Saadat Hasan Manto at 100 : Looking back to the horror of partition through a man who saw it.

Manto’s writing is a running history of partition and it’s horror.

 My first encounter with an unknown entity called Saadat Hasan Manto is still vivid in my memory.

 For a common Calcutta grown Bengali knowing a short lived urdu write is not only tough but also   seems needless (!!!!). Bengali as a race is too proud of their literary enrichment that often make them blind and megalomaniac. There is always a trend in Bengal to ignore what is happening in other Indian languages apart from English. A Bengali intellectual first finishes his share  of Tagore- Bankim-Tarashankar  but after that just jumps to Shakespeare or Keats. I have not seen any of my Bengali friend who is  aware of any contemporary writer’s name from hindi, urdu, marathi or gujarati literary world.This is a century old disease in Bengal.

Let me come back to  the point where I started.

On a humid August morning of 1996 I was waiting for my father outside the fish market of my locality.In those days it was a mutual domestic  agreement that my father will shop vegetables and fish from the market and  I will  join him later only to carry those bags to home.It was to give him an escape from the pain to carry those full bags.That day while waiting for him outside the market my attention dropped on a special issue of Outlook magazine which had a cover story of ” 50 years after partition”. As the subject was close to my heart I waste no time to burn  Rs 10 from my pocket to buy a copy and instantly started reading it under open sun.There for the first time in my life I met a man with whom my love affair begun.

The collector’s issue contained a bunch of few  short stories translated from Urdu to English by one Sadaat Hasan Manto.Within ten minutes I completed 3 stories and I felt that I am no longer the same one.For the first time I realized that  if the historical chronicles are the record of those who perished in partition then Manto’s writing is the chronicle that records the lives of those we survived the mayhem only to live a life more deplorable than death.

Manto came back to me a year later. It was 1997 when The Pioneer newspaper of Delhi has been publishing some excellent Sunday supplements around the year to capture the time of 1940s.In one such issue a bunch of short stories translated from Hindi,Urdu,Bengali and many other languages was published.There I read ” Toba Tek Singh ” and ” The Cold Meat “. A year later I brought my first book of Manto from Calcutta Book Fair titles” Mottled Dawn “. With that book I entered into a goldmine of history.

Who was Manto ? Originated in Kashmir the family of Manto migrated to undivided Punjab in early part of  18th century and settled in Lahore.Born on 11th May 1912 in a village nearly 100 km from today’s Ludhiana Manto had a disturbed childhood.His father one Gulan Hassan  was ill tempered and not very kind to his kids born out of his second wife. Manto was close to his mother whom he adorably called “ bibijan“.

The maverick master – Manto

All his step brothers were highly educated and settled where as Manto was too bad in academics.Changing many schools from his childhood Manto finally managed to pass Matriculation exam at his 3rd attempt.He failed in Urdu language paper in school. Among his 12 siblings he was the black ship of his family.However bad in study Manto was a avid reader specially all those books which were considered bad.

With this all wrong things that can make a man slip from his  good character like alcohol, opium, gambling, prostitutes and irregular connection with family added in his life. It was somehow a journey to self destruction started at a very early age.From here till his untimely death in 1955 Manto was never a well disciplined man.Some say it is natural with his kind of talent but most people say it is a culmination of his disturbed childhood that made him like this.

