Partition Stories of Sadat Hassan Manto, India-Pakistan’s Master Story Teller

By Samar Saha         e-mail: 

Editor’s note:  Continuing from his introductory piece on Sadaat Manto in the last issue, Samar Saha writes here on Manto’s gripping stories that highlight the absurd and scarily psychotic behavior of Hindu and Muslim offcials during Partition, the people who were otherwise normal and who for generations haveworked together in various capacities.

Sadat Hassan Manto was moved to write Toba Tek Singh seeing this lunacy around. It is a masterpiece set in a mental asylum in Lahore during Partition. The whole city was being ethnically cleansed — how can the asylum escape?

The bureaucrats organizing the transfer of power tell the Hindu and Sikh mental patients that they will be transferred — they have no option to refuse — to institutions in India. Only Muslim inmates will stay back.

The inmates are totally baffled. Bishen Singh, a Sikh from the village of Toba Tek Singh was one of the residents in this asylum. No one had seen Bishen ever to sit or lie down or close his eyes in this asylum. A shadow of darkness and fear pervades in the asylum when relatives stop visiting. The inmates become desperate.

A few days later, the inmates are forced into a truck to take them across the border to India. Bishen was overwhelmed when he learnt that his village is on the Pakistani side of the border, and he had to leave.

Overcome by rage, he stands in the strip of land called ‘No Man’s Land’ between Pakistan and India and refused to budge. Next morning the guards hear a shriek and finds a motionless body of a burly Sikh in the ‘No Man’s Land.’ The mental patient Bishen Singh, who had not slept a wink in the asylum for fifteen years is finally asleep — permanently.

The lunatic who never lied down was hugging the soil of Punjab in the ‘No Man’s Land’ that neither belonged to Pakistan nor to India.

Confronted by so much insanity outside, Manto, with irony, sarcasm, bitterness and disillusionment, shows that while “normal” people outside were behaving like lunatics enraged with ethnic hatred, there was complete normalcy inside the mental asylum. The ‘lunatics’ in the asylum had a better understanding of the crime that was being perpetrated than the politicians who agreed to Partition.

In Tayaqqun (An Anguished Certitude), Manto derides the efforts of the two post-colonial states to sew together the tattered pieces of women’s honor by rehabilitating those who were abducted during the communal frenzy in Punjab. The heartbreaking story revolves around a disheveled and crazed Muslim woman who is desperately looking for her daughter:

The Pakistani officer communicating the story tells the old woman her daughter is killed and she should accompany him to Pakistan. She refuses to believe that her beautiful daughter could have been killed. One day she spots her daughter walking down the street with a young Sikh, who upon seeing the elderly woman, tells the young girl, “Your mother.”

The young woman glances at her mother and walks away. The distraught mother calls after her daughter, only to drop dead when the liaison officer swears on God’s name that her daughter is indeed dead.

Manto ends the story mystifyingly and deliberately unclear: Had the young woman, indeed, run away with the Sikh? Was she kidnapped? If so, did she make her peace with him and, no longer wanted to be reunited with her hapless, grief-stricken mother? Manto lets the reader wonder.

The 32 vignettes comprising Siyah Haashiye (Black Margins) are simply chilling. They are notable for their macabre humor and subversive intent. Each story is hardly a paragraph. They are unparalleled in world literature except, perhaps, for the genre of “One Minute Story” of the Hungarian writer Istvan Orkeny (1912-1979) who chronicled the trauma of World War II replete with irony and grotesquery. Look at this Manto chiller “Jelly”:

At six in the morning, the man selling frozen ice sticks from a pushcart next to the petrol pump is stabbed to death. His body lay on the road until seven, while water from the melting ice keeps falling on the dead body in steady driblets. At quarter past seven, the police take away the dead body, leaving the crushed ice pieces and blood on the road. A tonga (horse-driven carriage) rides past. The child noticing the coagulated blood on the road, pulls at his mother’s sleeve and says, “Look, Ma, Jelly!”

The pain, horror, and savagery of Partition changed Manto profound­ly. He chronicled this horror that displaced fifteen million people and killed about a million. If Margaret Bourke-White froze the scenes of this event with her black-and-white photographs for LIFE magazine, Manto archived this historic foolishness of Partition in his stories.

Manto is as Relevant Today: The ever-percipient Manto had antici­pated the problems of treating and using religion as a weapon instead of letting it be a matter of personal faith. We are witnessing his apocalyptic vision now. His words of warning have a resonance that is louder now than when he said this:

“Our split culture and divided civilization, what has survived of our arts; all that we received from the cut up parts of our own body, and which is buried in the ashes of Western politics, we need to retrieve, dust, clean and restore to freshness to recover all that we have lost in the storm.”

If there is a birthday present Indians and Pakistanis can jointly give Manto on his 100th birthday, it is to admit the reality of the problems he spelled out in his writings on Partition.

It may then become possible for them to rectify past errors, and strike a mutually beneficial and sustainable historical compromise.

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