Remembering Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955)
(Excerpted from Counterpunch)
Saadat Hasan Manto died in Lahore in 1955. He was forty-three years old. The life of one of our greatest short-story writers had been prematurely truncated. I was eleven years old at the time. I never met him. I wish I had. One can visualize him easily enough. In later photographs the melancholy is visible. He appears exhausted as if his heart were entrenched with sadness. In these his face displays all the consequences of a ravaged liver.
But there are others. Here his eyes sparkle with intelligence, the impudence almost bursting through the thick glass of his 1940’s spectacles, mocking the custodians of morality, the practitioners of confessional politics or the commissariat of the Progressive Writers. ‘Do your worst’, he appears to be telling them. ‘I don’t care. I will write to please myself. Not you.’ Manto’s battles with the literary establishment of his time became a central feature of his biography. Charged with obscenity and brought to trial on a number of occasions he remained defiant and unapologetic.
It was the Partition of India in 1947 along religious lines that formed his own attitudes and those of his numerous detractors. The episodes associated with the senseless carnage that accompanied the withdrawal of the British from India loom large in Manto’s short stories. The horrors of 1947 were well known, but few liked to talk about them. A collective trauma appeared to have silenced most people. Not Manto. In his stories of that period he recovered the dignity of all the victims without fear or favor. Even the perpetrators of crimes were victims of a political process that had gone out of control.
In the months that preceded Partition, Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other glared into each other’s hate-filled eyes before embarking on frenzied blood-baths. The character and scale of the butchery was unprecedented in Indian history. In fact even Jinnah, as late as June 1946, was prepared to consider a federal solution as proposed by the Cabinet Mission sent to India by the Labour Government. It was the Congress Party which made that particular solution impossible.
This failure meant that exactly one year before Partition, the Hindu-Muslim riots started in Eastern India. During four days in August 1946, nearly 5000 people were killed and three times that number wounded in Bengal.
Trains became moving graveyards as they arrived at stations on both sides of the new divide, packed with corpses of fleeing refugees. As always, it was the poor of town and country who were the main victims and they were buried or burnt in hastily dug pits.
The Partition of India was a tragedy and a crime. It was neither inevitable nor necessary and its traces are only too visible in the unending anguish of the great sub-continent.
Saadat Hasan Manto, was moved to write ‘Toba Tek Singh’. Manto wrote sparsely, each word carefully chosen. His diamond-hard prose was in polar contrast to the flowery language of many contemporaries. ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is a masterpiece, set in the lunatic asylum in Lahore at the time of Partition. When whole cities are being ethnically cleansed, how can the asylums escape? The Hindu and Sikh lunatics are told by bureaucrats organizing the transfer of power that they will be forcibly transferred to institutions in India. The inmates rebel. They embrace each other and weep. They will not be parted willingly. They have to be forced on to the trucks. One of them, a Sikh, is so overcome by rage that he dies on the demarcation line which divides Pakistan from India. Confronted by so much insanity in the real world, Manto discovered normality in the asylum. The ‘lunatics’ have a better understanding of the crime that is being perpetrated than the politicians who have agreed to Partition.
That past now rots in the present and threatens to further poison the future. The poisonous fog of the religious world has enveloped politics. History, unlike the poets and writers of the sub-continent, is not usually prone to sentiment.
Manto was amongst the few who observed the bloodbaths of Partition with a detached eye. He had remained in Bombay in 1947, where he worked for the film industry, but was accused of favouring Muslims and was subjected to endless communal taunts, even from those who had hitherto imagined to be like him, but the secular core in many people did not survive the fire. Manto came to Lahore in 1948, but was never happy. He turned the tragedies he had witnessed or heard into great literature. He wrote of the common people, regardless of ethnic, religious or caste identities and he discovered contradictions and passions and irrationality in each of them. In his work we see how normally decent people can, in extreme conditions, commit the most appalling atrocities. ‘Cold Meat’ is one such story. In 1952 he wrote: “My heart is heavy with grief today. A strange listlessness has enveloped me. More than four years ago when I said farewell to my other home, Bombay, I experienced the same kind of sadness…”
Years later he was still trying to come to grips with what had happened: “Still, what my mind could not resolve was the question: what country did we belong to now, India or Pakistan? And whose blood was it that was being so mercilessly shed every day? And the bones of the dead, stripped of the flesh of religion, were they being burned or buried? Now that we were free who was to be our subject? When we were not free, we used to dream about freedom. Now that freedom had come, how would we perceive our past state?
“The question was: were we really free? Both Hindus and Muslims were being massacred. Why were they being massacred? There were different answers to the question; the Indian answer, the Pakistani answer, the British answer. Every question had an answer, but when you tried to unravel the truth, you were left groping.
“India was free. Pakistan was free from the moment of its birth, but in both states, man’s enslavement continued: by prejudice, by religious fanaticism, by savagery.”
In a series of Open Letters to Uncle Sam he marked his displeasure at the state of world politics and Pakistan’s Security Pact with the US. He displayed a remarkable prescience as expressed in this extract from his ‘Third Letter to uncle Sam’, written shortly before his death:
“Another thing I would want from you would be a tiny, teeny weeny atom bomb because for long I have wished to perform a certain good deed. You will naturally want to know what.
“You have done many good deeds yourself and continue to do them. You decimated Hiroshima, you turned Nagasaki into smoke and dust and you caused several thousand children to be born in Japan. Each to his own. All I want you to do is to dispatch me some dry cleaners. It is like this. Out there, many Mullah types after urinating pick up a stone and with one hand inside their untied shalwar, use the stone to absorb the after-drops of urine as they resume their walk. This they do in full public view. All I want is that the moment such a person appears, I should be able to pull out that atom bomb you will send me and lob it at the Mullah so that he turns into smoke along with the stone he was holding.
“As for your military pact with us, it is remarkable and should be maintained. You should sign something similar with India. Sell all your old condemned arms to the two of us, the ones you used in the last war. This junk will thus be off your hands and your armament factories will no longer remain idle.
“Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is a Kashmiri, so you should send him a gun which should go off when it is placed in the sun. I am a Kashmiri too, but a Muslim, which is why I have asked for a tiny atom bomb for myself.
“One more thing. We can’t seem able to draft a constitution. Do kindly ship us some experts because while a nation can manage without a national anthem, it cannot do without a constitution, unless such is your wish.
“One more thing. As soon as you get this letter, send me a shipload of American matchsticks. The matchsticks manufactured here have to be lit with the help of Iranian-made matchsticks. And after you have used half the box, the rest are unusable unless you take help from matches made in Russia which behave more like firecrackers than matches.”
Given the circumstances it is hardly surprising that he sought solace in alcohol and drank himself to death. He had written over 200 short stories and had no doubt of his place in literary history and left behind the following epitaph for himself:
“Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried the arts of short-story telling. Here he lies underneath tons of mud still wondering if he was a better short-story writer than God.”