After sometime Manto shifted to Amritsar and here he found a den at a restaurant owned by his friend Aziz. The denand Manto were  just made for each other.It was an assembly points of many such people like Manto.Here by chance he got to meet a talented photographer named Asiq, a painter named Anwar, a budding poet named Faqir Hussain and few more like him. However in this intellectual assembly some new windows of life were opened to him thorough long discussion of literature and music.Two new young fellow joined the the group later named Bari Alig and Ata Mohummad Chiyatir.They started editing a weekly literary supplement in Urdu named “ Maswaat “.Here the first spark of Manto was seen as a writer. By that time Manto was enriched with the reading of European master like Victor Hugo, O Henry, Maxim Gorky, Summerset Mom and Oscar Wild.It superimposed  revolution in mind that Manto himself felt and he started writing some of his feelings. He tried his hands in some translations of Hugo’s novel, Oscar Wild’s play  and Maxim Gorky’s story in Urdu.It was just a dawn of a new day for the literary world of this subcontinent. By this time his first ever short story titled “ Tamasha “ published in an Urdu magazine named “ Khalaq “.With this his non stop boozing and all other destructive habits were on and finally at the age of 23 he was detected with tuberculosis a deadly disease of that time.With some sort of recovery that he gained in his long stay in Kashmir Manto finally got a job in Bombay and moved there as an employee of a new magazine named “ Musavar”. From here he moved to Delhi with an assignment of All India Radio where we wrote many radio plays. However at the end of 1942 he came back to Bombay.

Ashok Kumar – the first hero of Indian talkie

Bombay the city of dream really worked for Manto. Here along with literature he got the chance to work in cinema world a scope which was never there in places like Lahore, Delhi  and Amritsar. After having short span in various studios Manto finally got a lucrative job in newly formed film production company Flimistan Studio.It was a time when national heart throb Ashok Kumar a Bengali chemist turned film hero and his brother-in-law Shashadhar Mukherjee parted their relation with Debika Rani of Bombay Talkies and formed their own production house.They were in hunt of new outstanding talents to build up their new team who will work as story writer, script writer and direction. Manto already a known  name in the world of Urdu literature was picked and given a monthly salary of Rs 300 a lofty amount in those days.

This is an utter misfortune that nearly 95% of films that various Bombay studios produced between 1935 to 1947 are destroyed of missing. Debashree Mukherjee a film researcher in New York recently listed eight such missing films written by Manto.The oldest one is written and released in 1938 under imperial Film Company named Kisan Kanya.Other missing films are Apni Nagaria ( 1940), Chal Chal Re Nawjawan ( 1944),Begum ( 1945),Naukar( 1945),Aaat din ( 1946) and Shikari ( 1946).

It was the time when Manto became the top page-3 writer of Bombay.His too intimate friendship with Ashok Kumar was a matter of envy too many.He was also close to top actresses like Begum Para and Padma Devi. Babu Roa Patel the editor of India’s top film magazine “ Film India “ was also close to Manto.It was a time when Manto was writing more on film world and less on his creative short stories.It was best part of his life with a loving wife and three daughters in a well to do family house in the city of Bombay.

In Bombay at that point of time pro Communist group of intellectual formed Progressive Writers Association ( PWA). Manto a worshiper of socialism never became a former member of the group but his proximity to this organization was well known.Like Kishan Chander and Rajindar Singh Bedi Manto also started illustrating the life and time of down trodden and people from the outcast arena of society.

It was indeed a productive time in Manto’s life.But God had something else in his mind.

1947 – the independence came along with partition. Bengal and Manto’s own home land Punjab were divided fueling a gory communal riot that was no less horrific than world war.

This is from Calcutta riot in 1946 – Manto was more shattered by the horror that he saw in his homeland Punjab.

It was a time of “no trusting to each other”. Although Bombay was calm when Calcutta, Lahore, Delhi,Noakhali, Kashmir and Bihar were burning a gloom was enveloped in film industry where hindu and muslim worked for years to produce dreams that entertained the nation. Like many of his friend Manto decided to move to newly created Pakistan.Was it a conscious decision or it was forced ? Just before this in late 1947 one of Manto’s story was rejected for a movie.The film was “  Ziddi” that saw two young aspirants  Devanand and Kishore Kumar made their debut as actor and singer respectively.Instead of Manto a story written by his good friend  Mrs Ismaat Chugtai was selected.Manto found this as an insult and a grave signal.

He packed his bag to Lahore ignoring all advises received from his well wishers. Everyone told him that for a creative man Bombay is much better a choice than Lahore but Manto was adamant. Many years after his death in 1968 Manto’s wife Safia gave an interview to one of his biographer and unfolded the mystery. It was not a wishful departure that Manto made. Infact few days after independence Manto was handed over a termination letter from Filmistan Studio an organization owned by his close friend Ashok Kumar.Along with this his story was also rejected for the first time.Manto realized that he is no more close to Ashok Kumar.Manto was so shattered that he never dared to tell this to his wife till his death.It was only after his death his wife found this termination letter from his papers.

