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Social and Political World-View of Saadat Hasan Manto

By R.K. Shivpuri

SaadAT Hasan Manto, a literary genius, is known to the people of the subcontinent as a master story-teller. He wrote in Urdu, strangely the language in which he failed twice in his school-leaving examination. Manto was to emerge as a great stylist in the same language later.

Manto was a Kashmiri. His fore-fathers had migrated from Kashmir, like many others, during the great famines. He was born in Sambrala, Ludhiana in 1912. Excessive drinking cut his life short at the comparatively young age of 43. In a literary career spanning just two decades, he penned down more than two hundred short stories and wrote scores of plays and essays. His facetious letters to 'uncle Sam' and Pandit Nehru show his tremendous awareness of the political events around and also reflect on his capacity to forge a link between politics and litterature.

Saadat Hasan's fame was genuine. He displayed extraordinary brilliance in communicating his concerns. Among his contemporaries, he was the only writer who turned the bloody events of the partition into great literature. But what actually made him famous was the controversial nature of his writing and his courage to present his milieu in ways which were radically different. The Indian middle class, mired in hypocrisy, was shocked out of its wits. Manto was an iconoclast, who defied social tradition. He was denounced for his partition stories and accused of cynicism and sensationalising a tragedy. One critic even said, 'Manto had desecrated the dead and robbed them of their personal possessions'.

Talking about Manto, writer Anita Desai says, "he saw the relation between sex, religion and violence and was obsessed by it as well as sickened....(and) it was when his inflamed passions and emotions became tempered with a satirist's laughter and with a touch of fantasy that he reached his greatest heights".

Manto's brilliance has drawn widespread approval. Salman Rushdie describes him as 'the undisputed master of the Indian short story'. Gopi Chand Narang remarks that Mantoo was a master craftsman and short-story writer par excellence, who blazed a trail of glory in Urdu fiction unmatched by any other writer. Bhisham Sahani explains, "It is Manto's unique quality as a writer that he juxtaposes the world of reality with the world of make-believe. That is his-special gift. It lends rare artistry to his writing and adds immeasurably to the pathos of his stories".


In his life-time, Manto was reviled and subjected to much abuse and humiliation. The 'progressives' and the traditionalists denounced him in equal measure. Ali Sardar Jafari praised, among others, the story "Bu" in an article published in Qaumi Jang (Bombay) in February 1945. The same Jafri attacked the same story for its 'reactionary' contents, a few weeks later. Manto was unceremoniously expelled from the fraternity of newly emerging progressive Urdu writers. The charges levelled were that he was a reactionary and even degenerate in his thinking.

The great writer was also hauled up 'before the courts on the heinous charge of peddling pornography, not once but several times. The day he died, Manto had a summon pending in the court. A judge once, While announcing the judgement, told Manto : "If I had rejected your appeal, you would have gone around saying that you had been done in by a bearded Moulvi'. In another case he told the judge : "A writer picks up his pen only when his sensibility is hurt'.

Manto defended himself and asked his detractors :

"If you cannot tolerate my stories, this means the times are intolerable. There is nothing wrong in my stories. The wrong which is ascribed to my stories, is in fact the rot of the system...If you are opposed to my literature, then the best way is that you change the conditions that motivate such literature...May be my writings are unpleasantly harsh. But what have humans gained from sweet homilies? The neem leaves are pungent but they cleanse the blood."

It is only of late that there has been revival of interest in Manto's writings, but at the official level he continues to be a person non grata. 'Another Lonely voice: The Life and Works of Saadat Hasan Manto', (1985), by Leslie Flemming was the first serious attempt to put this widely-read writer in correct perspective. Since than a number of anthologies and translations of Manto's work have appeared. These include Khalid Hassan's Kingdom's End and other stories (1987), Partition: Sketches and stories (1991), versions of truth (1991); Manto Ki Sarva Shreshth (1991) by Satish Jamali; Dastavez, Vol. No: 4 (1993) by Balraj Mehta and Sharad Dutt and Devinder Issar's Manto Adalat Ke Kathghare Men (1991). In 1981 Issar had published Mantonama. The prestigious Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla held a seminar on Manto in 1996. This was the first of its kind in India or Pakistan.

In the present paper an attempt is being made to understand the social and political world-view of Saadat Hasan Manto. He defined literature as the pulse of the nation but advised writers to keep sentiment away from it.

Social World-View :

Manto believed all civil societies were designed to legitimise our worst impulses and rejected man as a creature who had any ethical senses. He recorded with 'empathy the lives of the marginalised and the brutalised and attacked with sardonic humour the carelessness of the privileged'. His heroes were people who lived on the fringes of society. To him prostitutes were more interesting than housewives and crooks more human than civil servants. In 'Khol Do', Manto captures and reveals the damaged psychology of the woman--victim, who has surrendered her sense of being and has become a mechanised sexual object involved in involuntary action.

