Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) the man and the artist, was the envy of most of his contemporaries because of his abilities as a short story writer, acerbic wit and deceptively compassionate nature. It would not be wrong to say that he changed the course of Urdu literature, freeing it from the shackles of stultifying good manners, in its stead bringing compassion, humanity, and dry humour. A proper, well-bred bourgeois gentleman—the son of a judge in British India—he rebelled against his background very effectively, without ever forgetting his old world upbringing and the generosity it entailed in his day-to-day dealings.

He wrote with great perception and feeling about prostitutes, pimps, layabouts and people on the fringes of “civilised” society. It was a camaraderie he felt for them because they were true to their calling, unlike the arbiters of the nation’s destiny: politicians—British and Indian—and after Partition in 1947, big businessmen and bureaucrats. His writing was free of cant and sentimentality, a trait unique in the annals of Urdu, indeed Indian literature.

As a young man he had applied for a job with All India Radio, which had its headquarters in Under Hill Lane in old Delhi. Asked to put down his professional experience on paper, he said that he knew every prostitute and pimp in the city and was friendly with them. He also added that he had failed thrice in his Matriculation exams before making good. Manto’s candour and sense of humour impressed the station director Z. A. Bukhari enough to engage him immediately.

One may wonder: why this sudden tribute to a man who has been gone 58 years? It is provoked by a biography of Manto, The Pity of Partition, by his niece Ayesha Jalal, a distinguished historian. Her book came out of the Lawrence Stone lectures she delivered at the Davis Centre, Princeton University in April 2011. She had never seen her uncle and only heard about him from her aunts—one of whom was his widow—uncles, parents and others. Only after she became a serious academic in the United States of America was she able to delve into his writings and place them in a historical context without forgetting the harassed, witty, embattled man.

No writer on the subcontinent irritated ultra-conservative magistrates as Manto. He had his first brush with them in 1942 when his story “Kali Shalwar” published in Lahore in the annual number of Adab-i-Latif “was banned by the colonial state under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code on grounds of obscenity”, she writes.

After he went to Pakistan, two of his stories, “Thanda Gosht” and “Khol Do” raised a storm within the establishment which considered them obscene and therefore to be banned. Judge Inayatullah Khan acquitted Manto of obscenity charges, saying, “If I convict Mr Saadat Hasan Manto, he will say a bearded judge punished him.” His reputation as a literary artist grew on both sides of the border in proportion with his despair and his drinking.

Never an irresponsible man, he could not come to terms with his failure to provide consistently for his wife Safia and their daughters Nighat and Nusrat. The extended family took over. But his pride was hurt. He could not come to terms with this failure even when drunk or under treatment for supposed insanity.

Earlier in Bombay, dear cosmopolitan Bombay between 1936 and 1946, he had energy and hope and, despite his hard drinking, earned a steady living and looked after his family. It was when the incalculably sad and crippling reality of Partition hit him that he went into a state of mourning from which he never came out.

The outward expression of his feelings was in the form of scathing stories, letters to Uncle Sam or the U.S. Government punctuated with levity, and, of course, a surrender to alcohol. It is indeed a miracle that he managed to write some of his most powerful stories in the five years after Partition, like “Toba Tek Singh”, “Khol Do”, “Thanda Gosht”, “Naya Qanoon”, “Shaheedsaz”, and “Yazid”.

Manto learnt the craft of writing as a boy in Amritsar, translating European stories from English into Urdu. He was encouraged by his mentor, Abdul Bari Aligh, an eccentric with an eye for talent. After Manto had his fill of the Free Thinkers, the socialist Bari, writing for the Amritsar newspaper Musawat (Equality), took the 21-year-old mischief-maker in hand and made him translate Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man from English, like the other stories from Russia and France that followed.

“Manto’s room was filled with the works of Victor Hugo, Lord Lytton, Maxim Gorki, Anton Chekhov, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Leonid Andreyev, Oscar Wilde, and Maupassant.” He was as moved by the human comedy as his hero Maupassant and like him, frequented the world of pimps, prostitutes, petty thieves, and murderers.

Unlike Maupassant who died of syphilis-induced insanity, Manto—maintaining a warm but decorous relationship with “disreputable” folk—let booze kill him when the bewildering pain of everyday existence after Partition got too much. The lessons learnt in Amritsar in 1933 stayed with him till the end, no matter the material condition of his life.

A photograph of the teenager Manto in the traditional churidar-pyjama, kurta hidden by a waistcoat and coat, and a stiff fez-like cap on his head, taken in Amritsar, has him wearing an “amused expression in his eyes”. It was taken outside a shop in the old quarter with a Sikh gentleman in white seated just by the entrance. The pictures over the next 25 years hover between knowing amusement and a subtle sense of irony. It is only in the later pictures, particularly the one from 1949 with his nephew Hamid Jalal, that his defenses are down and the sadness that was to stay with him the rest of his life, is out in the open here. The amusing, albeit apocryphal, stories about him are now behind him. In Pakistan he will write his most enduring stories but penury, calumny and booze shall dog his footsteps.

