Celebrating the legacy of Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto

Once in a few, we hear about the stories that remind us about the liberation we take for granted today. They tell us about the gruesome, painful yet tragic journey of our forefathers giving us the gift of freedom. For many, that story was ‘Thanda Ghosht’ by Saadat Hasan Manto, an eye-opening tale that depicts horrors of the massacre carried in 1947. It was a story that portrays the atrocities women faced during the partition of India. This partition was brutal and bloody but to Saadat Hasan Manto, a Muslim Journalist, it was maddeningly senseless.

The partition of India

The Partition of India was the division of British India in 1947 which accompanied the creation of two independent dominions, India and Pakistan. But this partition was not as simple as it seems to be. A gruesome massacre was carried, where almost 200,000 to 2,000,000 people were killed from both the communities- Hindu and Muslim. It was the last gift from British to India. In August 1947, when, after the rule of three hundred years, the British finally left, but they managed to split the countries into two halves- one the Hindu dominated “India” and the other the Muslim dominated “Pakistan”. The two-nation theory was a founding principle of the Pakistan Movement that is the ideology of Pakistan as a Muslim nation-state in South Asia, and the partition of India in 1947. The population of undivided India was approximately 390 million. After partition, there were 330 million people in India, 30 million in West Pakistan, and 30 million people in East Pakistan now Bangladesh. Partition triggered riots, mass casualties, and a colossal wave of migration.

Following partition, neighbors became rivals, friends became enemies and the belongings became souvenirs. What was the motherland for one became the land of the massacre for the other. Around 15 million people were forced to abandon their houses, shops, and occupations and were asked to leave. Trains were burned, women were raped, men were slaughtered and children were smashed. Families were lost and loved ones died- all in a blink.

Who was Saadat Hasan Manto?

Born in 1912 Ludhiana, Manto was a Bombay-based Muslim Journalist, short story author, writer, and playwright. His back story isn’t what people remember him for, in fact, his story following the partition of India made him a master in the field of contemporary literature.

At the age of 21, in 1933, Manto met Abdul Bari Alig, a scholar and polemic writer who encouraged him to read Russian and French authors. Soon Manto produced an Urdu translation of Victor Hugo’s ‘The Last Day of a Condemned Man’, as Sarguzasht-e-Aseer (A Prisoner’s Story). He then wrote his first story ‘Tamasha’ narrated through the lens of seven years old explaining Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. After graduation from Aligarh Muslim University, in 1934 Manto joined Indian Progressive Writers’ Association. Here he met Ali Sardar Jafri, under whose supervision Manto published his second story “Inqlaab Pasand”. When he came to Bombay in 1941, Manto started writing for the Urdu Service of All India Radio. This was the most productive period of his time where he published his further stories Aao, Manto ke Drame, Janaze, and Teen Auraten. After a year at AIR, Manto left his job and entered the film industry. He worked as a screenwriter in the films Aatth Din, Shikari, Chal Chal Re Naujawan, and Mirza Ghalib. He also wrote about sex and desire, alcoholics, and prostitutes.

Saadat Hasan Manto

In 1945, his story Bu became a massive hit among critics. The story was about a sexual encounter between a prostitute and a rich young man who was intoxicated by the smell of her armpits. Manto faced trial for obscenity in his writings including Bu and Dhuan, three times in British India before 1947. But despite the trials he faced, Manto’s love for life never diminished and whatever he earned in his meager salary, he would spend it all on alcohol and shoes.

Through this time, Manto managed to become an established writer, though it was his work after the partition of India that served as the foundation of his present-day reputation. After partition, Manto never intended to leave India but one day when his own friend tried killing him, Manto with his wife and children went to Pakistan. It was during this time that the gruesome and traumatic tales of partition reached him. Manto strongly opposed the decision and considered the aftermath as “overwhelming tragedy” and “maddeningly senseless”.

“Don’t 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 Hasan Manto. 

His one of the most gruesome yet realistic story was ‘Thanda Gohst’ published in 1950, a story about a Sikh man returning home and is stabbed by his wife during sex when he confesses to raping a corpse. Manto was charged with obscenity for this story and faced a trial in criminal court. But this didn’t mark an end to his journey and he published yet another writing ‘Khol Do’, one of the masterpieces depicting the effects of violence during the partition. He was yet again charged by Pakistan Penal Code for obscenity and violence. But Manto never believed in writing polite narrations and always chose to show reality through his works. He believed that women have sexual needs and their own sexual vision, which was well narrated in his several stories.

Saadat Hasan Manto After the Partition of India

Manto’s belief in liberation, morality, and ethics were translated as psychoanalytical portraits. While many considered him as a psycho, there lay others who admired his work as a jewel. In one of his trials for his work Upar, Niche Aur Darmiyan, the judge told “Manto sahib, I consider you a great short-story writer of our time. The reason I wanted to get together with you was that I didn’t wish you to go back thinking that I am not an admirer.”

Saadat Hasan Manto

Manto officially suffered mental health issues overshadowed by his dark childhood and the tough relation between him and his father. Speaking of mental health, who else wouldn’t suffer such a trauma especially after partition? In one of his short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’, Manto describes the life of inmates of Lahore mental asylum shortly after partition. It was a fictional story about a Sikh man who struggled to find his identity among the chaos and rush of establishing two new independent dominions. If we look through the lens of ‘Toba Tek Singh’, we come to realize that the inmates were actually saner than the greedy politicians who derived people away from their homeland. But this colorful ideology of Manto was never accepted by then government figures.

Taking his last breath in a mental asylum off Hall Road in Lahore, Manto died on 18 January 1955 due to cirrhosis. Yet his legacy remains and continues to tell stories of partition through the poignant yet bright lens of Saadat Hasan Manto.


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