Krishan Chander once described him as 'the Lord Shankar of Urdu literature', who had drunk to the dregs, the poison of life and then had gone on the describe in great details its taste and colour. Manto's choice of prostitutes and pimps and other marginalised people as subjects was not accidental. Harish Narang observes, "It was an essential part of his ideology-an ideology which foregrounded the lives of the marginalised and the subaltern with the clear objective of not only changing the course of the majority discourse but to subvert it...Slapping his readers into a new social awareness for subverting the status-quo and bringing about fundamental changes into the societal set-up". Devender Issar also defends Manto : "While Manto never pretends to be a philosopher, he is concerned with questions of existence and the self, sin and evil, nature and culture. His preoccupations are always, with the social and cultural man and not with man's essential culture. He, thus simply accepts sex as one of the basic and instinctual aspects of human existence". Manto often said that his stories are for healthy people, for normal people...for those who don't view man-woman relationship with amazement.

Manto was criticised by his contemporary writers for being obsessed with sex and peddling pornography. He accepted the charge but asks : "If any mention of a prostitute is obscene then her existence too is obscene. If any mention of her is prohibited, do away with the prostitute, reference to her would vanish by itself...The house of a prostitute is in itself a dead body which society carries on its shoulders. Until it is buried somewhere by society, there will be discussions about it.

To Saadat Hasan the polite, decent women and their niceties were of no consequence. Her heroines were 'a whore who remains awake at night, and while asleep during the day, suddenly wakes up after seeing a terrible dream of old age knocking at her door' or ....a woman who after quarrelling with her husband and threatening to commit suicide, goes to see a movie and her husband is terribly worried".

Urge for recognition:

Manto has been described as a man difficult to understand, quarrelsome by nature, touchy, introverted and egotistical. This often made him lonely. He frequently complained of being depressed. Whether his portrayal of terror, pain, misery, brutal sexuality had any link with his depressive state of mind, has yet to be explored.

Some say that his desire for reassurance and approval were the real causes for his depression. He dilemma to opt for Pakistan was resolved when his film-scripts were put aside for those of Nazir Ajmeri, Kamal Amrohi and Shahid Latif. Once, while defending his writing, Manto said "After Iqbal..it is as if Providence has put locks on all doors of literature and handed over the keys to just one blessed soul". The epithet he chose himself a year before his death also shows his concern for self-recognition.

It read :

Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie

buried all the arts and mysteries of short-story

Writing. Under tons of earth he lies, wondering if

he is a greater short story writer than god.

Ideology :

Manto abhorred all ideologies, religious or political. His "Student Union Camp", "Sharabi", "Do or Die--Mein Langot Ka Pakka Rahoonga", "contemptuous references to dervishes and leftists (whisky to Aise Gale Se Utar Kar Pet Me Inquilab Zindabad Likhti Gay') 'assiduously created an absolute disbelief in any ideology of power of salvation'.

The great writer often crossed swords with high priests of progressive Urdu literature. In Jaib-e-Kafan, he writes : 'I felt sorry for the activists of the progressive movement who unnecessarily meddled in politics. These charlatans were using the prescription proposed by Kremlin and were busy preparing a mixture of literature and politics. Nobody bothered about the temperament or the pulse of the patient for whom the mixture was prepared. The result for everyone to see. We are brooding over the stagnation in our litterature'.

In Gunah Ki Baityan, Gunah Ke Bap, he again takes up the communists : 'I greatly detested the so-called communists. I could not appreciate people who talked about the 'sickle and the hammer' while sitting in comfortable arm-chairs. In this connection, comrade Sajjad Zaheer who sipped his milk in a silver cup, always remained a clown in my eyes. The true psychology of working labourers is manifested in their sweet. May be, the people who used this sweat to earn wealth, and used it as ink to write detailed manifestoes, are sincere people. However, you will pardon me, if I consider them to be impostors".

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, once while absolving his 'Thanda Ghosht' of the charge of obscenity, said the story did not fulfill "those higher objectives of literature because in this (story) there is no satisfactory solution to the basic problems of life." Bhisham Sahani says, "If the progressives found fault with Manto, it was on this score. During the forties, when the progressive movement in literature had over-zealous adherents, the main emphasis on literature was not on character realisation but on protest...The progressives therefore expected that a sensitive artist like Manto, who was writing about the lives of the prostitutes, would also show the nature of exploitation to which the prostitute was being subjected. It would not have been idealistic or romantic on the part of Manto to show a character in the throes of a struggle to free herself from the shackles of this slavery...they were also critical of his total lack of interest in the cruel subjection of the poor to exploitation."

