(Courtesy Iftikhar Chaudri)
Saadat Hassan Manto (May 11, 1912 – January 18, 1955) was a Pakistani Urdu short story writer, most known for his Urdu short stories , ‘Bu’ (Odour), ‘Khol Do’ (Open It), ‘Thanda Gosht’ (Cold Meat), and his magnum opus, Toba Tek Singh’. Unfortunately having spent life on both sides of the border he was portrayed as an Indian writer in Pakistan and in India he was portrayed as a Pakistani writer. But truely he was a writer of the subcontinent above distinctions of coutry or religion.
He was also a film and radio scriptwriter, and journalist. In his short life, he published twenty-two collections of short stories, one novel, five collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches. He was tried for obscenity half-a-dozen times, thrice before and thrice after independence in Pakistan, but never convicted. Some of his works have been translated in other languages.
Combining psychoanalysis with human behaviour, he was arguably one of the best short story tellers of the 20th century, and one of the most controversial as well. When it comes to chronicling the collective madness that prevailed in the Indian subcontinent, during and post the Partition of India in 1947, no other writer comes close to the oeuvre of Saadat Hassan Manto.
Since he started his literary career translating works of literary giants, like Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde and many Russian masters like Chekov and Gorky, their collective influence made him search for his own moorings. This search resulted in his first story, Tamasha, based on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Amritsar. Though his earlier works, influenced by the progressive writers of his times showed a marked leftist and socialist leanings, his later work progressively became stark in portraying the darkness of the human psyche, as humanist values progressively declined around the Partition. So much so that his final works that came out in the dismal social climate of post-partition Indian subcontinent and his own financial struggles reflected an innate sense of human impotency towards darkness that prevailed in the larger society, cultivating in satirism that verged on dark comedy, as seen in his final great work, Toba Tek Singh, that not just showed a direct influence of his own stay in a veritable mental asylum, but also a reflection of collective madness that he saw in the ensuing decade of his life. To add to it, his numerous court cases and societal rebukes, deepened his cynical view of society , from which he felt ever so isolated No part of human existence remain untouched or taboo for him, he sincerely brought out stories of prostitutes and pimps alike, just as he highlighted the subversive sexual slavery of the women of his times. To many contemporary women writers, his language far from being obscene brought out the women of times in realism, seen never before, and provided them with the human dignity they long deserved. Unlike his fellow luminaries, he never indulged in didacticism or romanticized his character, nor offered any judgment on his characters. No matter how macabre or immoral they might seem, he simply presented the characters in a realistic light, and left the judgment on to the reader’s eyes. This allows his works to be interpreted in a myriad ways, depending on the viewpoint of the reader. They would appear sensationalist or prurient to one, while exceedingly human to another. Yet it was this very non-judgmental and rather unhindered truism of his pen that put him in an opposite camp from the media censors, social prejudices and the legal system of his times, so much so that he remained banned for many years and lost out on many opportunities to earn a healthy living. Throughout the Indian subcontinent he is still known for his scathing insight into the human behaviour as well as revelation of the macabre animalistic nature of an enraged subcontinent, that stands out amidst the brevity of his prose .
He is often compared with D. H. Lawrence, and like Lawrence he also wrote about the topics considered social taboos in Indo-Pakistani Society. His topics range from the socio-economic injustice prevailing in pre- and post- colonial subcontinent, to the more controversial topics of love, sex, incest, prostitution and the typical hypocrisy of a traditional sub continental male. In dealing with these topics, he doesn’t take any pains to conceal the true state of the affair – although his short stories are often intricately structured, with vivid satire and a good sense of humour. In chronicling the lives and tribulations of the people living in lower depths of the human existence, no writer of 20th century, came close to Manto. His concerns on the socio-political issues, from local to global level are revealed in his series, Letters to Uncle Sam, and those to Pandit Nehru. On his writing he often commented, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth”.
