To call a spade a spade is a rare trait, especially in tumultuous times, but that was the enduring hallmark of journalist, screenwriter and legendary short stories author, Saadat Hasan Manto, who showed his contemporaries that literature and fiction didn’t have to shroud society’s hypocrisy for the sake of ‘decency’.
Born in 1912 in a village in Ludhiana district of undivided Punjab of British India, Manto had Kashmiri origins but grew up speaking Punjabi. He began his career as a translator of Russian and French works into Urdu, briefly studied at the Aligarh Muslim University, and thereafter began to write short stories, essays, radio plays and even screenplays. He frequently wrote stories around those who were at the margins of the society — prostitutes, alcoholics and criminals — and humanised them, which was uncommon, radical and nonconformist in those days. There was a greater sincerity, he felt, in the life of a prostitute than in the lives of so called respectable people who lives behind several veils of hypocrisy. This understandably didn’t go down well many, who accused him of writing ‘lewd’ literature. Manto faced lawsuits a total of six times over charges of obscenity in the colonial state as well as later in independent Pakistan — in one of which he was convicted and forced to pay a fine of Rs 300.
His best remembered work are his stories written after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Brutal and bloody, partition to Manto represented a maddening senselessness unleashed by politically motivated actors which threw the lives of common people into disarray and exposed the heinous baseness that humankind was capable of. These themes are evident in his post-partition stories, including Toba Tek Singh, Khol do, Thanda gosht and Thithwal ka kutta, to name a few.
Manto engaged with the reality and refused to dilute the truth in his stories — no matter how uncomfortable. He saw the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women and refused to unsee the foul patriarchy at play. The quality of writing without blinkers on about injustices in plain sight made him far ahead of his times. For instance, in Toba Tek Singh, long term inmates of an asylum in Lahore are to be transferred based on religion to Pakistan or Hindustan, shortly after the partition. One long term inmate runs into a quandary upon realising that the country has been divided into two, not knowing in which his hometown lay. The story lays the senselessness of partition bare through a dark comedy. In Thanda Gosht, a man who had been out plundering loot in the pre-partition chaos, confesses a dark secret to his wife while making love to her. Khol Do is the story of a father who frantically searches for his lost, teenage daughter in their journey across the border and finds her finally but the rejoice is abruptly cut short. Manto doesn’t use the words ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Partition’ etc. to describe horrors — he didn’t have to. The characters are humans, and don’t need labels for their actions to be comprehensible.
The stories are usually just 3-4 pages long, driven by action and written in raw detail — similar to a journalist’s report in their straightforwardness. They instill confusion and bewilderment without halting to judge the characters or to dwell on context or tragedy. They present the cold, hard truth, in a detached tone. But in actuality, the Partition had taken its toll on Manto. “Hindustan had become free. Pakistan had become independent soon after its inception but man was still slave in both these countries — slave of prejudice … slave of religious fanaticism … slave of barbarity and inhumanity”, he is quoted to have said. Manto succumbed to alcoholism soon after his reluctant move from Bombay to Lahore with his family in 1948, and passed away from it at the age of 43 in 1955. By then he had produced 20 short stories collections, five radio dramas, three essays, two sketches, one novel and a number of film scripts. In his essays, he had rightly predicted Pakistan’s future bend towards Islamic fundamentalism. His short stories stood the test of time, depicting the human condition, the horror of partition violence and the futility of war.
As India (and Pakistan) draws closer to the 70th anniversary of independence, Manto remains unforgettable for his irreverent writing, holding up a mirror to the society in especially ugly times. In response to his critics, he famously said, “If you find my stories ugly, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories I only expose the truth”.