Remembering Saadat Hassan Manto
MAY 11th was the centenary of the birth of Saadat Hassan Manto—storyteller, Urdu scribe, and a refugee of India‘s bloody partition. A handful of newspapers have paid tribute. Writers and playwrights, in India and Pakistan, marked the date in their own way.
Born in colonial India in the lush western state of Punjab, Manto translated Russian and French novels into Urdu, wrote radio plays and Bollywood films, and produced one of the subcontinent’s most potent collections of 20th-century fiction. But few seem to recall him in India. Is it because he was a Muslim who left Bombay for Lahore after partition? Or is it because he wrote in Urdu, one of India’s many languages and the national language of Pakistan?
Although Manto is remembered as a writer of short fiction, Ayesha Jalal, his grandniece and a historian, described him as a “terrific writer of memoir”. His punchy stories are a mix of experience, imagination and fierce candour. For example, “Khol Do” (or “Open It”), considered to be one his best works, is a horrifying tale about cross-border violence among refugees. It considers the fate of a father who has been desperately searching for his daughter. When he ultimately finds her on a hospital bed inside a refugee camp, he assumes she is dead. But when the doctor enters and asks him to open the windows (“Khol do” he says), the “body” moves. Responding to the doctor, the girl’s “lifeless” hands untie the cord that holds her shalwar (pajamas) up and she “weakly” pushes it down her legs. Her father is jubilant: “My daughter is alive” he exclaims. The doctor, aware of the misunderstanding (and its implications for what she has suffered), breaks out in a cold sweat.
Manto’s work made many people uncomfortable, including fellow Urdu authors within the Progressive Writers Association, who used their work to advocate for social justice. He was frequently charged with obscenity. If my stories are intolerable, he told college students in Bombay in the early 1940s, it is because the world that I write about is intolerable.
His stories about the partition were particularly distressing. In “Thanda Gosht” (“Cold Flesh” or “Cold Meat“), a rioter recounts the story of how he abducted a “beautiful” woman only to discover later that she had been dead for sometime. The story, like his harrowed memory, is fractured: it’s up to the reader to conclude when the man realised he had abducted a dead body.
Manto left Bombay, where he was a popular scriptwriter, for Lahore in 1948. Like his character in “A Tale of 1947″—the young, troubled Mumtaz—he did not choose to leave. He left, like many at the time, because of a deep sense of loss and insecurity. He has since made a comeback in India via translations, mostly in English. But aficionados of Urdu lament that the language he wrote in is no longer courted with the reverence it once enjoyed. After Independence Urdu, the preferred language of Muslim royalty and the mother-tongue of many Muslims in India, was targeted by right-wing Indian nationalists. Hindi, India’s official language, was “revived”, scrubbing it of Urdu with which it had shared an indistinguishable vocabulary (if not script) for centuries.
Yet this doesn’t seem to have worried Manto. “A language is not made, it makes itself,” he wrote. “And no amount of human effort can kill a language.”
A heavy drinker, he died in Lahore of liver cirrhosis in 1955. (courtesy: A.A. & The Economist)