Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of story writing,
Under mounds of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater story writer — God or he.
The epitaph that Sa’adat Hasan Manto wrote six months before he died was never used on his tombstone. But, the words indicate that the impudent writer had no doubt about his place in the canon of Urdu literature, even though his work remained largely ignored and unappreciated during his lifetime.
Manto would have turned 100 this May had he not succumbed to alcoholism and a failed liver at 42. In his short lifespan, he wrote over 20 collections of short stories and redefined the genre of the short story in Urdu. His stories challenged and mocked the custodians of morality and the hypocrites in political, social and religious spheres.
Manto’s battles with the social and literary establishment of his time are legendary. Charged with obscenity and brought to trial on a number of occasions — both in India and Pakistan (where he migrated to in the later years of his life) — he remained defiant and unapologetic. He mercilessly irked his detractors with his satires on godmen, politicians and self-proclaimed heads of organised religions.
“Some considered him a lunatic. For others, he was just a writer who wrote explicit and provocative stories. But for the rest of us, he was one of the greatest Urdu authors of all times,” says Shameem Tarique, Mumbai-based author and columnist.
Chronicler of human failings
Dark, disturbing and often bleak, his stories were not just a comment on the society he lived in back then, but are also chillingly relevant today. Many consider his writings during and after the Partition to be amongst his best works. “In his stories of that period, he focussed on the ordeal of victims (of violence during the Partition) without fear or favour. Even the perpetrators of crimes were projected as victims of a political process gone wrong,” Tarique adds.
Contemporary writers, historians and readers of Manto’s works believe that the author’s writing has not only influenced literature, but has also had a huge social impact. “He remains one of the most translated Urdu writers in English and his books are more readily available than most others in the same genre,” says Mumbai-based writer and historian Rafique Baghdadi.
Actor Naseeruddin Shah, who has adapted several of Manto’s stories for the stage, believes that the author is relevant today because he wrote about human failings. “His stories are very graphic, and their strength lie in the imagery and the simple narration. There is no doubt that his works are going to survive,” he adds.
The Bombay within him
Not content with just writing short stories and essays, Manto had also dabbled in journalism, theatre, radio and films. “He spent 12 years in Bombay before Independence, during which he wrote screenplays for half a dozen Hindi films, including Mirza Ghalib, Chal Chal Re Naujawan, Shikaar and Khichdi. In fact, he was even seen in a cameo as a shell-shocked soldier in Chal Chal Re Naujawan,” says Baghdadi. Manto has also written a book, Stars from Another Sky, which profiles several film stars of his time.
Manto migrated to Lahore in 1948. Disillusioned and lonely in a strange land, he sought solace in alcohol and drank himself to death. Shah, who recently met Manto’s three daughters at Lahore to discuss plans for a new theatrical adaptation of the author’s work, says Ayesha Jalal, Manto’s grandniece, has written a thesis on how Pakistan turned the Urdu writer into an alcoholic. “She describes his descent into hell over seven years. He experienced deep disillusionment and terrible unhappiness,” he adds.
Writer-filmmaker Shama Zaidi points out that Manto could not get over Bombay after he left the city for Pakistan. “He used to say that Bombay resides within him.” stage and film adaptations
Manto’s work continues to fascinate readers, cine-goers and theatre buffs. Shah’s theatre group, Motley, has done the enactment of Manto’s short story Kaali Shalwar, along with his essay Safed Jhooth, in which the author talks about his compassion for commercial sex workers.
The group has plans to dramatise one of Manto’s most famous story on Partition — Toba Tek Singh — along with Siya Hashiye (Black Borders), a compilation of stories on Partition.
Kaali Shalwar was also adapted for the big screen by director Farida Mehta a few years ago. Irrfan Khan and Sadia Siddiqui played the protagonists.
All through this month, a Mumbai-based theatre group, IDEA, has been enacting several plays based on Manto’s works.
Manto’s readers and contemporaries unanimously agree that Toba Tek Singh is amongst the author’s best works. Set in a lunatic asylum at Lahore at the time of Partition, it is a satire on communalism and ethnic cleansing.
In the story, Hindu and Sikh lunatics in an asylum at Pakistan are forcibly transferred to institutions in India. The inmates rebel and have to be forced into the trucks. One of them, a Sikh, is so overcome by rage that he defiantly stands on the border that divides Pakistan from India.
“Confronted by so much insanity in the real world, Manto discovered normalcy in an asylum. The ‘madmen’ have a better understanding of the atrocity that is being committed in the name of religion than the politicians who have agreed to the Partition,” explains Tarique.
Theatre director Salim Arif picked up Manto’s Nangi Awaazein when he was 17 and it has stayed with him since then. “The story set fire to my lifelong admiration for a writer who almost always placed his characters in situations over which they had no control.”
Arif believes that Manto’s stories on Bombay deserve more attention. “Nobody has written about the city or its lower strata the way he has — maybe because no other writer has seen the city from such close quarters the way he did.” Walk through crowded, old alleys of Nagpada or Byculla, he adds, and you can see Manto’s characters come alive.
“Nangi Awaazein is an insightful comment on the city, and is yet a universal story. A young, unmarried immigrant and his elder brother move into one of the many cramped housing spaces of the city where several families live together separated by partitions of thin curtains. Every day, the young immigrant peeps through these partitions with voyeuristic curiosity to peer at the intimate lives of couples, and dreams and yearns for his own conjugal bliss. But, when he finally marries, he is unable to go to bed peacefully plagued by paranoia that he could be the subject of the same scrutiny!”
Arif explains that Manto was almost callous — even cruel — with his detachment from the theme at times. “He never took sides, and he wrote with such starkness and sparseness, one couldn’t look away. For instance, in a story like Khol Do, we don’t know till the end where it’s leading. It’s only in the last four lines, devoted entirely to the disparate reactions of a man and his daughter, separated by the Partition, that the whole story unravels with a sudden twist. It’s almost like an anti-climax and that makes it even sharper. Of course, Toba Tek Singh remains the most poignant comment on the Partition; it sums up the attitude of an average person from the subcontinent so well.”