The great Japanese Zen master, Tanzan once recounted the story of two monks who were on their way to the village Moon Festival. Midway through their journey, they met a beautiful woman in full finery who beseeched them to carry her across the river so that her dress would not be ruined. The younger monk refused at once. “Our Order forbids us to touch the flesh of the opposite gender!” To his horror, the older monk smiled and asked the woman to hop on his back and carried her across the river, gently setting her on the other side. The woman thanked them and went off. While the pair continued on their way, the younger monk seethed inwardly and when he could take it no longer, he burst out at his companion, “Elder brother! How could you carry that woman when our Order forbids it?” The older monk smiled again and replied, “Younger Brother! I put the girl down on the other side of the stream. Why are you still carrying her?”
Saadat Hasan Manto died of liver cirrhosis on January 18, 1955. More than half a century after his death, Manto remains a mystery. Loved and loathed in equal parts, he continues to be a polarizing figure. His fans hail his stories as invaluable chronicles of Partition. The same stories were used to charge him with obscenity in half a dozen court trials. He was acquitted each time and walked out of the trials unapologetic. As far as he was concerned, he was “Pakistan’s greatest short story writer” and no court of law could change that.
“I want to eat up like termites all the pages of my life so that no vestige of it remains” says a character in Manto’s short story, ‘Takleef’. “You want life in love. I want love in life.” (Translation by M. Asaduddin).
Born in Ludhiana in May 1912, he was the son of Maulvi Ghulam Hasan from his second marriage to Sardar Begum. His was an unhappy childhood, made all the more so because of his tense relationship with his strict father. The young Manto was someone who, scared of his father, once ran away to Bombay and who showed the stories he wrote to no one but his mother and sister, Iqbal. However, years later, Manto would dedicate his first anthology, ‘Aatish Paaray’ to none other than his father. He failed his Matriculation thrice due, among other things, to his weakness in Urdu. His father died when he was 18 years old, soon after which he passed out of school and joined the Hindu Sabha College in Amritsar. It was in 1933 that he met Abdul Bari Aligue, a writer and a Marxist. It is hard to tell what course Manto’s life would have taken had he not met Aligue. He had failed his FA twice and was well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent before Aligue found him. Recognizing the boy’s literary sense, Aligue urged Manto to read the works of Russian and French authors and helped him translate and publish some of their works.
It is interesting to note the foreign authors that Manto chose to translate –Maupassant, Chekhov, Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde – well-known for their unique styles of describing how the common man lived. There is ample mention of revolution and social change in their works, themes that also resonated strongly with Manto in his early years. He was born at a time when the map of the world was being redrawn. The terror of the First World War and the subsequent Worker’s Revolution of Russia in 1917 was looming large on the horizon. Manto’s own childhood home, Amritsar was also to witness shortly the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which became the subject of his first published short story, ‘Tamasha’. Manto soon outgrew his “Leftist” phase but his ideas were steeped in Amritsar’s keen political and ideological milieu. It is this political awareness that shines through his “Letters to Uncle Sam” that he wrote after Partition. Manto is at his prophetic best in one of these letters when he writes, “…You must sign a militarypact with Pakistan because you are seriously concerned about the stability of the world’s largest Islamic state since our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism. I think the only purpose of military aid is to arm these mullahs. I am your Pakistani nephew and I know your moves. Everyone can now become a smart ass, thanks to your style of playing politics. If this gang of mullahs is armed in the American style, the Soviet Union that hawks communism and socialism in our country will have to close up shop.” (Translation by Khalid Hasan)
Manto went on to work for the Indian film industry in 1936, penning several successful scripts and settling down to a life of prosperity and fame in Bombay. He also had a brief but successful stint at All India Radio from 1941-2. Noted actor and raconteur Zia Mohyeddin recounts, “[Manto] once sat down at his desk and announced to his colleagues that they only had to mention a subject or a theme and he would write a play on it there and then. They were discussing the matter when a man appeared at the door. “May I come in? he enquired. “Well, here is a title,” said a colleague, “Why not write about it?” Manto inserted a paper in his typewriter and began to click the keys. He finished the play by late afternoon. The play ‘May I come in?’ was broadcast more than once.”
He eventually left his job in Delhi after a skirmish with All India Radio’s director, N. M. Rashed and returned to Bombay in 1942. Bombay was Manto’s lucky charm. He was not only at his creative best there but for the first time in his life, he was in the company of people who spoke his language and understood him for who he was. Ashok Kumar, Ismat Chughtai and her husband Shahid Latif, Shyam and Savak Vacha were his friends and colleagues. Manto made a niche for himself in screenwriting, creating box office hits like “Aath Din”, “Chal Chal Re Nawjawan” and “Mirza Ghalib”, besides publishing his collections, “Manto Kay Afsaanay” and “Manto Kay Mazaameen”.
