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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 32, July 27, 2013

Politics a la Manto

Sunday 28 July 2013


by Naresh Nadeem

The present paper is an attempt to bring out how Manto was one of the finest products of the progressive cultural movement of our country and upheld its values and tradition despite all his idiosyncrasies.

The title of the paper may sound puzzling as Sa’âdat Hasan Manto (May 11, 1912-January 18, 1955) was not known to have been associated with any political party or group; rather he, a maverick, was by his very nature not cut out for any such association. Yet it does not mean that he was oblivious to the political events and phenomena of his day. On the contrary, he had had very definite views about the politics of his day and did not hesitate to express them in one way or another, in his own outspoken manner.

First of all, we need to underline that Manto was one of the four pillars of Urdu fiction that came up after Munshi Premchand (1880-1936) left the scene. These four were Ismat Chaghtâi, Krishanchander, Râjinder Singh Bedi and Sa’âdat Hasan Manto, who all took the art of story writing to new heights. Before them, however, the publication of Angâre (Embers) in December 1932 had already created a sensation in the world of Urdu literature and while a large section decried and condemned it, Angâre did give Urdu literature a new direction. A number of writers including Ismat Chaghtâi and poets like Kaifi Âzmi have openly expressed their indebtedness to this collection that included five short stories by Sajjâd Zaheer, two by Ahmed Ali, a very short story and a play by Dr Rashid Jahân, and a short story by the latter’s husband, Sâhebzâdâ Mehmood-uz-Zafar.1

As for Manto, some of his writings make it clear that he had his own prejudices against the Angâre team, and more so against Rashid Jahân and her husband, but yet he appears to be the true inheritor of the Angâre tradition insofar as fearlessness and outspokenness are concerned. None except Ismat Chaghtâi, that tigress of Urdu fiction, stands equal to him in this regard. It is to be noted here that Manto suffered five court cases and Ismat one in their literary careers.

Coming to Manto in particular, we would like to begin from near the end and talk of one of his later creations, namely, “Tobâ Teksingh”, which many people consider to be the best creative writing on the theme of the country’s Partition. The fact is that the Partition affected four linguistic groups in the main—those speaking Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi and Bengali. While the present writer has direct access to Urdu, Punjabi and also Hindi literature, he read the Bengali writings on Partition in translation, and he has no compunction in saying that on Partition he has so far not come across any such writing that could match “Tobâ Teksingh” in depth or intensity of feelings. It has been correctly said that here Manto is reaping the crop below the surface. Therefore when the late Bhisham Sâhni of Tamas fame edited in Hindi a collection of short stories on the theme of Partition and titled it Kitne Tobâsingh! (How Many Tobâ Teksinghs!), certainly there was nothing surprising in it.2

In this short story whose plot is set in the premises of a mental asylum, the inmates hear that a new country called Pakistan has been created, but are not able to know anything substantial about it, more so because, to the authorities, these insane people are not fit to be told anything serious. This only adds to their agony as they have heard that there is going to take place a transfer of insane people too between India and Pakistan. It is in this situation that one of the inmates asks another: “What thing after all this Pakistan is?” And the other one solemnly replies, after an amount of serious thinking: “It is a place in India where usture (old style razors with wooden handles) are made.”

But, was it just a joke cracked by a known maverick? In fact, this was Manto’s own way of underlining the existential meaninglessness of the very two-nation theory that led to the creation of Pakistan, and Manto wrote these lines while he was living his last days in Lahore, the very city wherein the Muslim League had adopted its Pakistan resolution in 1940.

What Manto really thought about the demand for Pakistan can be surmised from his excessively short story called “Mutari”, which was written some time in the mid-1940s. This story of just one page is one of his most penetrating writings, though it is not palatable to everyone and we saw that in a function where some high-class ladies were making faces when this story was being read out from the podium.

