The Partition, as Manto saw it

From the battleground that was the Partition, emerged some of the finest literature of the subcontinent. Manto's was the best

Prasenjit Chowdhury Kolkata

Muslims living in Hindu localities began to leave for safer places; Hindus in Muslim majority areas followed suit. Full-scale communal violence erupted in Amritsar. However, retired judge Mian Abdul had a bull-headed conviction that the storm would blow over. Therefore, he chose not to move his family. His two children, a boy of eleven and a girl of seventeen, and his old servant who was pushing seventy, were the three who kept him company. His daughter Sughra was not so convinced because "there were too many fires in too many places" and the "sky was always lit by conflagrations like giants spitting out flames."

Things indeed belied Mian sahib's predictions as they went from bad to worse. Mian sahib had a stroke and was laid up. All the dispensaries were closed. And Mian sahib's condition worsened by the day. Desperately, Sughra scolded their servant who mostly kept near Mian sahib's bed as he coughed and fought for breath: "What good are you? …There was a time when servants used to sacrifice their lives for their masters." Akbar, the servant, left for good. The festival of Eid was only a night away. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. No, it was not Akbar. It was perhaps Gurmukh Singh whom Mian sahib once did a great favour by getting him acquitted in a false legal suit. It wasn't Gurmukh Singh but his son Santokh Singh, assigned to do an errand by his departed father — to fulfil his father's farewell wish — all the way from his village to deliver a bagful of siwwaiyaan to Mian sahib on the occasion of Eid, as his father always did to register his lifelong gratitude.

The paternal assignment over, Santokh left. But outside the door were four veiled men, wanting to know if he had done the job his father had entrusted him, that is, delivered the token gift from his father to Mian sahib. Then they set about doing their job. They had burning oil torches with them and cans of kerosene oil and explosives.

The above account, which could well be of modern-day Naroda Patiya in Gujarat or even Mumbai, is of The Assignment, a famous story by Saadat Hasan Manto, south Asia's foremost and possibly most controversial Urdu short story writer. Endowed with a literary genius capable of exploring topics as diverse as the socio-economic injustice prevailing in the subcontinent, love, sex, incest, prostitution, and the typical hypocrisy of traditional sub-continental men, Manto is chiefly remembered as the literary exponent of the Partition and its accompanying horrors. 

Here comes a seamless collection of vintage Manto containing some 28 stories, translated and introduced brilliantly by Khalid Hasan who has done a great service to non-Urdu readers. Manto wrote more than 250 short stories and his claim to abiding literary fame owes a lot to this genre. It is always a difficult task to choose from the works of as prolific and gifted a writer as Manto who, during his career, published 22 collections of stories, seven collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, and a novella. The most representative stories are those that pick up the disturbing overt acts as well as undercurrents of the Partition which, to Manto, was not a celebrative or epiphanic event but an overwhelming tragedy stories such as Toba Tek Singh, The Return, The Assignment, and Colder Than Ice are retained in this collection, though to the unfortunate exclusion of stories like Thanda Gosht and Dhuan. Many consider Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat) to be the best piece of imaginative prose written about the communal violence of 1947. Hasan could also have included in his introduction a brief outline of Manto's translated works and perhaps the original titles of his stories — pointing out which names had been retained and which changed. 

Why did Manto fall back again and again on the theme of Partition? Wrote Manto: “I came to accept this nightmarish reality (Partition) without self-pity or despair. I tried to retrieve from this man-made sea of blood pearls of a rare hue, the single-minded dedication with which men killed men, the remorse felt by some, and the tears shed by murderers..." He did not always scour the tragedy for bloodshed but sometimes just made fun of the absurdity of the whole exercise. Take Toba Tek Singh, Manto's most memorable classic. While thousands are involved in the unprecedented communal frenzy that follows the announcement of Partition, the inmates of a mental asylum find themselves in a strange situation. The authorities have decided that while the Muslim inmates can stay back, the Hindu and Sikhs will have to go to India. This creates confusion because the inmates have not heard of Pakistan. A Sikh inmate refuses to leave because, when he was brought in, the asylum was in India. What follows is confusion, confusion and more confusion. One lunatic gets so frazzled with the India/Pakistan question that one day he climbs a tree and refuses to come down, saying he prefers neither India nor Pakistan and wants to live on the tree. One Bishen Singh, who has been standing for 15 years in the asylum, lies face down on the ground with India on one side and Pakistan on the other, on a no man's land. This is sharp literary irony about the falsity of man-made borders.

