[i] I thank Dr Nandini Chandra for her incisive comments that helped my understanding of Manto, the Progressives and much else.

[ii] Manto’s biographer Jagdish Chander Wadhawan writes that “in the beginning of 1941 Manto came to Delhi and took up a job with All India Radio at Rs. 150 per month” while his job before at Caravan paid him Rs. 60 per month, a job that he was anyway about to lose.

[iii]  At the date of writing this, at least 4 years have elapsed since an application was filed at AIR in order to access archives for the purpose of this essay. The application still lies pending. It also must be noted that the archives available at the AIR do not include digital recordings but transcripts in hard copy in Urdu.

[iv]  The collection contains plays originally written in Urdu, transliterated into Hindi. The collection does not provide the logic for the selection of the plays, therefore, it must be noted that the “sample set” archive accessed for the purpose of this essay has been arbitrary.

[v] An interview with Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi with Jang reveals that he too was with Manto and Chander when the meeting took place. Apparently, Manto asked everybody to remain convivial because the producer already owed Chander and him money. The only point of contention during the meeting was the producer’s insistence on replacing the word “ummeed” with “asha”, which Manto strongly objected to.

[vi] This quote—as well as the others from the Dastaawez that will be seen in the course of this paper—has been translated into English.

[vii]  Danish Iqbal, currently the Manager, AIR Radio FM Gold and a Programme Executive who produced around 30 radio plays in 2010, in a personal interview mentioned that in the nascent days of the radio play, writers like Manto were required to write a play that would be prepared and aired that same evening.

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