The story has the setting of a public urinal of Bombay which is called mutari in the local parlance, a place where a foul odour always pervades the surrounding atmosphere, and there is no doubt that the scene of action is a very unusual one. One day a man enters a mutari to relieve himself, sees on the wall facing him a slogan filthily abusing the idea of “akhand Bhârat” (undivided India) and feels that the foul smell of the place has increased manifold. Later, on some other day, he sees on the same wall another slogan similarly abusing the idea of Pakistan and he gets the same feeling once again. However, on a third occasion some time later, he sees a third slogan filthily abusing both the communal groups and he feels as though a fresh, pleasant wind has blown from somewhere.3

Manto wrote this story when the atmosphere in the country was highly surcharged. In his own words,

This was the period when the Briton was drawing maps on rough copies for India’s vivisection. Having thrown a burning ember into the dried hay, this Bi Jamâlo was making space for herself to stand and enjoy the spectacle. Hindu-Muslim riots had begun when I entered the Bombay Talkies. Just as wickets fly and boundaries come up in cricket matches, people’s heads were flying and fires were coming up in these riots.

This comes from his pen-sketch of the late Ashok Kumar, a noted film actor of yore who was a close friend of Manto.4

Manto’s own agonising sense of grief over the situation knew no bounds. This comes out from many of his writings, including his pen-sketch of Shyam, another renowned film actor of the day, who was a very close friend and for some time a room-mate of our writer.Manto writes:

Hindus and Muslims were dying in droves. Questions like how they were dying and why they were dying, had had numerous answers—Hindustani answer, Pakistani answer, British answer. There was an answer to every question, but no answer came forth when it was a question of finding out the truth in any answer. Someone would say: Search for it in the relics of the Ghadar.5 Another would say: No, this you would find in the East India Company’s rule. Someone would suggest about going still back and searching for it in the history of the Mughal dynasty. All were going back and back and back, while the murderers and the marauders were coming increasingly forward and were writing such a history of blood and iron as has no parallel in the history of the world.

Hindstan had got free; Pakistan had got free immediately after coming into existence; but man was still enslaved in both the dominions—a slave of prejudices, a slave of religious fanaticism, a slave of animality and barbarity!

Why Manto quit the Bombay Talkies where he was a script/dialogue writer, has its own share of agony. When Sâvak Vâchâ took in his hands the reins of this institution after the demise of Himânshu Roy and the exit of Devikâ Râni, Roy’s actress wife, he showed the mischief-mongers the door, but the situation further worsened. As these elements belonged to a particular religion while their replacements belonged to another, anonymous threats began to be issued against Vâchâ (and also against Ashok Kumar and some others) while Manto was being held guilty for all these changes. Ashok Kumar was in no mood to take these threats seriously and also advised others to ignore them plainly. But Manto felt concerned, stopped going on duty, and one day—without telling anything to anybody—he simply boarded a ship for Karachi, with only Shyam coming to the port to see him off.6 Manto thus sacrificed himself in order to cordon off others from any possible harm.

As for the perpetrators of these riots, Manto was very clear as to who they were: they were no mentally derailed but perfectly sane and otherwise normal people.7 This comes out from his excessively small writings (some of only four or five sentences) which are included in the collection Syâh Hâshiye (Dark Margins).8 See the story “Kasar-e-Nafsi” (Humility), for example:

The moving train was stopped.

Those belonging to the other religion were put to death with swords and bullets.

Once they got free from all this, the remaining passengers were treated with halwâ, milk and fruits.

Before the train moved on, the leader of the band addressed the passengers:

“Brothers and sisters!

“We got the news of this train’s arrival very late.

“That is why we could not serve you as nicely as we had wished to serve.”

This is the whole story—without any cut. The story “Safâipasandi” (Cleanliness), of only 15 lines, brings this fact out no less clearly. Four lance-bearers find a person of the other religion hiding in the toilet of a train compartment, but when one of them prepares himself to kill the catch, another one advises, “No, not here.... The compartment would get dirtied..... take him out.”

The question is: Does a mentally derailed person really have such a sense of cleanliness, or have the concern that the train’s compartment must not get dirtied? No, these people were perfectly normal, perfectly in their senses when they perpetrated one of the biggest carnages of human history!

It was no surprise, therefore, that Manto (sarcastically) devoted this collection

To the fellow

Who said, while narrating his blood-letting deeds, that

“When I killed an old woman, 

I felt as if 

I have committed a murder....”

There are also occasions when we see what kind of a grip our writer had on the psychology of communal killings. A case in point is the pen-sketch of Shyam in which Manto writes:

Once, when the bloody wars between the Hindus and Muslims were continuing and thousands on both sides were getting killed every day, Shyam and me were sitting with a Sikh family that had run away from Rawalpindi. Its members were narrating the fresh wounds they had suffered, and their story was really painful. Shyam could not help getting moved. I very well knew the stir that was going on in his mind. When we took their leave, I asked Shyam: I am a Muslim.... Don’t you think you should murder me?