Manto rebutted the charge. He said, "I do not consider myself to be either a preacher or a teacher of morals...We diagnose diseases but don't run a clinic'. Elsewhere he remarks : 'I don't whip up the emotions and ideas of people. How can I undress culture and civilisation when they already have no clothes on. I also don't try to dress them up since it is not my job but that of drapers'.

On partition, Manto took no sides and wrote with detachment and passion about the brutalities committed by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in the name of religion and nationalism. He also did not make any attempt to establish parity between the monstrosities committed by all. 'Mozel' is his only story that describes the cultural visibility of his characters, otherwise he steers clear of all stereotypes.

Political Views :

Manto lived in momentous times and was aware of the great changes taking place. He was very alive and sensitive to political currents. KN Daruwala observes, "unless they referred to either the freedom struggle on the subcontinent, or the stupidity of the partition, they never made an appearance in his fiction".

He was a humanist but at the same time a free-thinker. Manto would have never reacted to the partition the way he did had he not been aware of the contradictions and other complications of the Muslim mind in the sub-continent. In "Aakhri Salute", Manto asks : "Was the Pakistani Army fighting for Kashmir or Kashmiri Muslims? In case they were prodded to fight for Muslims in Kashmir, why were they not sent to Hyderabad and Junagarh to fight for the Muslims there? In case it was a purely Islamic war, why were not other Muslim countries joining the war".

For Manto, partition was an overwhelming tragedy. If his first set of partition stories are derisive tales of a degenerate society, his second set (1951-55) of stories are both 'parables of lost reason and demonic parodies of the conventional history of the national movement'. To Manto, 1947 is not a celebrative, an epiphanic event. Partition was 'not an unfortunate rupture in historical time but a continuation of it'.

In his famous story 'Toba Tek Singh', the mad person is none other than Manto. The lunatic asylum around which the entire story revolves, alludes to the abode of millions of sensible and dignified people, who were unable to understand the basic logic of the partition. In the same story he asks, 'Moulvi Saab, what is this Pakistan" After deep contemplation, he replied, "It is a place in India where blades are manufactured". In the 'Dog of Tetwal', Manto 'mocks at the follish gullibility and mindlessness of people vis-a-vis discourses of power and authority'. There is constant tension: would those who killed the dog die as patriots or would they die the death of cruel fools for their country, religion or cause.

Manto was completely confounded, not as much by the geographical divide as by the cultural chasm created by it. This is reflected in his 'Zahmate-Mihre-Darakhshan'. He ironically asks : Will Pakistani literature be different, and if so, how? Will literature be partitioned also? What I could never resolve was the question : What country did we now belong to, India or Pakistan..."

Pakistan :

Saadat Hasan could not reconcile with the reality of Pakistan. In 'Khol Do' he depicts how the Pakistani society, from the moment of its inception, had turned brutal despite the theological ideals held forth in its defense. 'Zaroorat Hai' shows Manto's feelings on discrimination of being an outsider. He summed up his predicament : "You know me as a short story writer and the courts know me an obscene writer. The government sometimes calls me a communist, and sometimes a great literary figure of the country. Sometimes the doors of livelihood are closed on me and sometimes they are opened for me. Sometimes I am declared a persona non grata and considered an outsider, sometimes, when the powers-that-be are pleased, I am told that I can be an 'insider'. I am still troubled, as I have often been in the past, over the questions like : Who am I? What is my status? What is my role in this country which is regarded as the largest Islamic state?"

The Indian national movement too found an echo in his stories--'It happened in 1919 (second story on Jallianwala Bagh massacre), 'Naya Kanoon' and 'Swaraj Ke Liye'.

'Uncle Same':

In his last years, Manto increasingly becomes political. He wrote a series of facetious letters (nine) to uncle Sam when US was about to sign a military agreement with Pakistan. Manto was not satisfied with American influences on the society and polity of Pakistan. He strikes a note of satire : "....our mullah is the best counter to Russian communism....I think the only purpose of military aid is to arm these mullahs'. He thanks the mullahs who kept the alcohol available, despite prohibition, due to their weakness for it. In his own ways Manto evolves a critique of US imperialism. He argues that Americans intended to dump all the discarded arms and ammunitions from second world war on the two countries. Manto says he had also heard that the US had made a hydrogen bomb so that there could be lasting peace in the world. Yet he wondered, "how many countries will need to be removed from the face of the earth for this lasting peace to be established". His niece had asked him to draw a map of the world for her. He had told her that he would draw the map after consulting with his uncle to "find out the names of the countries that were going to survive" (fifth letter).

