​Manto and I​

It's only right that Manto would be the source of shattering my writer's block - a heavy over 5-year-old block. Not being a full-time​ writer nor poet, over the years I have dabbled in both writing and poetry. I practice psychiatry - a conventional career that pays my bills.

"Ah!", you might say, "That is why Manto got her writing. That man had plenty going on in terms of mental illness".

Perhaps he did. Perhaps, we all do. But I'll come to that later.

On a sunny Thursday meant to be an official holiday, I set out to do a morning clinic, before joining friends at a theater to watch Manto, the much-awaited film. My familiarity with Manto had been of a passing nature. Growing up in the O' and A' levels realm, I felt a far greater kinship to the Bards, Brontes, and Hemming ways of the world than to our Urdu maestros. A couple of his short stories read in my 20s, in English, hardly warrants even an acquaintance-ship to Manto. But the billboard that I passed daily with the evocative visage of Manto kept me riveted.

"I can almost read his stories on his face", I thought, not caring that this was indeed not Manto, but an actor. Although, isn't that what a good actor is? Simply a medium through which the narratives of other men and women are passed through, amidst layers of time and space?

Manto's face haunted me - the intensity, the defiance, the vulnerability, the almost child-like honesty. One may ask the inevitable question of whether a single face can hold all that. It can. I see it in the faces of my patients every day, as they confront fear, sadness, helplessness, and loss of love and dignity day in and out, in their struggle with psychiatric illness. They also suffer stigma. Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach on one's reputation. I could tell that Manto faced it. That gut instinct came from the colorful myriad of characters printed along the bottom of the billboard: faces that were presumably part of his life. My patients face stigma too. And it's not fun.​

I finished my clinic and set out to the theater, my brain abuzz with stories I had heard that morning. A young woman unable to consummate her marriage due to the trauma of six years of continuous child sexual abuse; a 14-year-old subjected to many rounds of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) without anesthesia, now wizened and bitter; a desperate mother of six children, two with severe developmental delay, impregnated again by her alcoholic husband; a young man unable to join college because of the voices in his head.

It is possible to hold this much suffering on some days, others just aren't that good. But for these patients that live this pain pervasively, one can only imagine their woes. Little did I know that this agony would be telecast, stark naked, on the big screen.

Not being a movie buff, I rarely go to theaters. As Manto the movie unraveled, I wished I had gone home instead. A half-hour into the movie, I had started feeling queasy; another hour and my innards had twisted into knots. Much like my own patients' stories that morning, child abuse, rape, hypocrisy, substance abuse, depression, and psychosis were all projected on the movie screen. Had time not moved, or were we merely beaded together into the same timelessness so that past, present, and future were all illusions? Had man and his pain always been the same?

The movie showed repeated images of Manto getting ECT, in a brazen and inhumane fashion.

"That's so stigmatizing", I thought angrily, "Modern-day ECT is done properly, with respect and consent, under anesthesia, and it has an evidence base for adults".

And then the face of my 14-year-old patient loomed in front of me: the poor child who received fourteen sessions (one for each year of existence?) at a local psychiatric facility without any evidence for a need for ECT....and without anesthesia.

"Patients with alcohol abuse don't choose their drink over their daughter's medicine", I lamented in my head while I watched the movie. And then I remembered the crying, tired mother from my morning clinic detailing indiscretions of her alcoholic husband.

"Manto was hurt, stigmatized, misunderstood, and disrespected", I cringed. Except that a number of my patients with wit and intelligence, seeking to rehabilitate into the functioning world, feel the same.

Did Manto have psychiatric illness? Perhaps he did. But he also had a razor-sharp, incisive glimpse into the fragility of human nature that he wasn't going to hide - a quality that made him both incredibly alluring to some and threatening to others. Would he have been unable to produce such heartfelt literature had his illness been 'adequately' treated? Any answer to that would be purely conjecture, with 'what if' questions tracing their murky fingers on what really was. Because in the final analysis, 'what was' was a powerfully written tale of a man, tortured by the burden of a duplicitous society hiding in layers of chastity. Sounds vaguely familiar yet?

The movie threw dirt that lies within and around us humans, into our faces; akin to how Manto did, in his time, with his writings. And for that, he was defamed and ostracized.

Will we have the courage to respond any differently?

DISCLAIMER: Copyright belongs to the author. This blog cannot be held responsible for events bearing overt resemblance to any actual occurrences. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of CCIT ​or AKU.​​​

About the Author 

Nata.jpgDr. Ayesha Irshad Mian is an MBBS graduate from the Aga Khan University. She completed her residency and fellowship in General Adult Psychiatry and Pediatric Psychiatry, respectively, from the University of Texas –Houston. She is an associate professor of psychiatry at the Aga Khan University.​