THE award of the Nishan-i-Imtiaz to the late Saadat Hasan Manto has cut open old scars. What a short story he would have written on this belated recognition of his literary stature!
Had he been alive, he might have been tempted to advise our government that if an award is to be given to authors, it should be called the ‘Nishan-i-Sabar’, for only authors know how long and patiently they have to wait for their talents to be recognised.
Only they understand the pain they have to endure during the creative process of writing, and the wounding neglect they suffer when their work is given scant, or in the case of Manto, posthumous, recognition by their own country. For the government, these awards contain a hint of national proprietorship — a keenness to honour one’s own poets before neighbours stake a claim to them. For their heirs, the announcement of such honours serve as an overdue balm. For the writers themselves, though, such awards come too late.
“The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind,” Dr Samuel Johnson had written to a would-be patron Lord Chesterfield in February 1755, “but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it: till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.”
Dr Johnson’s remonstrance was justified. It had taken him nine years to compile single-handedly the first Dictionary of the English Language. His faith in his feat of scholarship was borne out by time. It would be another 173 years before the modern Oxford English Dictionary superseded it, in scale but not in annotated knowledge or in readability.
The act of writing as every author knows from experience is akin to childbirth. It is as strenuous, as exhausting, and in the end can be as satisfying, for one is bringing something new into the world. After every delivery, an exhausted mother swears that she will never bear another child, that is until she finds herself pregnant again. Similarly, every author completing one book forswears writing ano-ther, until the seed of an idea germinates in the mind and demands to be born.
Like some children, not all books deserve to be brought into the world. There are a few whom only a mother’s love can bear.
Others are children who never grew up. They continue to delight as long as they are within sight. One writer was asked by the late Ijaz Hussain Batalvi why he had stopped writing. “Because no one reads what I write,” the author replied. “You are right,” Batalvi responded, “even Shakespeare had this complaint.” His advice to the author was: “Your duty is to write. Readers will be born in their own time….”
Batalvi sahib was not a person to contradict knowingly, but even he would have conceded that in Pakistan, the prospect of a future generation of readers is bleak. Readers are not being born so much as gradually dying. An older generation has been seduced away from books by television, a younger one by the Internet. The pleasure of holding a book in one’s hands, like manual labour, has become passé. If writing a book is regarded as a labour of love, having it published ought to be described as the Thirteenth Labour of Hercules.
Every publisher — bar one — insists that the author share the risk of the book until it is sold, after which if he or she is lucky, royalties will be computed and remitted, usually every six months. The author is at the mercy of the Muse, the publisher, and the market. The only exception one knows of to this practice is a prolific publisher in Lahore who pays the author full royalties on publication date. That publisher, for example, was the only one to pay Manto’s heirs royalties on his works. Others prefer to enjoy a free meal at the dead writer’s expense.
India, its IT revolution notwithstanding, is being populated by new publishers every year. Some of them are foreign publishers who see a fresh market, others local entrepreneurs who have branched out on their own. They must see a future in this as a business, for why else would they invest? No one, not even the hallowed Oxbridge universities, publishes at a loss anymore.
To be able to sell a book is a blessing. To be offered one’s own book as a resale is to be less than twice blessed. Once, an author noticed a copy of a book he had written lying forlorn amongst others on a pavement in Anarkali. It was stained, its cover torn.
He asked its price. The bookseller leafed through the grubby pages of the book, and quoted: “Fifteen rupees?”
“But it’s soiled and dirty,” the author argued. The book seller opened the book, flipped the pages again, and said: “Look, it’s got coloured illustrations,” proving that a picture is worth more than any number of words.
For those who retreat from the world into writing or for a quiet read, this year’s Eidul Fitr has been a special boon. All cellphone networks were closed from 8pm the night before Eid until 11am the morning after. One would not have thought it possible for a nation with a teledensity of 70 per cent, a nation with 180 million channels of communication, to be rendered, at a single flick of a button from Islamabad, mute for 15 hours.
Unsent were messages predicting a manna-like shower of blessings on you and yours, suppressed the cloying sentiments
multiplied and transmitted like a virus from person to person. There was complete tele-silence. Could there have been a better time to read Manto?
The writer is an author.