‘In that sense, I don’t consider myself a writer so much as a pick-pocket. One who picks his own pocket and hands over its contents to you. Have you ever seen such a fool as me?’
– Why I Write, Saadat Hasan Manto
Saadat Hasan Manto was undoubtedly the best Urdu short story writer and one of the best writers of ‘realistic prose’ of Southern Asia. He was a nonconformist in a society peevish about ‘obscenity’ in narratives. But today, his pre-eminent sin was the implied veto in his works which passed rallies in his days.
It was only posthumously that people started recognising Manto as one of the greatest short story writers in Urdu. However during his lifetime, he was not only grieved by the partition, but also faced several charges on account of involving ‘obscene’ subjects in his writings. His versatility is shown by the way he talked about the lives of sex workers and years of adolescence with equal ease. The most noteworthy quality about Manto’s stories was the depth with which he saw an individual’s life and could analyse the prominent history of events. Whether it was the dog in ‘Dog Of Tetwal‘ who was stuck between the two borders or those asylum patients in ‘Toba Tek Singh‘ who were ported across the borders according to their religion, his narratives were rich with symbols.
“Try as I did, I wasn’t able to separate Pakistan from India and India from Pakistan. Again and again, troubling questions raged in my mind: Will Pakistan’s literature be separate from that of India’s? If so, how? Who owns all that was written in undivided India? Will that be partitioned too?”
Manto had been bought up by the lively diverse culture of Bombay both as a poet and as a writer, but then he chose to cross the border and go to Pakistan. Although, he always yearned to come back to the land he had left behind.
His happy days were those spent in Bombay, writing scripts for movies in which he even acted at times. He used to drink along with his constant companion Sunder Shyam Chadha, (a.k.a Shyam) and both hated the separation caused due to the communal violence of 1947. Manto’s best internationally known story is “Toba Tek Singh”, which was written in 1954 after he was released from Lahore’s mental asylum for his alcoholism. Regarded as his best partition story, it is a scathing satire on the absurdity of the division and the policy of the two post-colonial states, which split up the inmates of an asylum on the basis of their religion. Manto’s message was searing but clear: the lunacy of partition was greater than the madness of all the inmates put together.
Experiencing the distress of partition at close quarters led him to question the rationality of the events that took place. The mindlessness of the massacre and the ‘freedom’ that followed disturbed his mind.
His journey accentuates how borders cut the world through hearts and words, shaping lives and literature. It reminds us all that Manto’s work is just one of the many shared legacies that the two countries share and that they must affirm to conserve and save it, irrespective of political differences.
Even after 61 years of his death, the writer, the man with a bold ideology, the voice of conflicting identities, the Manto still lives on.
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