Life at Lahore after those glory days of Bombay was not only insipid but also ruthless.The financial stability of the family was gone and Manto’s stories in the orthodox muslim society were considered vulgar and anti –islamic.

Lahore of 1940s – Soon Manto realised that Lahore is no match to Bombay for a creative mind.

Soon Manto realzied that  Lahore is not Bombay and Pakistan is not India.

His soul was full of the horror of partition violence specially that he read in newspaper and witnessed in Lahore.The brutal killing, endless looting, arson, abduction, rape, molestation, abuse,and forceful conversion all reeled in his stories.

Manto started writing stories that some time ran into 2 lines but made a message. He took his plots from refugee camp,from railway platform,from mental hospital,from brothel where riot mongers from both sides meet for evening refreshment even from bed where couples enjoying physical intimacy.

Manto proved he is not finished with his parting from Bombay film industry. Rather best of Manto came in the form of horrible stories that India never heard of. Although he limited himself only with Punjab partition and nothing with Bengal partition his story telling capacity captivated the nation.It was the time when Manto came out with his master pieces like akhri salute,Titawal ka kutta,Thanda gost,Gulab ki phhol,1919 ki ek baat,toba tek singh.

Manto’s pen illustrated the machine like killer’s frustration and agony.In one of his story which end in two lines Manto writes :

“ He is not dead, there is still some life left in him.”

“ I can not.I am really exhausted”  

 The story ends there but a cold chill  flows down to our spines .

Another small story runs like this. A man says it is a un-greatful nation.It is because he killed fifty pigs to make a mosque unholy but there is no buyer while on the other side of the border there is a rush in-front of a temple to buy beef. ( Story : Ungreatful Lot ).

Manto story only gives a hint – rest is the readers responsibility to foresee.

The biggest migration of human history – The bleeding of Punjab in 1947-48 made Manto a different man.He could not limit himself in the gloss of Hindi film world after that.

A story named Mistake goes like this.

After killing a man the riot monger removes the pyjama to  check the genital of the victim and cried by saying “ Oh Mistake”.This story ends there.It was Manto who told us how man became animal in that saga.In on of the story he created a character where a man is handing over his friend to group of people with a request not to kill him inside the railway compartment but on the platform. Reason is it will spoil this nice compartment !!!  In another story we found a public announcement made by the rioters after killing all who belonged to other religion.It was made to living passengers of train who were not killed as they belong to same religion.The riot mongers apologize not being able to offer anything more than milk and fruites as the timing of the train was not known to them.The most mind blowing story of Manto on this dark age was Jelly where an ice-cream  vendor got killed and his blood and melted ice from the ice cream box got mixed  on the road.Here comes an innocent girl who without understanding the situation tells her mother “ Look mother – Jelly “.Where Manto scores best is his vivid observation of brothels. He himself was a regular to those places.So the life and people in the trade of flesh came in best form when we read Manto.In the story Thanda Gost  a man failed to perform on bed and his mistress doubts his honesty. Here comes the climax when she charges him and the poor customer cries. He cries as he found himself a beast who had sex with a dead body after looting a house in the same afternoon.Take note of another story.It shows two friends brought a girl from a looted grouop at the cost of Rs 42.One friend spent the night with her.When all was over he asked her name.Hearing the name he was furious as he thought she belongs to other community.Realizing the fact that he was cheated he cried “ I want my money back “.The mindless looting of property was best described in another story where we see in a locality all houses are on fire except one.That intact shop houses a sign board that reads “ Building material and old furniture sold here”.

That was Mano – a master who takes you to the sequence but do not explain you the purport.You as a reader need to understand the rest.

There are many gems in maverick Manto’s bag which are yet to be translated from Urdu.

Manto – the man who recorded a time that we must remember.

