Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-55) was a leading Urdu short-story writer of the twentieth century. He was a journalist, critic and film writer. He worked for All India Radio during World War II and was a successful screen-writer in Bombay before moving to Pakistan during Partition of India. During his controversial two-decade career, Manto published twenty-two collections of stories, seven collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, and a novel. He is best known for his short stories – over 250 in 2 decades, many of which have been enacted in plays and films.
He had once written about himself:
“Saadat Hasan will die one day,
But ‘Manto’ will never die”.
Saadat was born in Ludhiana, Punjab on 11th May, 1912. His father, Ghulam Hasan Manto was a Sub-Judge. Saadat and his sister Nasira were the offsprings of their father’s second wife, Sardar Begum, who was a widow but Hasan Manto had married her against his family’s wishes. Saadat and his sister Nasira were always treated as “step-brother and step-sister” by the children of their father's first wife. Things got all the more difficult after Ghulam Hasan secured an early retirement in 1918. There was little motivation for Saadat to excel in studies so that the only books he ever touched were the ones categorically forbidden by his teachers.
After failing consecutively for 3 years, Saadat managed to pass his matriculation in his 4th attempt by securing a Third Division from Muslim High School, Amritsar. Though surprisingly, he always failed in his Urdu Papers. He was very good in English, loved reading English Novels, and was nick-named ‘Tommy’ by his school-mates because he loved speaking in English and narrating the novel-plots of English stories to his friends. He was so much of an English-Novel Addict that he used to steal money from home and borrow money from his acquaintances to buy his Novels. Once he was even caught red-handed by the Police, stealing a Novel from a Book-Stall in Amritsar Railway Station.
By the time, Saadat reached college, he had recognized himself as a drop-out. The status was officially confirmed after he failed twice in the Intermediate. The next few years were spent roaming around in the company of other delinquents who reveled in night cinema, alcohol, drugs, gambling and small-time swindling.
Saadat did try to improve himself after his father died in 1930, may be he realized the loneliness of his mother, whom he had never given a cause to hold her head high in the family. But his attempt to resume education in Aligarh Muslim University was stopped short due to his medical condition of Pleurisy.
The real turning point in his life came when at the age of 21 years, he met Eminent Urdu Writer, Progressive Activist and Journalist Abdul Bari Alig in Amritsar. He was able to change the young man's imaginary dabbling with revolution into genuine interest in politics. Under his tutelage, Saadat discovered the works of such leading writers as Victor Hugo, Lord Layton, Gorky, Chekhov, Pushkin, Oscar Wilde, Maupassant and others. Bari encouraged Saadat to attempt a translation of Victor Hugo's The Last Days of Condemned, into Urdu. Manto completed the translation in just two weeks and sold it to the Urdu Book Stall, Lahore, which published it under the title Sarguzasht-e-Aseer (A Prisoner's Story). Having now become a published author, Saadat attempted a translation of Oscar Wilde's Vera, which was published in 1934 and brought him due recognition.
Now, Saadat joined the editorial staff of the Masawat, a weekly film publication. Before he was 24, he had four complete publications to his credit, including an anthology of original short stories. All these works were wrought with explicit socialist messages, and his short stories were outrageously polemical. The subtitle described the whole book as a collection of "some thought-provoking short stories”.
In 1937, Saadat moved to Bombay to edit Musawwir, a monthly film magazine. There, in the hedonistic film industry - the incomprehensible galaxy of artists, whores and con-men, was all he needed to complete his study of the human nature. There was also promise of good money, something he had never really known before. The stories he wrote from Bombay spread his name, as the most original writer, when they were published in literary magazines. It was like an overnight reversal of fortune: he was a major celebrity still being in his twenties.
However, because of his spendthrift ways and over-spending habits, when he got married to Safia on 26th April, 1939 he had to borrow money to get his hair-cut done by the barber. His mother died soon afterwards. His step-brothers now finally embraced him, recognizing and owning him as their dear own flesh and blood. He sadly noticed that the recognition from the family had come too late, just when he was no longer in need of it.
Meanwhile, a lifetime of rejection and want of love and belongingness had driven him alarmingly restless at heart. There was ample evidence of a chronic abnormal anxiety. "As a human, I have several shortcomings”, he wrote to his friend, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. "And I am always scared lest these give birth to hatred for me in others' hearts”. Then he explained that he didn't just mean gambling or drinking, which he belittled as "mere physical flaws…I have spiritual shortcomings and mental flaws, of which I don't find enough peace in my heart to give you details”. He lived under a perpetual fear that all who were close to him either hated him already or would begin to do that soon when they get to know him better.
