VIEW: Saadat Hassan Manto and the partition of India —Ishtiaq Ahmed
Manto was more than just a living entity of flesh and blood. His was a restless spirit. He would perish without the freedom of expression — a freedom he was in the habit of exercising without recourse to circumlocution, hitting the nail hard on its head
This year marks the centenary of one of the most remarkable Urdu short-story writers of the Indian subcontinent: Saadat Hassan Manto (May 11, 1912-January 18, 1955). His contemporary, Krishan Chander (1914-1977), himself a literary icon who some critics have described as the “the imam of the Urdu short-story” graciously wrote in his obituary on Manto that indeed he was the greatest short-story writer of his generation.
Manto had wanted inscribed on his gravestone that he wondered who the greater story-teller was: he or God. His sister was prescient enough to sense that in Pakistan it would sooner or later invite vandalism and much worse. So it was supplanted by a more modest claim: that Manto was aware of the fact that his was not the last word in this world.
Like many other youngsters initially I read his so-called sex stories primarily in search of salacious excitement, but sensed immediately that far from providing entertainment he was exposing in a shocking manner the misogynist culture and hypocrisy that pervaded South Asia. Some of his stories set in the background of the partition on sexual violence against women are masterpieces.
Some biographical data is in order — Manto was born at Samrala in eastern Punjab in 1912 in a Muslim family of Kashmiri-Brahmin extraction. He grew up in Amritsar. He started his literary journey by translating Russian and French literature. According to some experts, the influence of Russian writers such as Chekov and the Frenchman Maupassant were the profoundest on his writings. He worked as a script, dialogue and story writer in Bombay, then joined All-India Radio, Delhi, but returned to Bombay some years before partition. He was well received and earned a good living.
Manto penned sketches of Bombay film personalities in his usual irreverent and caustic style. The kindest words were reserved for legendary actor Ashok Kumar whom he described as a kind and caring friend and a fellow Punjabi, and Shyam (died 1951), one of the handsomest actors in Bombay, who became his closest chum. The two were inseparable, but then the dagger and torch of mob fury unleashed during the partition riots in Bombay scared the life out of him. One day Ashok Kumar drove him to his home but they were caught up in the midst of a Muslim wedding procession. Manto was terrified. The people recognised Ashok Kumar but let them pass. At Bombay Talkies where Manto worked, the staff had changed and those Hindus who took over were hostile to his and other Muslims’ presence. His wife and daughter had already moved to Lahore. He left for Lahore in January 1948.
It must be soon after he arrived in Pakistan that Manto composed an open letter to Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, reminding him that he too was a Kashmiri pandit, highborn and thus his equal. Therefore, since he, a Muslim, had left India, Nehru must vacate Muslim-majority Kashmir, asserted Manto. That was perhaps the only time he bluntly subscribed to the underlying logic of the Two-Nation Theory.
Returning to Lahore, being among relatives and becoming a part of the Muslim nation understandably heightened his sense of physical security. His family were regular Sunnis, who had — along with thousands of other Muslims — shifted from nearby Amritsar to Lahore, spoke Punjabi — all the ethnic factors were positive.
However, Manto was more than just a living entity of flesh and blood. His was a restless spirit. He would perish without the freedom of expression — a freedom he was in the habit of exercising without recourse to circumlocution, hitting the nail hard on its head.
Such an attitude was not going to be treated kindly in Pakistan. Neither he nor the orthodox Communists had anticipated that far from becoming a welfare state based on Islamic social justice or a bourgeois democracy, the deep and virulent fundamentalist dimension in the Pakistani state project would cast a long shadow on the intellectual landscape. Manto came under that cloud rather quickly. He was put on trial for preaching obscenity in his short stories. The case went through different levels. Finally the Lahore High Court confirmed his guilt and fined him, but did not send him to prison.
Such experience combined with difficulties in earning a decent living from his writing and a personal tragedy — his only son died in infancy leaving him traumatised. As the head of an impoverished family that included his wife and three small daughters, he found himself hopelessly in dire straits. Relatives and friends helped, but he could not cope with the cumulative pressures of poverty and sorrows. He began to drink more heavily, was sent to the mental asylum and on May 11, 1955 — when only 42 — he died a broken man.
Manto’s indictment of the senseless partition violence is proverbial. One can easily put together a long list of select short stories. His ‘Toba Tek Singh’ has been recognised as the most powerful satire of those events. The story is set some years after partition. The governments of India and Pakistan decide to exchange the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu mentally-challenged people who were still in the various mental asylums. Bishan Singh is an inmate of the Lahore mental hospital and part of the exchange programme. When he is told that his hometown, Toba Tek Singh, will remain in Pakistan, he refuses to go. The staff promise to send Toba Tek Singh to wherever he goes but fail to deceive him. The story ends with Bishan Singh lying down between the barbed wire that separates the two countries created through a bloody severance of a territory on which had evolved and flourished a composite culture hundreds of years old. He thus occupies a space with no name.
I will end by narrating one of my other favourites. In his, ‘Siyah Hashiye’ (Black Borders), Manto depicts an excited pro-Pakistan mob that attacks the statue on the Lahore Mall Road of the great Hindu philanthropist of Punjab, Sir Ganga Ram. One of them blackens its face with tar. Another collects old shoes, strung into a garland, and is about to put it around the statue’s neck, when the police shows up and begins firing. The man who is about to put the garland of shoes around the statue’s neck is injured. He is sent to the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital for treatment!
The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at email@example.com