When the man died in 1955 he was in penury and there was no fame to decorate him.The Govt of Pakistan was already in crisis and economy was in shatter.More to that an India born Manto was the most undesired man in the land which was made to give a homeland to muslim.

In his life and death Manto was alone – he never branded himself as communist or not even a progressive writer.He was unhappy to see what  that was going on in India and newly born Pakistan.He was restless to see the extreme downfall of humanity that caused countless life of common people.Being one of them Manto took the pen up to write down a piece of history.Not as a historian but as a man who witnesses the calamity as a member of the suffering group.His exit from Bombay was not done on his will.It was a culmination of that pernicious time.

Like the great film maker from Bengal Ritwik Ghatak ,Manto never accepted partition. As Ritwik Ghatak captured the impact of devastation in common Bengali people who were overnight uprooted from their home land which became East Pakistan in his Bengali movies like Meghe dhaka Tara, Komol Gandhar, Subarnarekha  and many more, Manto took up his pen to draw the same pangs of innumerable souls who saw unprecedented massacre in both side of Punjab.

Today Manto is not forgotten in India and Pakistan.It is good to see that there are few like me who still go through his works to understand a time that changed our lives for ever.At the same time it is also not good to see that Indian Govt has denied visa to Manto’s daughters when they wished to come to their father’s birth place in India.It would have been a wonderful gesture from Manmohan Singh who himself a victim of partition if he took up this matter personally.Instead of wasting time and money to restart India-Pakistan cricket series we should now try to rediscover people like Manto or Ritwik Ghatak who never accepted partition and documented the pain and pangs in their creative outcome which are finest in quality.

Reference :

The Storyteller by Ayesha Jalal – published in Screen ( The Indian Express publication ) – issue dated 18th May 2912.

Ahead of his time by Vidyarthi Chatterjee – published in The Statesman – issue dated 12th and 19th May 2012.

Mottled Dawn – collection of Manto’s story – Penguin Books

Stories of Partitions – Edited by Vikram Valler

Danga O Deshbhager Galpo ( Bengali collection of stories based on partition ) – Deep Prakashoni – Calcutta.

Ke baro Galpokar – Khoda na Manto by Sudip Basu ( Bengali )  – published in Sambad Protidin on 13th May 2012

All photographs are taken from internet.


About Somen Sengupta
This entry was posted in Partition of India and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Saadat Hasan Manto at 100 : Looking back to the horror of partition through a man who saw it.

  1. Well researched Article. I had read Toba Tek Singh in my teens. Read it again today by downloading it from the internet.

  2. Dipankar Bose says:

    Very Interesting Read. His life was as interesting as his stories . Feeling Urge to Read the Stories as the fews lines which are given are enough to arouse interest .

  3. Ajmal khan says:

    Good research, well written. Once I started reading it I could not get up without completing it. I really want to read more about Manto and his writings. Good presentation.keep it up….. You really made my day….i am sure i will have the Manto hangover for some time

  4. Rahul Sarkar says:

    Very well written article. It is good that you have given brief description of his stories…it helps the reader to draw an idea about the author …feeling the urge to read his works

  5. Kautilya says:

    Times fly and indeed the gory partition is belittled in the chaotic word.
    However when the moment of reckoning arrives I’ll remember him… For he foresaw the impending doom, which blooms under the name of Religion. For he knew the bearded Mullahs will reign destruction to everything serene..

    Thanks for the memorable article

  6. During my last visit to a book-store in Mysore , I picked up a collection of his short-stories, among other books. I have heard a lot about his chronicle of the horror of Punjab partition. Yet, I am sure there were many instances where a person risked his/her life to save a friend/neighbour or even an unknown person. I wd like to discover what and how much he wrote on such incidents .
    Soumen – where is the story on Pathan ?

  7. Mamoon Arshad says:

    Sir, Hats off to you for researching on the unsung hero of the Indian Literature,your vast study on Saadat Hassan Manto has left a very impressive impact on my mind.Hope you will continue to bring some light to such type of uncommon hero of the Indian literature.

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