Shyam replied very seriously: Not now..... but I might have killed you at that time, when I was listening to their story of the atrocities the Muslims had perpetrated.

Hearing so much from Shyam, I felt extremely shocked. At that time I too might have killed him. But when I thought about it later, and I felt the heaven-to-earth difference between “at that time”and “now”, I got the psychological background of all that rioting that was doing to death hundreds of innocent Hindus and Muslims every day (italics added).

The same reading comes out from some other writings—from the pen-sketch of actress Kuldeep Kaur, for example. KK, as she was generally called, belonged to a Sikh family of Lahore and once she had to travel all the way from Lahore to Bombay all alone in her car, at the height of the riots. After she reached Bombay safe, and when she was narrating the horrendous scenes she had witnessed en route, Manto asked her the same question and got a similar reply.

This, incidentally, brings to our mind a scene from the novel Tamas (Darkness) by Bhisham Sâhni. Shâhnawâz Khân is an influential person of his area and while he is widely suspected to be the key instigator behind the riots in the area, he helps a Hindu merchant family escape to safety when there seemed to be no escape for them from imminent death. The family leaves for an unknown place, leaves a handicapped servant behind for the safety of their big haveli, and requests Khân, an intimate friend, that he should now and then visit the house and take care of the servant. On one such visit, Shâhnawâz Khân kicks the servant in his back when they are coming down the stairs, and thus kills the servant whose open eyes are as if asking what, after all, his fault was. But why does Khân, who is perfectly calm and composed a few minutes ago, take such a step? Only because while peeping out from a first floor window, he sees in the open area behind the haveli a Muslim family bitterly wailing over the dead body of a young riot victim.

This was the difference Manto pointed out — at that time...... not now!

To Manto, however, Gandhism provided no alternative. One of his well known but possibly little understood stories is “Swarâj ke Liye” (For Swarâj), which has as its setting the 1939 agitation9 of the Congress against the unilateral British decision to drag India into the war. Manto says: “Marvellous were the days. The fear that pervaded the atmosphere following the Jalliyânwâlâ Bâgh massacre, was totally absent. It was replaced by a fearless restlessness, a reckless drive that knew not about its destination.”

This was the situation in Amritsar, Manto’s hometown, when Shâhzâdâ Ghulâm Ali, his childhood friend, agreed to become the “dictator” of the agitation. “Dictatorship had newly been established in two of the European countries, and there was a lot of talk about Hitler and Mussolini. Probably under this influence had the Congress started making dictators..... forty dictators were already behind the bars when the turn of Shâhzâdâ Ghulâm Ali came.”

But the real drama unfolds after a Bâbâ Ji appears on the scene.10 He addresses a big meeting in the Jalliyânwâlâ Bâgh, consecrates Ghulâm Ali as the new dictator, also solemnises his marriage with his ladylove, Nigâr, but also makes them take an oath that they won’t think of marriage till the country is liberated from the British. While Ghulâm and Nigâr take this oath at the spur of the moment, they suffer an artificially twisted life, a distorted mentality, which this oath has created and realise its futility when the movement is ebbing. Though it appears to be a real-life story, described by Ghulâm to Manto after their chance meeting in Bombay, it was Manto’s style of story-telling, with a rich dose of psychology, that gives it the status of a high piece of art and brings out the tragedy of Ghulâm’s life—so much so that he gets irritated at the sight of any stretchable piece of rubber, for example, a balloon which is in itself a harmless thing.

The story “Nayâ Qânoon” (New Legislation) tells us about the futility of any piece of law that fails to mitigate the sufferings of the common man. Mangu kochwân (tongâ driver), after all, finds only further suffering from the much-talked-about Government of India Act (perhaps of 1935).