Ishwar Singh fails to rise to the occasion while making love to his wife Kalwant Kaur. As part of an arsonist gang he has killed six Muslim men with his kirpan. But his sexual tragedy stems from the beautiful girl he carried away to "gorge" on a "mouthful of this luscious meat", first thinking to "shuffle her a bit" but later deciding to "trump her right away", only to discover that he carried away a dead body, "a heap of cold flesh". This is Colder than Ice, yet another bone-chilling tale by Manto.

Take the plight of Sirajuddin in the story The Return (originally titled Khol-do and rated as his greatest by Manto himself) who loses his daughter Sakina in Lahore on their journey from Amritsar to Lahore. In riot-ravaged Lahore, Sirajuddin, fleeing a trail of arson and fire, is forced to leave his wife — lying dead with her stomach ripped open — to save Sakina. The abducted Sakina is finally found by her father in a hospital where she lies in a traumatised state, raped not only by her abductors but her rescuers as well. The distraught father, unmindful of the ravages done to the body of his beautiful daughter and perhaps of the death of her soul, is happy to get his daughter back physically alive. The story is a powerful pull between physical life and moral death and, for its sheer brevity, is a masterpiece.

The Last Salute is a moving tale about two friends who belonged to the same village, had a shared childhood, but were condemned to fight one another because they served two armies of two different nations squabbling over Kashmir. The New Constitution, another Manto classic first published in 1937 as New Law, tells the story of Ustad Mangu, a tongawallah in Lahore, who discovers that the 1935 Government of India Act is a sham because the new law means nothing to colonised people like him.

But to sample the raw basic power of Manto, readers have to go into stories such as Odour where it is the smell of the women and the language of their bodies that talks to Randhir, and the unwashed perfume of one dark girl under a tamarind tree that sets his senses afire. Manto's other heroes are people who live on the fringes of society and inhabit stories such as Siraj and Babu Gopi Nath. Stories that talk of base primal passions, like The Wild Cactus, Mummy", The Room with the Bright Light, and Mozail, not only show Manto exploring the ritual of sex, the frills of love, and the taboos of polygamy, but also reveal, what many considered, his dangerously non-conformist strains.

So what was the story of this story writer? Do some old-timers recall a scriptwriter working for Bombay Talkies? The man had a glowing Kashmiri complexion and a thick crop of long brown hair. He loved to wear a light brown gabardine shirwanee with silken trousers and saleem shahi shoes. As a wayward adolescent he hobnobbed with the rakes and layabouts of Amritsar in their slovenly environment, though he was in constant dread of his stern father. In his house in Kucha Vakilan, he kept his makeshift room meticulously tidy. He arranged pen, pencil, inkpot and paper neatly before sitting down to read or write. It is ironical that though his room was lined with books he failed his matriculation examination twice and, only with great difficulty, managed to pass on the third attempt, in the third division. The man was Manto.

In the largest exodus in recorded history, among millions of refugees who migrated across the brand new border after India was partitioned in 1947, Manto too, in the January of 1948, left Bombay behind to move to Lahore, Pakistan. At the time of his departure from India, Manto was working for the well-known studio Bombay Talkies. In Bombay he had spent his happiest, financially well-off, and most creative part of his life and he forever regretted leaving the city. Even during his difficult last years in Lahore, suffering from persecution and poverty, Manto continued to write with nostalgia and affection about Bombay, the place from which he had been exiled: "That was the city I loved. That is the city I still love."   

The new Pakistan dashed his hopes. During his years in Bombay, he had written with great relish about film stars, prostitutes, and drinking. The horrors of the Partition compelled Manto to write about violence in a critical and graphic way. Pakistan tried him again and again on charges of obscenity. Often reviled and misunderstood, Manto died of liver cirrhosis in 1955, at the age of 43, a broken man.

Virtually drinking himself to death in Lahore, he, like Ghalib, wrote his own epitaph on August 18, 1954, six months before his death: "Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story writing. Under tonnes of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short-story writer: God or he, Saadat Hasan Manto." In a godless universe that made a tragedy like the Partition happen, Manto is perhaps the supreme exponent of the sub-continent's Partition literature — a man who played a game of dice with his own fortune.