Memories of Manto

Memories of Manto

Neelam Man Singh Chowdhary directs her first play in Hindi,a medley of stories by Manto

Manto has been on my mind for a while now; his stories recently came in a rush to me,inspiring me to create a brand new production,’’ says Neelam Man Singh Chowdhary. Around her,actors and musicians are recreating Partition-era trauma as they rehearse for her new production, titled Licence: The Untitled Saga. This also marks the Chandigarh-based theatre director’s foray into creating a Hindi play. “The language fit in with Saadat Hasan Manto’s text,” she says,adding,“Even the actors felt that the play flowed well in Hindi.”

But, Licence: The Untitled Saga, like Chowdhary’s previous productions,is folded with several levels of meaning,subtexts and allusions. The first complexity comes in uniting Manto’s text with German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin Stories,The Job. “Both these works talk about the implications on people in an economy that is industrialising at a fast pace,” says Chowdhary.

In The Job,an unemployed man,finds place as a watchman in a factory,and this is dovetailed into another story story by Manto,titled Licence,A Tongawala. “The sudden death of the provider in both the stories drives the family to the brink of starvation. In both stories,the women adopt a plan that becomes as desperate as the situation — to slip into the male identity and take over the husband’s job disguised as the man/husband,” she says.  

The play began as a workshop with actors and musicians of Chowdhary’s group,The Company. Along the way to its development as a full-fledged production,the troupe also welded in references to five other short stories by Manto.


The play tells the story of Niti,a rich man’s daughter,and a tongawallah,Suraj,with whom she elopes and gets married. Suraj is arrested and requests his friend to provide money to his wife by running the tonga. “The betrayal of the friend,a hostile world,and poverty makes Niti decide that she will now operate the tonga herself. The internal and external mayhem she has to deal with is an example of Manto’s brilliance to capture a multitude of facets much ahead of his time,’’ says Chowdhary,adding that for her,the biggest challenge was the transformation of Niti from a woman to a “man”.

The lead protagonists are played by The Company regulars Ramanjit Kaur and Gick Grewal,and the play will open in Mumbai before travelling to Jaipur,Delhi and Chandigarh.