Dhaka Courier

Manto: Transcending borders

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Saadat Hassan Manto is considered the greatest among Urdu short story writers.

“Hindustan had become free. Pakistan had become independent soon after its inception but man was still slave in both these countries -- slave of prejudice … slave of religious fanaticism … slave of barbarity and inhumanity.” ― Saadat Hasan Manto

The Partition of India that occurred in 1947 was undoubtedly a historic event for the whole world, as it created two brand new countries known as India and Pakistan. Bangladesh too later emerged as an independent nation whose emergence is also indebted to the Partition of India. However, the chaotic situation was certainly not amicable for the common people lived in the greater India, and among them there was a man who felt the unbearable, unimaginable pain inside his bohemian heart. He was Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the best Urdu writers in South Asian literature.

Born in the small village of Samrala in Punjab of British-ruled India in the year of 1912, Manto had to embrace two nationalities in his short lifetime. From 1934 to 1948, he was an Indian- and from then till his death in 1955, he became and remained as a Pakistani. Apart from this confusing duality within his bohemian soul- he also was a proud Kashmiri, along with being a novelist, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, short story writer who always spoke the truth through his pen. A lifelong sufferer with having a total of six (three in India before the Partition, and three in Pakistan after the Partition) charges of obscenity, Manto once told a court judge about his motif-

 "A writer picks up his pen only when his sensibility is hurt."

What actually happened before, during and after the Partition in the greater land of India that eventually thrived Manto into his legendary write-ups? To answer the question in short- one has to dig up Manto’s upbringing as a writer who worked in then Bombay, now known as Mumbai- the second largest film industry in the entire world after Hollywood.

When Manto was 21 years old, he met a scholar and prolific writer named Abdul Bari Alig in Amritsar who insisted Manto to learn about global literature. Alig influenced him to dive into Russian and French literature, and that eventually thrived Manto to translate French writer Victor Hugo’s ‘The Last Day of a Condemned Man’, which was published by Urdu Book Stall, Lahore as Sarguzasht-e-Aseer (A Prisoner's Story). A student who failed several times in Urdu subject in his schooling days, Manto found the innate Urdu writer within his soul, and soon he began to work in a magazine published from Ludhiana- prior coming to his eventful life in Bombay.

Even before that, Manto joined Aligarh University in 1934- a place known for nurturing some of the best Muslim scholars in India. He also began to write for magazines and newspapers along with scripts for the Hindi film industry in the same year. During his university days, he wrote several short stories with one being published named 'Inqlaab Pasand'. It was until the 1940s that Manto became a driving force in the sphere of arts and culture in both India and Pakistan. He wrote all types of stories including plays for Urdu Service of All India Radio, and as a result during the years from 1941-1943, he produced four volumes of radio plays. He also began pushing out short story collections, and by 1945, he had written and published the short stories 'Dhuan' (Smoke), 'Kaali Shalwar' (Black Trouser) and 'Bu' (Smell).

During his time in Bombay, he became good friends with notable cultural personalities such as Noor Jehan, Naushad, Shyam, Ashok Kumar and one of the most significant and influential persons in his life- Ismat Chughtai. All of these mentioned celebrities made significant contributions in Manto’s Bombay life- and among them, Shyam was his best friend. He entered his best phase in screenwriting giving films like ‘Aatth Din’, ‘Shikari’, ‘Chal Chal Re Naujawan’ and ‘Mirza Ghalib’, the later was released in 1954.

In Bombay, he lived in Foras lane, located in the center of Bombay's red light area of Kamathipura- which was known as one of the biggest brothel areas in the entire world. What he saw then around him had a profound impact on his writings. Both himself and his writing got profoundly influenced and impacted through the things he observed around him. He then started about writing on taboos like sex, prostitution and sexual abuse, but negatively received among the rulers in his time, thus faced charges for obscenity later.

However, within this period he saw and observed the tragic incident known as the Partition of Greater India- and everything started to get darker around this particular incident.

The city he loved as his adopted home and favorite workplace- suddenly started disowning him. He got fired from Bombay Talkies because of being Muslim who lost his right to live in the ‘Hindustan’, lost his hope in humanity when he discovered that the communal riot between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were crossing all the humanistic barriers and he finally lost his identity as ‘Indian’- through the whole process. He moved to Pakistan after Partition, but never found the peace and prosperity he spent his life searching for.

Fourteen million people migrated in the Partition, marking it as one of the biggest example of migration in the history- and it let Manto to create some of his best works which the severity can be felt within. Manto wrote his tragic short stories like ‘Thanda Gosht’, ‘Khol Do’, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ and some other stories regarding the havoc of this chaotic historical migration and the aftermaths, and those just blew away the mind of the readers. In his story ‘Khol Do’ (Open Up), a refugee teenage girl went missing and her father got mad in search of her, and then found her almost dead in a hospital. When the doctor was telling someone to open the window of the room uttering the line ‘khol do’- the girl automatically striped down her trouser and spread her leg even being in that unconscious stage, suggesting that she understood the line as an order prior getting raped- as she was raped for numerous times in riots occurring the period of Partition.

This was just one example, and there are others as well portraying the havocs of the Partition and migration- interestingly, this is highly relatable with the context of Bangladesh’s liberation war and recent migration of Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh from Myanmar as well. People suffered in every Partition, migration, riot occurred in the history- and those incidents made people homeless, immoral, merciless, unethical and bound to do miserable crimes. The girl or woman, who gets raped in such an incident, can eventually embrace prostitution as her profession because the society does not intend to embrace her with love and respect. Manto was a genius narrating these sorts of stories.

But these were considered as taboo stories in literature back then in greater India, and no wonder that Manto was considered as a pornographer by the rulers. However, Manto was a controversial writer for sure, but above everything he was a writer who cared about those who needed the care. His miseries turned him into an alcoholic, and he eventually died only at the age of 42 in 1955. He never wanted to get divided as a by-product of India’s Partition- yet, he will always be remembered for being one of the greatest writers who portrayed the true havocs of Partition in his writing.

11th May was Manto’s 107th Birth anniversary, and although he lived a very short life- he will surely remain alive in his readers’ minds forever.

  • Manto: Transcending borders
  • Issue 47 - 48
  • Md. Ishtiak Hossain
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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