The Mantoo I know

I had my first introduction with Sadat Hassan Mantoo, when I was in University in 2011. I happened to read a short story in Urdu. It was a torn page from a news magazine. It had no proper heading, though, I started to read. Somewhere in the middle of the story, I wanted to stop because of its eroticism but somehow I reached the end of the two-page story. The flow and simplicity in the language did not let me stop and kept me interested in reading on.

Towards the end it turned to be devastating, powerful and a painful story with a Sikh guy killing a Muslim family.

Thanda Ghosth by Saadat Hassan Manto is one of the first short stories through which I was introduced to his literary work. I began to read him after I had gone through his Toba Tek Singh. It is said that Manto once read Toba Tek Singh in Lahore’s YMCA Hall at the annual meeting of Halqa-e Arbab-e Zauq. After he finished reading it, tears had welled up in everyone’s eyes.

According to Manto, partition of India was madness. When he left Bombay and settled in Lahore after the partition, Toba Tek Singh was the result of the brutalities and madness of the phenomena penned down by Manto.

“Don’t say that 100,000 Hindus and 100,000 Muslims have been massacred,” he wrote, “say that 200,000 human beings have been slaughtered. And it is not such a great tragedy that 200,000 human beings have been butchered but the real tragedy is that the dead have been killed for nothing.”

Saadat Hassan Manto was born on May 11, 1912 in Paproudi village of Samrala in Ludhiana district of Punjab in a Kashmiri Muslim family of barristers. He had his early education in Amritsar. In 1931 he passed his school and joined a college in Amritsar. Amritsar was very tense in those days of India’s freedom movement. This phase of his life is recorded in his short story Tamasha—a reflection of Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Many of his critiques believed that Manto was ahead of his time. His works were highly criticized because of erotic details which they contain. Manto was accused of obscenity six times – thrice before 1947 and thrice after 1947 in Pakistan. But he was never convicted. Manto, unlike others, wrote about the taboos of society and explained them. He portrayed the dark side of human psyche. In his writings no part of human existence remained a taboo for him for he sincerely brought out stories of prostitutes and pimps alike. He highlighted the subversive sexual slavery of the women of his times.

His writings about the socio-political system portrayed the real face of India and Pakistan – the two parts of a single entity, separated by a bloody partition.

Toba Tek Singh is considered as his magnum opus. Translated in English and many different languages, it revolves round the partition of India. The short story is based on exchange of lunatics between the countries when the line of separation is drawn between the two newly entities. The lunatic named Bishen Singh who is unable to understand the partition and establishment of Pakistan dies in no man’s land.

This is how Manto ends the classical tale: ‘There behind barbed wire on one side, lay India and behind more barbed wires, on the other side, lay Pakistan. In between a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh!”

If Bishen Singh insists on finding out where is Toba Tek Singh, then how can one agree on loss of memory and death of imagination? Manto wrote scores of short stories on communal disturbance. His collection Siah Hashiey portrays the aftermath of partition. Manto, virtually, penetrates human psychology. The characters have no names; they are neither Hindu nor Muslim. They are just human beings with all their shortcomings and selfishness.

Khol Do, a story based on barbarism of people who forget humanism in the fire of revenge, is among his masterpieces. Titwal ka kutta and Akhri salam are his masterpieces about Kashmir conflict. In the stories, Manto wonders how the soldiers, who fought together in World War II, suddenly turned into enemies. Yet, soldiers learning their identities recall old memories. Manto brings out the idea of humanism in their hearts.

Saadat Hasan Manto is often compared with D. H. Lawrence. Like Lawrence he too wrote about the topics considered as social taboos in Indo-Pak society. 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 Jawaharlal 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”.

Ashraf ul Hassan is a staff writer at Kashmir Vision

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