Saadat Hasan Manto: The Almost Forgotten Literary Giant of India and Pakistan

By Samar Saha

After 60 years of the bitter Partition, three wars, and the resulting carnage, people of India and Pakistan seem to be warming up to each other. In this background, I am pleased to in­troduce to readers a few Urdu literary figures of the Partition era. As you read these articles you would wonder if these writers belong to only one country or truly belong to both. I have chosen Sadat Hasan Manto for my first presentation.

Saadat Hasan Manto is one of the great story tellers of the Partition era. Manto, who spent thirty-six years in undivided India and seven years in Pakistan, truly had the great talent of telling stories as he saw them and writing the way he perceived human nature, emotion, and suffering. He made his readers shiver in cold chill and shocked them into pondering the inner depth of human emotions. He took them beyond the compulsions of crass politics, religious bigotries, and outward social changes. That made him one of the most controversial writers of his time and he paid dearly for that. His 100th birthday is being celebrated in both India and in Pakistan this year.

Formative Years: Manto’s childhood was rather common and undis­tinguished, holding little promise of the greatness that awaited. He was born on May 11, 1912 in a typical middle class Muslim family of Samrala, in Ludhiana district of Punjab, India. He showed no interest in the studies at school. In fact, he failed twice in his matriculation examination in Urdu (!!) and he lacked any academic direction.

However, after a series of false starts, he came into his own as a writer after moving to Bombay in 1936 to edit a film magazine. The film world excited Manto’s imagination, but he wanted to create a new literary sen­sibility. Manto’s productive period began in 1941 in New Delhi with All India Radio. In eighteen months he published over four collections of radio plays, a few short story collections, and a collection of essays. He moved back to Bombay in July 1942 to work in the film industry again.

Partition and Anguish: The event that shook Manto’s confidence in himself and in his fellow human beings was the Partition of India in 1947. A humanist and secularist to the core, he was deeply saddened by the spectacle of violence let loose by the event; even his beloved cosmo­politan city of Bombay and its film world could not remain immune. He left Bombay in a daze, heading to Lahore to be with his family. But the Bombay in him never left its place.

Life in Lahore: Soon after arriving in the nascent Pakistan, Manto initially wrote for some literary magazines. These were the days when his controversial stories like Khol Do (Open It) and Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat) created a furor among Pakistani conservatives. It resulted in the banning of his work. It was a mean blow to his livelihood.

To survive, Manto started writing indiscriminately in order to provide for his family. This changed him and Manto became a different person from the one who arrived from Bombay in 1948. The necessity to earn his livelihood consumed him very fast.

The absence of intellectual ambience and literary freedom, lack of support, financial worries, and constant harassment were of little help in his new life in Lahore. As a creative artist who went to Pakistan during Partition, he was not alone in getting disillusioned. A few of them even returned to India. The famous vocalist Bade Gulam Ali Khan and the left-leaning lyricist/poet Sahir Ludhyanvi are well-known among those who returned to India from Pakistan.

Disillusioned and lonely in a stifling land, he sought solace in alcohol and drank himself to death. Even in his misery, Manto gave some of his best writings to the literary world. It was during this period that he wrote some of his masterpieces.

Finally, peace came to him on January 15, 1955, only when he died.

Manto and Partition Stories: The awful events during Partition— nearly a million killed—traumatized writers on both sides to such an extent that for years no one dared to write openly about it. But not Manto.

Manto was among the few who observed the bloodbaths of Partition in both Bombay and Lahore with clinical and cynical eyes. He turned the Partition tragedies into great literature, even when the wound was raw in people’s consciousness. He wrote of violence seen from both victims’ and perpetrators’ perspectives, regardless of religious or caste identities. His many stories brought into sharp relief the contradiction, passion, fear and irrationality among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in India, which quickly led them to sink into brutality towards fellow human beings with whom they have lived for centuries.

What Manto recorded was, in the words of his grandniece Ayesha Jalal, a historian and Professor of History at Tufts University, “Neither human zeal nor piety, but human greed and man’s astonishing capacity for bestiality that had brought the subcontinent to such a sorry pass.” (To be continued …with Partition stories in next issue).

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