Manto also drew himself into the vortex of Indo-Pak conflict and at times behaved as a Pak chauvinist. In August 1954 he wrote another facetious letter Dibacha, this time to Nehru, which turned into the preface of a book of short stories called Beghair Unwaan Ke (Untitled). Manto was deeply disturbed over the piracy of his works in India and that Nehru, fellow Kashmiri was doing nothing to stop it. Manto writes : "....you can find right away how many publishers in Delhi, Lucknow, and Jalandhar have pirated my books. Several lawsuits have already been filled against me on charges of obscenity. But look at the injustice of things, that in Delhi, right under your nose, a publisher brings out the collection of my stories and calls it The obscene stories of Manto. I wrote the book Ganje Farishte. An Indian publisher has published it as Behind the curtains....Now tell me, what should I do ?"

Manto's second grievance was India had stopped the river waters. Using metaphors of 'nahr' and 'munt', he complains : "I was surprised to learn that you want to stop the rivers from flowing through our land. Panditji, you are only a Nehru.  I regret that I am just a measuring stone weighing one and a half seer. If I were a rock of thirty or forty thousand maunds, I would have thrown myself into the river, so that you would have to spend some time consulting with your engineers on how to pull out". Manto also depicted this in 'Yazid'.

On Radcliffe award, he complains: 'The country was partitioned. Radcliffe employed Patel to do the dirty work. You have illegally occupied Junagarh, which a Kashmiri could do only under the influence of a Maratha. I mean Patel (God forgive him)...It was the time when Radcliffe had turned India into two slices of a single loaf of bread. It is regrettable that they have not been toasted yet. You are toasting it from that side and we, from this. But the flames in our braziers are coming from outside".


Many of Manto's Indian readers may be shocked by his chauvinistic stand on Kashmir. Manto expresses his disappointment over the fact that Kashmir was a part of India. He says : "...I have only been up to Banihal. I have seen places like Kud, Bataut and Kashtwar. I have seen their poverty alongwith their beauty. If you have removed this poverty, then keep Kashmir to yourself. But I am sure you cannot do it, despite being a Kashmiri because you have no time." One may well ask whether Pakistan had banished poverty.

Manto also refers to corruption under Bakshi: "The Bakshis and the rest of them deserve to be sacked right away. Cheats of the first order ! You have no reason to bestow such honours on them." Is this because it suits you? But why at all...? I know you are a politician, which I am not. But that does not mean I do not understand anything...Panditji, this is the season of baggugoshas. What injustice that you have given Bakshi all the rights over them, and he does not send me even a few as a gift! Well, let the gift go to hell, baggugoshas too...No, on second thoughts, let them be".

Manto is also overwhelmed by his nostalgia for Kashmir, the land of his forefathers. He recalls how in the past the older people from his side often met those from the side of Kashmiri Pandits. Now 'one Kashmiri does run into another in by-lanes, or at cross roads'. Manto also pronounces judgements on Kashmiris : 'To be a Kashmiri is to be handsome...Kashmiris have never accepted defeat in any field...Who can outshine us in poetry?". He also refers to how Kashmiri surnames, whether Nehru or Manto are only nicknames. Manto recalls with nostalgia, “Whenever my late father--who was obviously, a Kashmiri--ran into a hato, he would bring him home, seat him in the lobby, and treat him to some Kashmiri salty tea and Kulchas. Then he would tell him proudly, "I'm also a Koshar". Panditji, you are a Koshar too". Manto also feels for the Kashmiri cuisine : 'Between us Pandit brothers, do this--call me back to India. First I will help myself to shaljam shabdegh (turnip and meat preparation cooked overnight in a wok) at your place, and then take over the responsibility for Kashmir affairs...Every morning you will have to treat me to salty tea along with a Kulcha. Shaljam Shabdegh, in any case, will have to be there every week". In this letter, Manto also refers to an anecdote pertaining to the poet, Ghani Kashmiri, where one line of the couplet reads : "The smell of Kebab is wafting from your clothes". Elsewhere he says : "....We can think of new ways of cooking roganjosh, pulao and korma".

Kashmir overweighs on Manto's mind. In 'A Question of Honour', he says he comes from Amritsar and was a Kashmiri. 'The Dog of Tetwal' and 'Aakhri Salute' stories are set in the beautiful Kishanganga Valley. His two prostitute characters, Zeenat in 'Babu Gopi Nath' and Shanti in the story 'Shanti' are Kashmiris. When he first sees Zeenat at Babu Gopi Nath's place, he describes her as follows : "Her face was round and her complexion was fair. On entering the room, I at once realised that she was the Kashmiri Kabutari whom Sando had mentioned in the office".  




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