The story titled “Nâ’râ” (Slogan/Loud Cry) brings out the tragedy of Kesho Lâl in all its painfulness. He is one of the tenants of a dirty, seven-storey Bombay chawl and is filthily abused by the landlord when he fails to pay the rent for two months. And what was his plea? That the “Seth” must allow him only one month’s time to pay the rent. “Those two abuses, just two abuses, had as if moved a road-roller on his broad chest. Some Hindus had mistaken him for a Muslim, beaten him blue and black, and had left him half-dead during the last Hindu-Muslim riots, and yet he had not felt so much weakness as he was feeling right now.” Here, Manto is at his elemental best in depicting the excruciating class inequalities of our society—and he is far above those who derided him as a pornographer but who themselves never offered us anything better than trash propaganda in the name of art.11

As for the post-1947 situation, we would confine to only two short stories. In “Titwâl kâ Kuttâ” (The Doggy of Titwâl),12 a small puppy gets caught between the Pakistani and Indian soldiers near the line of control. One after another, each side wants to own it and wants it to make an affirmative sound on the slogan of “Long Live Pakistan” or “Down with Pakistan”. The animal is then renounced by both sides, and is finally killed in the cross-firing when each side rains bullets to make it go to the other side. But what makes this story pathetic is the Chekhovian paradox which Manto employs as a literary device. What does the great Chekhov do in “Chameleon”, in “Vanya”, or in “Death of a Clerk”, for example? He narrates the story in a very jovial mood, makes it as funny as possible, but what is the result in the end? The reader feels a surge of pain. Let’s put it this way—Chekhov’sintention is to create tragedy precisely when his pretension is to create comedy. We live a similar experience in Manto’s just mentioned story.

Âkhiri Salute” (The Last Salute) is a story of the same calibre. Râm Singh and Rab Nawâz were born in the same village and are childhood friends, just like their fathers were; they both go to the same primary school; they both join the British Army on the same day and fight on several fronts shoulder to shoulder. The depth of their intimacy is such that they always greet each other in a vulgar language, and this style of greeting continues even when circumstances bring them face to face as enemies—as an Indian and a Pakistani soldier—somewhere along the line of control in Kashmir.

But Rab Nawâz is perplexed: Whom have I taken as an enemy for the sake of livelihood and tips? How come I am fighting against the Indian Army while I was a part of the same Indian Army not very long ago?13 How come there are several Muslims in the Indian Army and fighting against Pakistan? Also, are we fighting for Kashmir or for the Muslims of Kashmir? And if we are fighting for Kashmiri Muslims, why are we not fighting for those of Hyderabad or Junagarh? And if this is a war for Islam, how come other Islamic countries of the world have not joined it? Manto displays here mastery over the technique called stream of consciousness, taking Rab Nawâz to the conclusion that a soldier must not think about such finer points; rather he should be thick-headed as “only a thick-headed can make a good soldier”.

However, as fate has it, Râm Singh, as if in a joke, gets fatally injured by a bullet coming from Rab Nawâz and the latter, cursing himself for it, rushes towards Râm Singh, which gives rise to a pathetic scene. Râm Singh tells Rab Nawâz that the latter has been indoctrinated over Kashmir, but Rab Nawâz too has the same thing to tell about Râm Singh and is prepared to swear in the name of the Creator that this is so. When Platoon Commander Major Aslam gets the news and comes to the place moments before the sunset, Râm Singh agonisingly opens his eyes on Major Aslam’s call, gives his former officer a last salute while lying critically on the ground, and then closes his eyes for ever.

This brings out in full glare the horrors of the Partition for soldiers of the two sides — just as ruthlessly as “Nangi Âwâzen” (Naked Sounds) does in case of the refugees.

Manto lived only seven years, five months and three days after the country’s independence and vivisection, but he very clearly saw whither the newly created Pakistan was going under Yankee tutelage. His nine “Letters to Uncle Sam” are not only high art but eye-opening, as they deal with the US imperialist politics in Iran (the overthrow and arrest of President Mohd Mossadiq was then a recent episode), in Africa and in other parts of the world. As for the style of his letter writing, we would quote just one instance: In the fourth letter to Uncle Sam, he advises the latter: “Uncle, hold the Mullâ (Mullah, Muslim clergyman) tight in your loving embrace as he is the best antidote to Russia’s communism” in Pakistan. And we are constrained to say that Uncle Sam did hold the Mullâ tight in his loving embrace; it is another thing that this very embrace has now brought Pakistan to the brink of a precipice.14

One wonders how Manto would have reacted if only he were alive today!