In Pakistan he tried to write for films again. Two of his scripts—Baeli, for a Punjabi film, and Doosri Kothi—were filmed but flopped at the box office. The fledgling film industry in the new country could not accommodate his talents, though his forays into cinema in British India were successful.

Ashok Kumar, star of Hindustani cinema and partner at Bombay Talkies, befriended him. Manto’s script Aath Din (Eight Days) was produced and was a success; he even played the small role of a shell-shocked soldier in it. He had written the dialogue for a proposed film on the romance between the Mughal Prince Salim and Anarkali for K. Asif, who made out of it his magnum opus, Mughal-e-Azam, 15 years later.

Manto had also written a script on his literary hero Mirza Asadullah Khan, or Ghalib as he was known by his pen-name. It was eventually filmed in 1954 in India by Sohrab Modi, and won the President’s Gold Medal the following year. Manto was duly acknowledged in the credits for the story.

If ever was there was a memoirist who was entertaining, sardonic, perceptive, and, on occasion, kind, it was Manto. He never wrote a formal volume or volumes of memoirs, but his word-sketches of contemporaries in film, journalism and Urdu literature give a vivid, accurate picture of people and places. His pen portraits, often called “poison pen” portraits by his enemies, are collected in Ganje Farishte (Bald Angels) and Loud Speaker. His portraits of his closest friend and film star Sunder Shyam Chadha (better known as Shyam), actress Naseem Bano, popular actor and close friend Ashok Kumar, kinetic Kathak dancer and actress Sitara Devi and her then lover K. Asif, who had just produced Phool, and Zia Sarhadi are droll but sharp.

Ashok Kumar comes across as a nice fellow but timid about women. About a certain female colleague, he tells Manto that he would like to chew on her ankles but can’t. “Kya karoon yaar, himmat hi nahi parhti! (What to do, can’t summon up the courage!)”.

In the company of the same Ashok Kumar in riot-torn Bombay, Manto has a strange experience when trying to take a short-cut to through a “rough Muslim neighbourhood”. They run into a wedding party. A few people recognise Ashok Kumar and direct him to take the “adjoining lane”.

His most endearing portrait is a composite of Sitara and Asif; full of delicious sexual innuendo, it highlights Sitara’s primordial vitality and her schooling of the callow giant Asif who is last seen sitting on the floor and lapping up a large bowl of kheer, his face clean of acne!

The madness of Partition is best illustrated in stories like “Khol Do” and “Thanda Gosht”. In “Khol Do”, a Muslim girl is kidnapped and then rescued by young volunteers who gang-rape her, leaving her half-dead near a railway track from where she brought to the refugee camp. Her distraught father is greatly relieved to know his daughter has been found. She’s brought to the camp hospital. The doctor asks the girl’s father to open the window (khol do), so that fresh air can come in. The command registers in the haze of the girl’s mind and she lowers her shalwar, as if in fearful response to a rapist’s command. Her father, seeing her twitch back to life is ecstatic without realising what has really happened to her. The camp doctor is dumbfounded.

“Thanda Gosht” is a terrifying, macabre story. A young Sikh kills six or seven members of a Muslim family and then slings the pretty young daughter over his shoulder and leaves, only to discover that she has died, probably of fright, as he tries to violate her. He then tells his sexually demanding lover about the incident and why he is impotent and can’t satisfy her. The story brought out the bizarre and inadvertently funny side of the Pakistani judiciary.

“The real howler came from the irrepressible Chaudhry Mohammad Hussain, the hard-nosed former watchdog of the colonial state’s censorship network and now self-appointed guardian of the newly created Muslim post-colonial state. Summarising the story for the English editor of the Civil and Military Gazette, Hussain expressed outrage that the central message of “Thanda Gosht” was that ‘we Muslims are so dishonourable the Sikhs did not even spare one of our dead girls’.”

Manto remained a controversial figure all his adult life. There was never a mid-way for him. He was either called a sex maniac or a saint. He neither was nor wanted to be known as an ordinary man who wrote for a living, loved his wife and daughters and wanted to be left alone. Neither the Progressive Writers Association on both sides of the border with its conscious Left leanings, nor the regressive elements that controlled politics and cultural activities in Pakistan could help baiting Manto. He was a reactionary for the PWA and a corruptor of morals, especially among the youth, for the Pakistani establishment. When the “Thanda Gosht” controversy arose, he received lukewarm support from PWA members including the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

He wrote to Uncle Sam, “‘Once military aid starts flowing, the first people you should arm are these mullahs. You must also send them American-made rosaries and prayer mats … cutthroat razors and scissors should be top of the list … the military aid was clearly not for the betterment of the poor’; ‘its only purpose’ was to ‘arm the mullahs’ from whose ranks the future clerks and peons would be recruited.’”

Manto remained a controversial figure all his adult life. There was never a mid-way for him. He was either called a sex maniac or a saint. He neither was nor wanted to be known as an ordinary man who wrote for a living, loved his wife and daughters and wanted to be left alone. Neither the Progressive Writers Association on both sides of the border with its conscious Left leanings, nor the regressive elements that controlled politics and cultural activities in Pakistan could help baiting Manto. 