Obviously he was a difficult person, always giving and taking offence over the smallest imaginable issues, and within a few years he secured and lost several jobs with the film companies of Bombay. His brief but formative period at All India Radio, Delhi (1941-1942) also ended upon a quibble with the poet N. M. Rashid, the director at that time. Incidentally, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise as his return to Bombay in 1942 marked the beginning of the days of his glory.
The film studios at last recognized his gift for story writing and he worked on several film scripts of Keechad, Apni Nagariya, Begum, Naukar, Chal Chal Re Naujawaan, Kisaan Kanya, Ghamandi, Beli, Mujhe Paapi Kaho, Doosri Kothi, Shikaar, Aath Din, Aagosh, Mirza Ghalib, etc. Those were the days he later recounted nostalgically as he said, "In Bombay I earned and spent not just thousands but hundreds of thousands of rupees”. These may be exaggerated figures (he remained an unscrupulous liar till the end), but his capacity for indiscrete spending could hardly be exaggerated. An enormous intake of alcohol wasn't the only factor. Again, it was a perpetual anxiety that compelled him to burn his money under different alibis and excuses.
Manto was a popular but very controversial writer of his times, who faced many prosecutions because of his so called ‘sex oriented’ expressions. Many of his stories were banned by the then Government of India and Pakistan on the plea that they were too sex oriented, and were not palatable to the conservative society of that time. He was prosecuted and convicted, yet he continued writing in his own style.
In many of his stories, Manto depicted woman as the main character. He brought to the reader how a woman is exploited and used by men for their individual satisfaction. In some of his stories, Manto referred to poor young girls who had horrifying experiences during partition of India in 1947, and as each one of such stories is a ‘document’ and not just fiction.
The trials of his stories that began from the early forties increased his anxiety. He had always been something of a split personality, and often saw a difference between Saadat Hasan, the hopeless drop-out, and Manto, the genius. Through this second personality he could experience everything he had missed in his earlier days: recognition, love and above all, respect.
His pride was seriously hurt when the very best samples of his craft, "Kali Shalwar," "Dhuan" (1941) and "Bu" (1945) were tried under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Court. Ironically, these stories were some of the best that Manto had written so far. Even though he was acquitted in the end in each of these cases, he could neither forgive nor forget the humiliation of being tried in the same category as exhibitionists who showed private parts to little girls on the street. His wit became shaded with an obvious cynicism as he became even more laid back in his personal life, endlessly eulogizing himself as the best fiction writer of India.
Manto would present his writings in literary meetings but would not tolerate any criticism. He had become extremely touchy and would shout back at his critics. There were days when he was welcome everywhere and literary organizations clamored for his participation in their meetings. But then came the days when people started avoiding him because he would not hesitate in borrowing money from them.
In many respects, he identified himself with Ghalib, the subject of his greatest film. As the paperwork started sometime before the Partition, Manto became increasingly obsessed with the similarities between the great nineteenth century poet and himself. Like him, Ghalib too was a notorious alcoholic, gambler and spendthrift. And also, Ghalib was denied his well-deserved literary status for a long time, tried for petty crimes and sent to prison.
Manto could not see the completion of his film Mirza Ghalib, as he migrated to Lahore, Pakistan in early 1948. A producer from Lahore had already approached him with a generous offer. In Bombay, his friends had tried to stop him from migrating to Pakistan because he was quite popular as a film writer and was making reasonably good money. Among his friends there were top actors and directors, many of them Hindus, who were trying to prevail upon him to forget about migrating. They thought that he would be unhappy in Pakistan because the film industry of Lahore stood badly disrupted with the departure of Hindu film-makers and studio owners.
But the law and order situation in post-partition India was such that many Muslims felt insecure there. That was the reason that Manto had already sent his family to Lahore and was keen to join them. The same restlessness had made him walk out of opportunities all his life. But always he had found better ones waiting ahead. Not this time. Migrating to Pakistan was his last anxious mistake, and a fatal one.
Lahore, as he now discovered, was not the same city as he remembered from the pre-independence days. Incidentally his friends were right. Lahore turned out to be totally different from Bombay. Lahore was in a state of turmoil due to the influx of hundreds and thousands of refugees in a state of destitution. Those who had survived after wading through the rivers of fire and blood were clamoring for food and shelter.
