(downloaded Apr. 2006)

Zameen, June-July 1999

The Quintessential Storyteller

by Khurram Ali Shafique

     On the fine winter morning of 18 January 1955, 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 every day for many years could hardly expire of anything but liver cirrhosis, or swelling.

     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. When he raced forward to preempt his own death nobody was certain where to place him in respect to that delicate cutting line that always exists between suicide and martyrdom. He had suffered too much, and too gracefully, to be denied the status of a martyr.

    Saadat was born on 11 May, 1912, as an unwelcome child of an unwanted wife in a village near Ludhiana (East Punjab). Ghulam Hasan Manto was a Sub-Judge, but that didn't authorise him to marry Sardar, a widow, against the pleasure of his large Manto clan. And, in any case, that was his second marriage. Saadat and his sister Nasira received proverbial stepbrother treatment from the offspring of their father's first wife while Saadat was growing up in the streets of Amritsar. Things got all the more difficult after Ghulam Hasan secured an early retirement in 1918. There was little motivation for the young boy to excel in studies so that the only books he ever touched were the ones categorically forbidden by his teachers. By the time he reached college he had recognized himself as a dropout. 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.

    But he was a misfit in the small Amritsar underworld too, because he was over-sensitive. Also, he had something effeminate about him, coming through his delicate features, thin physique and soft mannerism. In vain did he try to cover it up with artificially developed aggressive tone and choice of caustic metaphors. His favorite vice was inventing rumors: he once told his friends that the Taj Mahal was going to be dismantled and shipped out to the United States, and everyone believed him!

    This incident could represent the nature of his genius as truly as any of the stories he wrote later. He wasn't going to build pleasure domes out of nothing. His imagination worked best at twisting the given facts and then topping them up with a unique brand of exquisite perversion.

    Saadat did try to improve his lot after his father died in 1930 -- maybe 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 was stopped short due to pleurisy. The real turning point came when he was around 21. That was when he met Bari Aligue.

    Bari was a progressive activist who was known as a scholar and polemic writer among the newly budding leftist lobby of India (it was just two years before the official commencement of the Progressive Writers movement). Meeting Bari brought Saadat face to face with his own creative self for the first time: the subversive literature he had read was something to be proud of, and the values he had dishonored were hardly worth keeping. He was good. If only he knew it, he could also show it to others. Within a few months of meeting his new friend, Saadat had translated a novel by Victor Hugo into chaste Urdu as well as joining the editorial staff of Masawat. 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." Today they appear neither thought provoking nor much of short stories, but mainly because he himself raised the standards of Urdu fiction dramatically higher within the next few years.

    In 1937, he moved to Bombay to edit Musawwir, a monthly film magazine. There at last he found himself at home in a 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 of the largest British colony while still in his twenties! However, it took a few years before the money could start pouring in, so that when he married around 1939 he still had to take a loan even to get his haircut. His mother died soon afterwards. His stepbrothers now finally embraced him as their dear own flesh. He sadly noticed that the recognition from the family had come just when he was no longer in need of it.

    Meanwhile, a lifetime of rejection and want of love had driven him alarmingly restless at heart. There was ample evidence of a chronic abnormal anxiety, something his biographers have almost completely overlooked. "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 (he had already worked on several film scripts, including Apni Nagariya [1939]). Now he found himself working on such films as Aath Din, and with like-minded people like Ashok Kumar. 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 indiscreet 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 excuses. Alcohol and needy friends were just two of them, but if they hadn't been there he would have probably invented others.

    The trials of his stories that began from the early forties only helped increase his anxiety. He had always been something of a split personality, and often saw a difference between Saadat Hasan, the hopeless dropout, 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" (1943), and "Bu" (1945) were tried under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code. 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 private life, endlessly eulogizing himself as the best fiction writer of India. None of his pessimism, however, could ever find a way into his stories. Apparently his frail psyche was more immune than Kafka or Camus.

    Manto had come a long way from his first anthology. He had given up hardcore communism as a literary manifesto, and his new creed was a defiance of all labeling -- whether based on religion, class or ideology. "A human being is just a human being first and last," he repeated this idea in endless variations. He was almost too reluctant even to discriminate among the good and the bad. His experimentation with sexual themes could have been in part motivated by the licentious atmosphere of the film industry, or by the new experience of his own married life, but ideologically it was also the most powerful tool to celebrate the natural humanness of the human being. "Dhuan" (Smoke), for instance, could easily be seen as the coming of age in Urdu fiction. It was a unique representation of the first arousal of sexuality in a pre-teen boy and none among the contemporaries or precursors of Manto could have boasted of the same mastery over symbolism.

    There were many reasons for him to identify 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 a petty crime and sent to prison.

    Manto could not see the completion of Ghalib, as he migrated to Pakistan in early 1948. A producer from Lahore had already approached him with a generous offer. One day, when Manto's best friend Shyam (the famous music director) said to him, "Pakistan would be safer for you. Who knows if I kill you some day?" Manto just packed his luggage and boarded a steamer. 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. 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. A good sample can be found in the anthology Talkh, Tursh Aur Shirin. What affected him in the most direct manner was the death of the Lahore film industry. The offer he had received earlier turned out to be a little more than a hoax. On the other hand, in India, his film Ghalib (1948) turned out a commercial blockbuster and even grabbed the first 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 here in Pakistan, the money he had brought from Bombay was all gone within a few months.

    That was the beginning of the end. Manto now turned to fiction writing as the only means of livelihood. The Pakistan years of Manto were productive in the sense that he wrote a lot of stories, including more masterpieces than before. Also, in him the Pakistani society found the best chronicler of its early years. But the experiment of migration was a disaster for Manto in all other ways.

    The first story he wrote after a long time was "Thanda Ghosht," 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 1949, and the magazine was immediately banned. This time the District Court sentenced him 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 "Ooper, Neechay Aur Darmian," 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. In the end it has hampered a comprehensive appreciation of his work both by his opponents and his supporters, as both sides keep their focus on proving or disproving the charges of obscenity. The truth is that the collected works of Manto capture a far wider range of issues, and sexuality is just one of them. The major concern of Manto is the spark of life in the human being, the creative force of individuality that urges all kind 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 every day 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 could not be equally sympathetic to himself. The twenty-five rupees he charged his publishers for each story were 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. Of course, such loans were never returned. Safia, his wife, made a desperate attempt to get him off the intoxication. The treatment was available only in a mental hospital, or madhouse, and being sent there by his own wife was felt by Manto as the cruelest blow the fate had ever dealt him. Of course, it 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 treatment didn't help him in any other way. All changes in his personal habits were towards the worse. He still had little to spare for his family (which included three daughters since his first-born son died in infancy in 1941), 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 right up to his death. If he was suffering at the hands of outrageous fortune it was his own problem. He hated to expand it into a question of universal import. The despair was his own, to be suffered by him, and not to be passed on to the posterity. For the latter, he only left his faith in the nobility of the human being, a faith he preserved and passed on even after losing all faith in his own self.

-- Toba Tek Singh index page -- FWP's main page --