In many ways his writings can be considered a precursor to the minimalist writing movement of nineties. Instead of focusing on composition, Manto created literary effect through narration of facts, often mini stories, often gritty. Characters are not defined exclusively by the way they look, but by what they’ve done in their lives. Places are not described as a collection of sensory observations but as settings for events, sad, poignant, happy or otherwise.
Early life and education
Saadat Hassan Manto was born in a Kashmiri Muslim family of barristers, on May 11, 1912.
He received his early education at Muslim High School in Amritsar, but he remained a misfit throughout in school years, rapidly losing motivation in studies, ending up failing twice in matriculation. His only love during those days, was reading English Novels, for which he even stole a book, once from a Book-Stall in Amritsar Railway Station.
In 1931, he finally passed out of school and joined Hindu Sabha College in Amritsar, which was already volatile due the independence movement, soon it reflected in his first story, ‘Tamasha’, based on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre
After, his father died in 1932, he sobered up a bit to support his mother, though the big turning point in his life came, when in 1933 at age 21 he met Abdul Bari Alig, a scholar and polemic writer, in Amritsar, who encouraged to him find his true talents, and read Russian and French authors.
Within a matter of months Manto produced an Urdu translation of Victor Hugo’s The Last Days of a Condemned Man, which was published by Urdu Book Stall, Lahore as Sarguzasht-e-Aseer (A Prisoner’s Story).. Soon afterwards he joined the editorial staff of Masawat, a daily published from Ludhiana His 1934 Urdu translation of Oscar Wilde’s Vera won him due recognition amongst the literary circles. At the continued encouragement of Abdul Bari, he published a collection of Urdu translation of Russian stories as Russi Afsane.
This heightened enthusiasm pushed Manto to pursue graduation at Aligarh Muslim University, which he joined in February 1934, and soon got associated with Indian Progressive Writers’ Association (IPWA). It was here that he met writer Ali Sardar Jafri and found a new spurt in his writing. His second story ‘Inqlaab Pasand’ was published in Aligarh magazine in March 1935.
There was no turning back from there, and his first collection of original short stories in Urdu, Atish Pare (Sparks; also Quarrel-Provokers), was published in 1936, at age 24.
He left Aligarh within a year, initially for Lahore and ultimately for Bombay.
After 1936, he moved to Bombay, where he stayed for the next few years, editing Musawwir, a monthly film magazine. He also started writing scripts and dialogues for Hindi films, including Kishan Kanhaya (1936) and Apni Nagariya (1939). Soon he was making enough money, though by the time he married Safia on 26 April, 1939, he was once again in dire financial crisis. Despite financial ups and downs he continued writing for films, till he left for Delhi in January 1941.
He had accepted the job of writing for Urdu Service of All India Radio in 1941. This proved to be his most productive period, as in the next eighteen months he published over four collections of radio plays, Aao (Come), Manto ke Drame (Manto’s Dramas), Janaze (Funerals) and Tin auraten (Three women). He continued to write short stories, and his next short story collection Dhuan (Smoke) was soon out, followed by Manto ke Afsane and his first collection of topical essays, Manto ke Mazamin. This period culminated with the publication of his mixed collection Afsane aur Drame in 1943. Meanwhile, due a quarrel with then director of the All India Radio, poet N. M. Rashid, he left his job and returned to Bombay in July, 1942, where he started working with film industry once again, and entered his best phase in screenwriting, giving films like Aatth Din, Chal Chal Re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib, which was finally released in 1954 . Some of his best short stories also came from this phase, including ‘Kaali Shalwar’, ‘Dhuan’ (1943) and ‘Bu’ which was published in Qaumi Jang (Bombay) in February 1945. Another hightlight of his second phase in Bombay was the publication of an important collection of his stories, Chugad, which also included the story ‘Babu Gopinath’ . He continued to stay in Bombay, till he moved to Pakistan in January 1948, much after the partition of India in 1947.