Manto’s whiplash satire can be found in Siyah Hashiye (Black Borders). Many of the pieces are no longer than a short paragraph but they are illuminating. Here are a few examples of English translations published in on May 23, 2012.

The first example is called “Invitation to Action”. It reads as follows: “When the neighbourhood was set on fire, everything burnt down with the exception of one shop and its sign. It said, ‘All building and construction material sold here’. ”

The second is “Losing Proposition”: “Two friends finally picked out a girl from the dozen or so they had been shown. She cost Rs.42 and they brought her to their place. One of them spent the night with her. ‘What is your name?’ he asked.

When she told him, he was taken aback. ‘But we were told you are from the other religion.’

‘They lied,’ she replied.

‘The bastards cheated us!’ he screamed, ‘selling us a girl who is one of us. I want my money refunded.’

The third piece is, “[An] Ungrateful Lot”: “What an ungrateful nation! After all the troubles I went to, slaughtering 50 pigs in this mosque and what happens? Not one bloody customer! And now do you know, on the other side there are people queuing up outside every temple to buy beef?”

Manto’s eye for the bizarre and the ridiculous is never more evident as in his very short pieces in Black Borders. In one, a man from an unnamed community is stabbed during the Partition riots. As he is dying, they take down his pyjamas, and one of the assassins exclaims “Mistake!”

The religious identity of the victim and his killers is never revealed.

Manto’s dearest friend was Sunder Shyam Chadha: Shyam, tall, handsome and an actor in Bombay, the headquarters of Hindustani cinema. He had married Mumtaz “Taji” Qureshi and they had two children together; their daughter Sahira Kazimi became one of the finest television producers in Pakistan. Wit and generosity came naturally to both. When Manto was a struggling script writer in Bombay, Shyam often shared his money with him. They were both hard drinking men. Partition broke their hearts but their friendship remained intact. Manto left for Pakistan because his wife Safiya and their daughters were in Lahore along with their extended families on both sides.

“When the time came for him to leave, Shyam poured two large pegs of brandy and said, ‘Heptulla’ (Cheers).

Heptulla,’ Manto shot back.

Shyam then threw his arms around him and said, ‘Swine’. Holding back his tears, Manto replied, ‘Pakistani swine.’

Shyam shouted back on the ship’s deck, telling funny stories, as was his wont ... When the gong sounded announcing the ship’s departure, he said, ‘Heptulla’ out loud, stepped down the gangway, and walked away without once looking back.”

Shyam died in 1950 of head injuries sustained during the shooting of Shabistan, in which his co-star was Suraiyya. Taji left for Lahore with her two children including the son, later known as Shakir, born some months after Shyam’s death.

The unforgivable tragedy of Partition and similar events in the 20th century is brought home devastatingly in “Toba Tek Singh” written in 1954, a year before his death. In the story, a Sikh detained in a lunatic asylum knows only about his village and nothing about Pakistan or India. When he is told that patients will be repatriated to the two respective countries (obviously according to their religion), he asks, “Where is Toba Tek Singh?”

When he is forcibly taken towards India, he throws himself on the no-man’s land between India and Pakistan and dies there.

“Shaheedsaz” is about a Kathiawari Muslim bania who migrates to Pakistan. He makes huge profits through his deals in real estate by greasing palms in officialdom in various cities. Then his desire to do philanthropy takes over but he is deterred from proceeding further when he realises that the poor are becoming dependent on charity. In a master stroke, he decides to buy a dilapidated Mughal era building to house the indigent. The building soon collapses, killing a number of occupants. Thus inspired, he constructs a number of buildings with such poor material that they fall down on the residents killing hundreds of them. He is convinced that the deceased have attained martyrdom and gone to heaven and earned honour in the world as well!

Among all of Manto’s stories, a personal favourite remains “Babu Gopinath”. It is about a rich bania who through well-considered action wishes to spend every penny of his very large inheritance on pleasure. Babu Gopinath, in late middle-age, falls in love with Zeenat, a young courtesan from Lahore. He brings her to Bombay and introduces her to Manto.

Gopinath is being fleeced by an entourage of crooks. He is completely aware of the game being played. He also knows that Zeenat is the only one loyal to him. Almost against his natural instincts, he begins to worry about her future. He knows his wealth is going to run out sooner than later given his unworldliness. He somehow manages to find a suitable groom for Zeenat and marries her off spending virtually the last bits of his fortune.

His last act is against the grain because he has been a hedonist all his life; impending old age has made feel responsible towards a young woman whom he has got for his pleasure. His Zeenu, he feels, will be robbed blind when he is not there anymore; therefore his hunt for a reliable, financially sound groom. The story is a masterly mix of drollery, moments of illumination and ambiguity.

One must thank his niece for a book that strikes a balance between emotion and intellect, retaining its rigorous quality of scholarship and its generous understanding of people and situations. Understanding Saadat Hasan Manto and placing him in a historical context is quite a feat. He is one writer who deserves to be rediscovered by the young in India and Pakistan and discovered by readers of all ages in the world.