The good life did not last long. The Subcontinent stood on the brink of an overhaul as the British prepared to finally quit India after the bloodshed and destruction of the Second World War. As the summer of 1947 drew closer, small pockets of communal violence started to erupt and soon a full-blown orgy of violence swept across the entire subcontinent. The battle-lines had been drawn. It was now time to pick sides and Manto, with his circle of Hindu and Sikh friends could not remain unaffected. In his sketch of Shyam in “Murli Ki Dhun (Krishna’s Flute)”, he describes how they were once listening to the stories of Sikh murders in Muslim-majority areas when Manto asked him, “I am a Muslim. Don’t you feel like killing me?” To which Shyam replied, “Not now…but when [the Sikh] was telling me about the atrocities committed by Muslims, I could have killed you.” After some reflection, Manto comes to the same chilling conclusion himself. “Maybe at that time I could have killed [Shyam] too” (Translation by the authors)
He eventually moved to Lakshmi Mansion, Lahore in January 1948. In retrospect, his decision to migrate was the last nail in his coffin. Though he continued to write – his post-Partition stories would later bring him great acclaim – he was shunned by most of his literary ilk and hounded by Pakistan’s new government under the banner of the Public Safety Act Ordinance, 1948. He had already faced court trials thrice on charges of obscenity before Partition but being financially stronger and with his friends by his side, the blows had seemed less severe. In his sketch on Ismat Chughtai, he writes about the time when they both received separate court summons. “It is a long journey from Bombay to Lahore (before Partition),” he writes, “But Shahid (Ismat’s husband) and my wife accompanied us. We had great fun. Shahid and Safya teamed up and began to tease us about the obscenity charge. They kept harping on the hard life that was to come after arrest and described scenes of prison life with frightening details. Finally Ismat flared up and said, “Let them send us to the gallows. We’ll stand by the truth.” (Translation by M. Asaduddin)
[quote]”The trick is to establish your humanism, kindness and impartiality in a way that nobody takes offence”[/quote]
His court trials after Partition were not half as cheerful. They were especially trying for a man who was already in deep financial trouble. “[The court] gave me three months in prison with hard labor and a fine of three hundred rupees”; he writes of the trial of his story, “Thanda Gosht”, an unsettling account of a Muslim girl’s dead body leaving a Sikh man psychologically castrated. “My judge thought that truth and Literature should be kept far apart.” With a family to support (he now had three daughters) and with most editors and publishing houses giving him the cold shoulder, he turned increasingly to alcohol to numb his pain. For all the horrific barbarity that accompanied it, Partition itself was fertile ground for literature. Mohammad Hasan Askari, in his foreward for Manto’s “Siah Haashiyey” (Black Margins) observes astutely, “…one could either write tragic stories, satire or grind teeth over human miseries or expose imperial plots. When fed up with these topics, one could write about the plight of women to keep the business interesting…If five Hindus are killed in the beginning of a story, then five Muslims also die by the end. Strike a balance by blaming both the parties. The trick is to establish your humanism, kindness, impartiality and love for peace in a way that nobody takes offence.” (Translation by Saadia Salahuddin and Mazhar Jadoon)
Manto however was no romantic. His own disquietude found its way into his stories, which for the most part were vivid, disturbing portrayals of heinous acts of communal violence, especially sexual violence against women. His was one of the few voices of dissent in the newly created state and he made sure that it was heard, even if it meant further opposition and deeper financial troubles. Meanwhile his drinking got worse and his wife had him admitted to Lahore’s Mental Hospital in 1951, the only place that could deal with his alcoholism, now complicated by hallucinations and other symptoms. Here, Manto penned his lasting master-piece “Toba Tek Singh”, in many ways a reflection of his own inner confusion and lost sense of identity.
[quote]Manto was no romantic[/quote]
“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” The great Ernest Hemingway proclaimed in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun seven years after he made that speech. Manto’s downward spiral through poverty, alcoholism and madness culminated in his death in 1955.Though Manto did not commit suicide, he certainly hastened his own death. He had written the text for the epitaph of his tombstone six months before he died.“Buried here is Saadat Hasan Manto in whose bosom are enshrined all the secrets of the art of short story writing. Buried under mounds of earth, he continues to contemplate who is the greater short story writer: God or he.” (Translation by the authors) . His family, fearful of a religious backlash, changed the text and had this engraved on his tombstone instead: “This epitaph belongs to the grave of Saadat Hassan Manto, who still believes that his name shouldn’t have been erased off the tablet of the universe like a word written twice by error.” (Translation by Arif Waqar) The epitaph is of course a nod to the following couplet by Manto’s favorite poet, Ghalib,
Ya rubb zamaana mujh ko miTata hai kis liay
Loh-e-jahaaN pe harf-e-mukarrar nahi huN main
(O God, why is the world bent on erasing my name off the Book of the worlds? I am, after all, not one of those words that are mistakenly etched twice and, on being discovered, removed.) (Translation by the authors)
Like the monk Tanzan, Manto crossed over to the other side but left behind stories that speak of issues which stand unresolved to this day. Displaying a rare change of heart, Pakistan’s Government finally decided to award him with a posthumous Nishan-e-Imtiaz in 2012.
And summing up his life, Manto, as usual had the last word “A great deal has been said and written about Manto, little in his favor and much (against)…I have had the privilege of knowing Manto. The truth is, I am his doppelganger…We were born together and I suppose we will die together. But it may also come to pass that Saadat Hasan may die and Manto may not”