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Manto: The Man To Be Reckoned

Lahore, January 1948….. Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) was looking at a footwear shop, as he tried to assess the damage. The shop was badly damaged during the communal violence that had broken out in the city after the partition of the Indian subcontinent on August 15, 1947. An old man, who was selling foods in front of the shop, informed Manto that the owner had to repair the shop after the partition. All of a sudden, a young man arrived there and told the old man that Mahatma Gandhi was murdered in Delhi. The old trader, who got shell shocked after receiving the news, blasted the man, saying that it was not the proper way to reveal a bad news. “Who killed Gandhi?” asked Manto. The young man replied that the Hindus had pumped three bullets into the leader of the Indian Independence movement against British rule… A similar reaction has been depicted by Abul Mansur Ahmed, the Deputy Prime Minister of East Pakistan in 1957, in his memoirs…..

Mahatma Gandhi

The Nandita Das film – Manto – may somehow remind us of ‘India Wins Freedom‘ by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. After the assassination of Gandhi on January 30, 1948, eminent Indian political leaders, including Jayprakash Narayan and Prafulla Chandra Ghosh, blasted the Indian Home Ministry for its failure in arranging adequate security for the ‘Father of the Nation’. Then Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was reportedly not at all happy with Gandhi’s activities after the partition. Gandhi’s main fault was that he was sympathetic towards ‘minority’ Muslims. Muslims were attacked in Delhi after the partition and their properties were looted. When Gandhi questioned the then Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru about his failure in protecting the Muslims, the PM said that attacks on the minorities were basically some isolated incidents and the Prime Minister’s Office was closely monitoring the situation. Nehru’s reply angered Gandhi, who stressed that he was in India and not in China when the Muslims were attacked. Helpless Gandhi once again undertook fast in order to safeguard the Indian Muslims. It became clear to the Indian people that the partition and the Hindu-Muslim division started affecting the friendship between Gandhi and Nehru.


The reason behind this rift is the human mind. We love to confine ourselves to a single identity – either Hindu or Muslim! Surprisingly, we don’t create our respective identities, instead inherit them from our ancestors or from the society. The feeling of majority makes us proud. And the ‘Politics of Hindutva’ utilises this feeling to spread hatred! Gandhi had to sacrifice his life after waging a war against this dangerous trend. His murderers thought that Gandhi, despite being a Hindu, was backing Muslims for whom a separate nation was created….. Pakistan!
Manto reached Lahore from Bombay (now Mumbai) via Karachi on January 7-8, 1948, although he could not accept the imposed identity – the Indian-Pakistani. Manto had already created his own identity, as he emerged as one of the best Urdu writers of the subcontinent. Still, the partition and the riots haunted him. Once, Manto wrote: “When we left home, we carried with ourselves two caps. A Hindu topi and a Rumi topi. When passing through a Muslim mohalla, we put on the Rumi topi and when walking through a Hindu mohalla, the Hindu topi…. These we kept in our pockets to be pulled out wherever needed. Religion used to be felt in the heart, but now, in the new Bombay, it must be worn on the head.” (Politics To Operate Through The Caps) In Lahore, Manto told his friends that he had so many questions on the partition, but he got either an Indian explanation or a Pakistani explanation. According to the Ludhiana-born author, everyone tried to explain the events that took place in the subcontinent through historical evidences and to punish those who used weapons to write the bloody history.

Manto with his wife Safia whom he married on April 26, 1939

Manto could not believe that he would have to leave Bombay just because of the partition. Once he had claimed that he would never leave Bombay, as he was indebted to this city. Even after his arrival in Lahore, he said that Bombay was staying with him in the Pakistani city! (“I’m a moving-and-thriving Bombay.”) Interestingly, no one asked him or forced him to leave Bombay. Then, why he left the city? In one of his books, Manto wrote: “Hindustan (India) had become free. Pakistan had become independent soon after its inception but man was still slave in both these countries – slave of prejudice … slave of religious fanaticism … slave of barbarity and inhumanity.
In his article, titled ‘Manto and Shyam: A Partitioned Friendship‘, Zubair Rizvi wrote: “As the events of Partition unfolded the carefree lives of Manto and his childhood friend and noted actor Sundar Shyam Chadha became turbulent and cloudy. Bombay became part of India, and though riots and killings were few, the terrible stories of such mayhem were widespread and the atmosphere was tense. Manto was torn between his love for Bombay and his friends and the concern about his future as a Muslim in Hindustan. His wife Safia had gone to Pakistan with their daughters, though it was only till things settle down. Manto could not decide to stay or leave. He was afraid, confused and suffered from feelings of being shunned by the film industry for being a Muslim. However, his friendship with Shyam was solid as a rock.” Rizvi added: “At that time Shyam, who had been kicked out by Tajie for another indiscretion, was living with Manto whose family was in Pakistan, and it was then that something happened which forced Manto’s hand. Manto and Shyam visited a family who had migrated from Rawalpindi and they narrated harrowing tales of what they had seen and endured. Manto noted that Shyam was deeply moved and on the way back he asked Shyam: ‘I am a Muslim, do you want to kill me?’ and Shyam replied: ‘Not now, but at that time when I was listening to their story I could have killed you.’ And Manto realised the cause behind the violence, where friends had become foes, and decided it is best if he relocates to Pakistan.

Shyam tried his best to convince Manto to stay in India, but a crack had appeared and Manto made a final decision – to leave for Pakistan. Perhaps, he realised that his friends slowly became enemies! He was not happy even in Lahore, as he used to miss his friends. Wife Safia advised him to return to Bombay. But, Manto said: “Had I stay in Bombay, I might have become like that.” It seems that Manto failed to realise that his other friends, like Ashok Kumar (another Indian actor who attained iconic status), missed him too!
Once, Ayesha Jalal – the Pakistani-American historian and wife of Indian historian and politician Sugata Bose – said as Manto’s grandniece, she still remembers that he had faced trial for obscenity in his writings in both India and Pakistan, including three times in India before 1947 (‘Dhuan’, ‘Bu’ and ‘Kali Shalwar’) and three times in Pakistan after 1947 (‘Khol Do’ ‘Thanda Gosht’ and ‘Upar Neeche Darmiyaan’) under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code and the Pakistan Penal Code in Pakistan’s early years. However, he was fined only in one case. Regarding the charges of obscenity, Manto opined that “I am not a pornographer, but a story writer“.

Nehru & Jinnah

It is to be noted that Manto and Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) – an Indian Urdu language writer who wrote on themes, including female sexuality and femininity, middle-class gentility and class conflict, often from a Marxist perspective – openly defended each other’s work and even faced the trial for the alleged “obscenity” in their respective stories together at Lahore in 1944. While Manto faced the court trial for alleged obscenity in his short-story ‘Bu‘ (Odour), Chughtai faced the trial for the same in her ‘Lihaaf‘. Ismat’s husband Shahid Lateef was a friend of Manto and also a Hindi film director, writer and producer.
Manto’s life reminds us of the decomposed society of the subcontinent even 70 years after the partition. Nandita has portrayed this fact in her film in a somewhat different way.

Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto:
Toba Tek Singh
Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition
Memories of Madness: Stories in 1947
Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto
Stars from Another Sky: The Bombay Film World of the 1940s
Black Borders
Manto Nama
Why I Write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto
Manto’s World: A Representative Collection Of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Fiction And Non-Fiction
Kingdom’s End: Selected Stories
Partition: Sketches and stories
Bombay Stories
A wet afternoon: Stories, sketches, reminiscences
Ganjay Farishtay

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