The whole society was moving towards a hypocritical farce of religiosity, and some of the writings from his Pakistan period serve as the most lucid critique of that transition. What affected him most was the death of the Lahore film industry. The offer he had received earlier, turned out to be a hoax. Whereas, in India, his film Mirza Ghalib (1948) became a commercial blockbuster and even won the National Award. Independent India was opening up to vast opportunities in the film industry. Sadly, Manto had just left it at the wrong moment. Back there in Pakistan, the money he had brought from Bombay was all gone within a few months.
His problem now was how to cater for his family. Sadly for him, Lahore of that period did not have many job opportunities to offer. Manto now turned to fiction writing as the only means of livelihood. The Pakistan years of Manto were productive and creative in the sense that he wrote a lot of stories, including more masterpieces than before.
The only paper that published Manto's articles regularly for quite some time was "Daily Afaq", for which he wrote some of his well known sketches. These sketches were later collected in his book Ganjay Farishtay (Bald Angels). The sketches were of famous actors and actresses like Ashok Kumar, Shayam, Nargis, Noor Jehan and Naseem (mother of Saira Bano). He also wrote about some literary figures like Meera Ji, Hashar Kashmiri and Ismat Chughtai.
Manto created a new tell-all style of writing sketches. He would mince no words, writing whatever he saw. "I have no camera which could wash out the small pox marks from Hashar Kashmiri's face or change the obscene invectives uttered by him in his flowery style”, he wrote.
Those days Manto was writing indiscriminately in order to provide for his family and be able to drink every evening. For everything he wrote, he would demand cash in advance. In later days, he started writing for magazines like Director. He would go to its office, ask for pen and paper, write his article, collect the remuneration and go away.
The first story he wrote after a long time was "Thanda Gosht" (1950), arguably the best piece of imaginative prose written about the communal violence of 1947. It is comparable only with Manto's own anthology Siyah Hashiyay, a light veined treatment of the psychology of communal violence through a series of small anecdotes. "Thanda Gosht" was published in a literary magazine in March 1950, and the magazine was immediately banned. This time the District Court sentenced Manto to three months of rigorous imprisonment and a penalty of Rs.300. The High Court revoked the sentence of imprisonment but retained the penalty.
Two other stories of Manto were also charged for obscenity by the federal government, namely "Khol Do”, a masterpiece on violence against women, and "Oopar, Neechey Aur Darmiaan (1953)" a minor farcical essay about married couples' attitude towards sex. That brought the total of Manto's condemned stories to six, bringing him a name as a writer on sexuality. Thus, it hampered a comprehensive appreciation of his work both by his opponents and his supporters, as both sides kept their focus on proving or disproving the charges of obscenity.
The reality is that the collected works of Manto capture a far wider range of issues, and sexuality is just one of them. Manto focused on the spark of life in the human being, the creative force of individuality that urges all kinds of people to break free of the exterior constraints at least once and respond to the unique inner voices of their souls.
"It doesn't touch my heart at all if a woman among my neighbors gets beaten by her husband everyday and still polishes his shoes”, he once said. "But when a woman in the neighborhood quarrels with her husband, threatens him that she will commit suicide, and then goes out to watch a movie while I see her husband writhing in mental agony for two hours, then that is what makes me sympathetic to both of them”.
But he was not sympathetic to himself. The twenty-five rupees he charged his publishers for each story was not a poor amount in those days, given the prolific talent of Manto (he could write a story almost every day). But his lifelong anxiety now flashed out to possess him completely until he began to find a masochistic pleasure in degrading himself. He would spend almost his entire daily income on alcohol and then borrow money from friends to buy more liquor. And such loans and borrowings kept piling up on him and were never returned. Safia, his wife, made a desperate attempt to get him off the intoxication.
Saadat was so addicted to Alcohol that though he used to give his day’s hard-earned money to his wife for safe-keeping but he always observed where she kept the cash. And when she was not around, he used to steal part of the booty to buy his alcohol. His unsuspecting wife always kept scolding the servants for lost money. But the day she came to know the horrifying reality that it was Saadat who was always the actual thief, she lost all faith in him and branded him a perpetual liar.
She sent him to a mental hospital for treatment and Manto felt that it was the cruelest blow fate had ever dealt him. Though his mental asylum stay provided him material for the story that is now regarded by many as his magnum opus: "Toba Tek Singh." The story is set in a mental hospital where some patients believe themselves to be famous political leaders of the day. Some of the passages truly read like an early experiment in magical realism.