[This paper was presented at the Platinum Jubilee National Seminar of the Purogamana Kala Sahithya Samgham, Kerala (formed: 1937), held on November 30 to December 2, 2012]


1. It is pertinent to note here that the same Angâre team played the lead role in the formation of Progressive Writers Association in 1936.

2. Incidentally, Tobâ Teksingh is a real place in West Punjab (Pakistan), and it was here that Maulana Bhasâni, a celebrated fighter of the Bangladesh liberation war in 1970-71, had organised a big kisan conference in 1955. A delegation including the present writer was invited to the Golden Jubilee celebrations of that conference in the same town in March 2005, but could not visit it because of some technical reasons.

One may add here that this short story puts Manto on par with Gogol, O’Henry and Lu Hsun in regard to the depiction of mentally insane people.

3. This is, however, a lifeless description of the story; one has to read the original in order to grasp the full import of the story with all its intensity of feelings.

4. Bi Jamâlo is a female character of folktales, known for making people fight one another.

Manto began to write a series of pen-sketches of well-known people, mostly film personalities, because of the situation of penury he was facing in the post-Partition Lahore while the establishment of the newly created country avoided him as if he were some deadly disease. While he wrote only one pen-sketch before the Partition, he wrote 21 subsequent to it. These were published first in a newspaper and later in two collections—Ganje Farishte (Bald Angels) and Loudspeaker. The second collection was published posthumously, though all the pieces included in it had appeared in print in Manto’s lifetime.

Remarkably, the pen-sketches by Manto have the same flavour as his short stories have and, so far as Urdu literature is concerned, he is to date unrivalled in this field.

(All the translations that follow are free-hand and by the present writer.)

5. The Great Uprising of 1857-58.

6. That was the time when there was no visa requirement between India and Pakistan; this liberality continued up till September 1953.

Via Karachi, Manto went to Lahore where he was a student earlier, and spent there the last years of his life in great hardship. To maintain his family and arrange for his wine, he wrote a story a day and sold it to a particular publisher at the fixed price of Rs 20 per story. That’s is why several of his stories are just trash though, now and then, gems like “Tobâ Teksingh” also came out in this process.

7. In this regard, Manto was quite different from several of his contemporaries who depicted the Partition-related riots as the handiwork of insane people.

8. These writings are in the nature of mini or micro stories, but what makes them memorable is a penetrating vision that pervades them all.

9. Manto says he did not remember the date and year, but the description leaves no doubt as to the story’s setting.

10. Manto’s style of description makes this Bâbâ Ji appear something like a mini Gandhi.

11. For example, those accusing Manto of pornography concentrated on his style of description in “Thandâ Gosht” (Cold Meat) but never talked of the fate Issar Singh, a rioter, suffered precisely because of his own action.

12. Titwâl too is a real place, like Tobâ Teksingh.

13. This takes us back to “Tobâ Teksingh” in which the asylum inmates are worried: “whether they are in Pakistan or in Hindstan.... If they are in Hindstan, where then this Pakistan is, and if they are in Pakistan, how come they were in Hindstan a few days ago while living in the same premises?” None of these asylum inmates can say what would happen tomorrow as the very today is incomprehensible: “Sialkot was earlier in Hindstan but now one hears that it is in Pakistan..... and who knows Lahore, which is in Pakistan today, goes to India tomorrow..... or the whole of Hindstan becomes Pakistan.... And who can say with certainty whether both Hindstan and Pakistan would not some day disappear without a trace?”

14. Manto started his series of letters after the Yankees made an attempt to influence his conscience. Once an employee from the US embassy in Karachi, then the capital of Pakistan, approached Manto in Lahore and requested for a short story for the embassy’s monthly magazine in Urdu. Manto, who got only Rs 20 for a story, demanded Rs 200—in the hope that this high demand would make the fellow run away. But, to his surprise, the fellow said a known writer like Manto deserved at least Rs 500 for a story. When Manto refused to take Rs 500, the fellow put 300 in his hands and left, saying that he would come on such and such a date to collect the story. On his part, Manto made it clear that he would write only what he liked to write and that nobody would have the right to make any alteration in it. Needless to say, Manto did not write anything for the US embassy, nor did any embassy employee ever come to him.

The author is on the Editorial Board of People’s Democracy;however, the views expressed here are his own.

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