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The idea of Manto

Print edition : June 03, 2022

Saadat Hasan Manto. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

On the 110th birth anniversary of Saadat Hasan Manto, a celebration of his writing, his ambiguous identity, and what he represents in a world torn apart by religious polarisation and hate.

Saadat Hasan Manto, born on May 11, 1912 in Ludhiana in British India, is an enduring literary icon and one of those few people that both India and Pakistan see as their own. India claims him because he lived here for the better part of his life, 36 years to be precise. Pakistan also claims him because after the Partition he migrated to Lahore and lived there for seven years until he took his last breath there. However, in reality, Manto belonged nowhere, even whilst his art is poignantly treasured on both sides of the border.

After the Partition, when he moved to Pakistan, his heart yearned for his precious Bombay (now Mumbai), the place he had called home all along. Within a span of a year, his life was altered completely and, ironically, while the world would know him as an icon claimed by both Pakistan and India, Manto himself suffered the agony of being displaced. Soon after he moved to Lahore from Bombay, he spiralled into depression and found solace in alcohol, which eventually became the cause of his death. Manto may have died eight years after the Partition, but it is no revelation that it was the Partition that killed him. Devastated and disappointed, Manto’s loneliness in a foreign land that he couldn’t call home engulfed him and sucked the life out of him.

Saadat Hasan Manto is a testament to the human tragedy that the Partition was and a reminder that it was not a political, religious or practical ‘solution’ as we are taught to believe. It was a heinous crime that went on to become not only one of the greatest human tragedies in history, but also one of the most prolonged. After all, 75 years is a long time to suffer at the hands of an atrocity, but the Partition is a gift that keeps on giving.

Even today, religious polarisation, which was the foundation of the Partition, continues to poison our country. Kashmir continues to grapple with territorial disputes that the Partition has left as its legacy. Every day, as our peace and security is threatened and disrupted, it is Manto who firmly reminds us to not let ourselves get lost in statistics. He represents the agony of individual trauma and implores us to mourn for singular losses because the only end to violence and hate is the ability to repent and regret, but if every catastrophe is measured by a number, then how fickle will a human life become?

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Had Manto been alive today, I wonder what he would have said after looking at our state of affairs? I suppose he would be anguish, just like he was then. On his 110th birth anniversary, we must celebrate the idea of Manto, the writer, his rebellion and unwavering legacy he left behind.

Manto was known as a Punjabi writer but he belonged to a Kashmiri family that had settled in Amritsar. He didn’t write in Punjabi, but in Urdu and, therefore, he was also an Urdu writer. In 1936 he moved to Bombay, the only place he would ever call home. During the Partition, he migrated first to Karachi and then to Lahore in 1948. He wasn’t very religious, but he was still known as a Muslim writer, an identity that forced him to move to the Muslim-majority country unwillingly because as he solemnly says in the film Manto by Nandita Das, “itna musalman toh hoon ki mara ja sakoon (I am Muslim enough to get killed)”..

So, then who was Manto? If we call him an Indian, he was also a Pakistani. If we call him Punjabi, he was also Kashmiri, with the streets and corners of Bombay also an integral part of his identity. Manto himself, I believe, would have preferred to be all of this, but in the society he lived in, and we continue to live in, such identities that are complex and inclusive in equal parts are frequently frowned upon. He threatened conformity and the establishment when he was alive and continues to threaten it even today through his legacy, which is why rereading Manto in a contemporary light in a crumbling nation is imperative.

In contemporary society, divisive politics is more rampant than ever and in such a state of affairs, Manto symbolises all the things that do not get along well with the establishment. The easiest way to rule for the establishment is to categorise people in different brackets that are reductive and convenient. However, Manto fails to fall into these brackets, not just because of his complex identity, but also because of his radical choices and work. That said, divisive politics is crude and intransigent and seeks to box people in the barricades of “us” and “them” and all who challenge the status quo naturally fall in the latter category. It is no surprise that Manto was tried six times for obscenity, thrice in British India and thrice in Pakistan. He was never convicted.

Manto’s work, primarily short stories, is known to be gut-wrenching and disturbing. They are not just a commentary of the times he lived in, but also of the broader ‘human failings’ as Naseeruddin Shah puts it, and that is why it is painstakingly relevant even today. Partition is a common theme in most of his works, such as ‘Toba Tek Singh’.

Also read: Manto’s Pakistan

The story takes place two-three years after 1947 and focusses on the inmates of a mental institution in Lahore. Its main character, Bishan Singh, is a Sikh who is being sent to India, in an exchange of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims between Pakistan and India. Bishan Singh is from the village of Toba Tek Singh and is distraught trying to understand whether his home is in India or Pakistan. When a soldier tells him that Toba Tek Singh is in Pakistan, but he has to go to India because he is a Sikh, he defiantly stands in the no-man’s land between the two countries and eventually dies there. Through ‘Toba Tek Singh’, Manto demonstrates how there’s more insanity in the outside world than there is inside a psychiatric ward.

In ‘Thanda Gosht’ (cold flesh), a story for which he was tried for obscenity and pornographic content, he talks about how during communal violence a man named Ishwar Singh abducts a Muslim girl after killing her family and then attempts to rape her, only to find out that she is dead.. Similar to most of his work, this story, too, dwells on how the Partition brought out the worst in mankind. Manto’s work, whether ‘Kali Salwar’, ‘Hattak’, ‘Khol Do’, is mainly focussed on uplifting and acknowledging the trauma that the downtrodden go through every day. From prostitution and sexual peversion to religious discrimination and political propaganda, Manto held up a mirror to society, a sight that many squirmed at. However, as Manto believed and often said, if his writings reeked of obscenity and impropriety, then it was only because reality was worse.

Alas, Manto’s India isn’t all that different from contemporary India that still finds itself rooted in the same prejudices and mindsets. Which is why reading Manto today teaches you to challenge authority and the status quo whenever it’s needed. It also tells you that as a species we’ve always sought ways to discriminate, and that hate is the easiest of human emotions. Had Manto been alive today, he would have turned 110 years old, and he remains an integral part of both India and Pakistan’s cultural landscape. He lives on through his readers, who attempt to make sense of their reality today by diving into the discourse of the past as documented by him.

“Hindustan had become free. Pakistan had become indepedent soon after its inception but man was still slave in both these countries—slave of prejudice, slave of religious fanatcisim, slave of barabrity and inhumanity”, writes Manto. A man with love in his heart and compassion in his pen, Manto is a reminder to the best of us, and the worst of us to be empathetic humans.

Takshi Mehta is an independent journalist who believes that we are what we stand up for, & therefore she writes.