The mental hospital stay didn't help Manto in any way. All changes in his personal habits were towards the worse. He still had little to spare for his family of wife and three daughters and eventually he had to rely on the permanent support of his in-laws. By that time he had become a complete emotional wreck, whose standard autographs were his own obituaries, usually reading something like, "Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto, buried under tons of mud and still wondering whether he is a greater storywriter or God” ? Ghalib had also anticipated his own death by writing his own epitaphs, although that was in his old age. And just like Ghalib, Manto too remained a prophet of hope till the very end up till his death.
Manto lived in Lahore for seven years. For him those years were full of continuous struggle for his survival. In return, he gave some of his best writings to the literary world. It was in Lahore that he wrote his masterpieces like Thanda Gosht, Khol Do, Toba Tek Singh, Iss Manjdhar Mein, Mozalle, Babu Gopi Nath, etc. Some of his characters became legendary.
Simultaneously he had embarked on a journey of self-destruction. The sub-standard liquor that he consumed destroyed his liver and in the winter of 1955 he fell victim to the deadly disease of Liver Cirrhosis. During all these years in Lahore he waited for the good old days to return, never to find them again.
On a cold winter morning of 18 January 1955 in Lahore, Saadat Hasan Manto found himself bleeding through the nose. An ambulance was called to take him to the emergency. The onlookers later narrated that he asked for a drop of liquor just before his stretcher was loaded onto the van.
Maybe he didn't, but in any case it was difficult for others to believe that he could die without making that his last wish. The doctor who greeted him at the hospital turned to his companions and said, "You have brought him to the wrong place. You should have taken him to the graveyard”. Establishing the cause of death wasn't a matter of medical expertise but simple common sense. Someone living on more than a full bottle of undiluted bootleg liquor and two slices of bread everyday for many years could hardly expire of anything but Liver Cirrhosis.
He was not even 43 when he died and yet by his own standard the moment had arrived rather too late. He had seen everything there was to be seen in the world and told others as well, in a manner that made him the greatest storyteller ever born in South Asia. Moreover, he had seen things he was hardly willing to share with anyone : unsurpassed popularity, unmatched hatred, undeserved humiliation, and a household lately turned into a living hell.
In a postscript to one of his collections, Manto wrote, “You the reader know me as a story writer and the courts of this country know me as a pornographer. The government sometimes calls me a communist, at other times, a great writer. Most of the time, I am denied all means of livelihood, only to be offered opportunities of gainful work on other occasions. I have been called an expendable appendage to society and accordingly expelled. And sometimes I am told that my name has been placed on the state-approved list. As in the past, so today, I have tried to understand what I am. I want to know what is my place in this country that is called the largest Islamic state in the world. What use am I here? You may call it my imagination, but the bitter truth is that so far I have failed to find a place for myself in this country called Pakistan which I greatly love. That is why I am always restless. That’s why sometimes I am to be found in a lunatic asylum, other times in a hospital. I have yet to find a niche in Pakistan”.
A little prayer Manto once wrote, mirrors his human and artistic personality. “Dear God, Compassionate and Merciful, Master of the Universe, we who are steeped in sin, kneel in supplication before Your throne and beseech You to recall from this world Saadat Hasan Manto, son of Ghulam Hasan Manto, who was a man of great piety. Take him away, O Lord, for he runs off from fragrance, chasing filth. He hates the bright sun, preferring dark labyrinths. He has nothing but contempt for modesty but is fascinated by the naked and the shameless. He hates what is sweet, but will give his life to sample what is bitter. He does not so much as look at housewives but is entranced by the company of whores. He will not go near running waters, but loves to wade through slush. Where others weep, he laughs; where they laugh, he weeps. Evil-blackened faces he loves to wash with tender care to highlight their features. He never thinks about You, preferring to follow Satan everywhere, the same fallen angel who once disobeyed You”.
Saadat Hasan Manto was undoubtedly one of the best short story tellers of the 20th century, and one of the most controversial as well. He is often compared with D. H. Lawrence, and like Lawrence he also wrote about the topics considered social taboos in Indo-Pakistani Society. His topics range from the socio-economic injustice prevailing in pre- and post- colonial subcontinent, to the more controversial topics of love, sex, incest, prostitution and the typical hypocrisy of a traditional sub-continental male. In dealing with these topics, he doesn't take any pains to conceal the true state of the affair - although his short stories are often intricately structured, with vivid satire and a good sense of humor. In his own words, "If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth".