The chronicler of suffering


Manto with his wife Safia (left), sister-in-law Zakia Hamid Jalal, and daughter Nighat in Bombay (now Mumbai) PHOTO/LiveMint

There was a galaxy of writers in the middle of the 20th century that created a fascinating and rich corpus of Urdu short stories over a short span of three decades. They would enrich and inspire readers in their own distinct ways but most of them believed in a progressive ideology based on the ideals of socialism. In the Pakistan of the 1980s, when my generation was growing up under a stifling right-wing martial rule, reading literature gave us solace and progressive literature gave us hope.

But there was one man, Saadat Hasan Manto, who invariably made his readers shiver. He shocked them and caused them sleepless nights. He took them beyond the compulsions of crass politics and outward social change. As teenagers, we would first pick him up, mistaking it for erotica. For, there was no one else in Urdu fiction whose work was as nuanced as his or as brave in dealing with the taboos of sexuality.

But the more we read the more we understood that this boldness was laced with subtle emotion and deep sorrow. One would feel numb and frostbitten: numb after reading Khol Do and frostbitten after reading Thanda Gosht. Through Toba Tek Singh, he made many of us understand the paradox surrounding the Partition of India with all its surreal undertones.

Saadat Hasan Manto fills us up with a deep compassion for humanity in a unique way. In describing his protagonists and their deeds, he employs an ambivalent treatment of good and evil in human psyche. He neither moralises nor proselytises. He neither invokes rancour nor revenge. He inspires you with his insight and wisdom, not by emboldening the contours of a particular political ideology.

He understood what only those delving deep into either Marxist philosophy or human psychology do. The oppressors and subjugators are never at peace with themselves, and, the humaneness in a cruel man may pinch him hard from deep inside at a time when he would least expect. Likewise, a normal human being without power or pelf has an equal possibility of becoming a beast if circumstances warrant. Therefore, the liberation of human body, mind and soul cannot be a selective liberation. It is for humanity at large.

Mao Zedong once said that it is suffering alone that transcends the class of a person. Manto was the chronicler of suffering: he did not just go beyond associating people with their economic prowess, social class, caste, colour or faith, but also detached them from their motivated actions. The worst suffering in Manto’s life, for him personally and for the people around him collectively, was Partition.

Manto’s pen did not hiss but screamed on paper; his fingers did not press but pounded on the keys of his Urdu typewriter as he dissected religious extremism and communal violence surrounding the Partition. His characters belong to all faiths and nationalities, all classes and communities. Humanity is Manto’s only concern.

His collection of vignettes, Siyah Haashiye, is a direct and stark reminder of the rotten underbelly of freedom and Partition, the riots, the loot and plunder, the brutality that many cities and towns across the subcontinent witnessed. The slim volume appeared in 1948. One of the pieces read:


“The knife plunged into the stomach, ripped the belly, moved down the midriff, also slashed the string holding the man’s pyjamas. The man with the knife then looked down and said, ‘Oh no, no! … that was a mishtake!”

(*The South Asian street version of ‘mistake’)

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