Two Mantos: Shades of the greatest short story teller of South Asia

As the 70th anniversary of Indo-Pak partition looms next year, filmmakers and publishers find a renewed interest in the life of Saadat Hasan Manto.

Six months before his death, Saadat Hasan Manto wrote an epitaph for his resting ground. It reads,”Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him are buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story telling, under tons of Earth he lies, still contemplating who is the greatest story teller: God or He.” In doing so, Manto was convinced that his words would last longer than he would.

As the 70th anniversary of Indo-Pak partition looms next year, there has been a re-emergence of interest in the life and literature of Sadat Hasan Manto. A Pakistani biopic was released last year and it was announced at Cannes that a new Indian film will be made about the writer who has been compared to DH Lawrence, Oscar Wilde and Guy de Maupassant. A film starring Pankaj Kapoor on Tob Tek Singh is in the pipeline and publishers are reprinting his popular titles.

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Penguin Books India too has released a new anthology of short stories in English titled My Name Is Radha.

My Name Is Radha (Penguin Books, 2016)

My Name Is Radha
(Penguin Books, 2016)

Reading Manto is like trying to understand an entire civilization in two lines. The greatest short story writer that the Indian sub-continent produced, Manto left the prophetic truths of life unlocked in his words. He was at the forefront of a literary movement that gave Urdu fiction its voice with a magnanimous and timeless body of works. His oeuvre, a voluminous 22 collections of short stories, movie scripts, a novel, five collections of radio plays, another three collections of essays and two collections of personal sketches, still haunts the literati generations with a redoubtable breadth that pierces the heart.

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Manto with Safia (wife-far left), Zakia (Safia’s sister-middle) and Nighat (daughter) (Photo: Brij Mohan. Bombay 1947)

Manto with Safia (wife-far left), Zakia (Safia’s sister-middle) and Nighat (daughter)
(Photo: Brij Mohan. Bombay 1947)

Each of his works reflect a new and different shade of Manto, each depicts a version more misanthrope, who would rebuke the society and glorify filthy characters. But there was a Manto we all have little remembrance of, the forgotten script writer of Bombay Talkies. His collection Bombay Stories were talks of the tinsel town of 1930s and 1940s and its underbelly: the pimps and the prostitutes, the derided and the destitute, all of which hold true till date. The city had a major influence on Manto; it was his home for 12 years, beginning in 1936. While on one hand, he was a poet of the poor, the spokesperson of the chawl life, the voice of downtrodden, on the other hand, he was a scriptwriter of films which gave him access to the secret life of stars. This Manto of Bombay had a sly sense of humor, romanticism, and affection for life.

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The year 1947 left a deep scar on his psyche which is reflected in his most famous work Toba Tek Singh. A dark satire, the short story reproduces the behavioral pattern of people torn apart by partition by setting the story in a mental asylum in Lahore. The inmates of the asylum represent the hues of emotions and the ethos of that era, the tribulations, and agony of becoming homeless, a refugee. What is striking about the story is that it conveys the indictment of society without referring to it directly. The pivotal character, Bishan Singh meets a ‘matter-of-fact’ ending: he dies on no man’s land between India and Pakistan after the authorities fail to find his home post-partition. This was the Manto of Pakistan, a languished and difficult man, who shared his pain with Bishan Singh.

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Manto’s brilliant touch is evident in all his stories, hop as they do from a moment of child-like, unadulterated joy to the sudden onset of tragedy. Rooted in a certain setting, these stories nevertheless whisper to us across time and space.

70 years after Partition, the master wordsmith still rouses us with his accomplished takedowns of violence, hypocrisy, and other all-too-human failings.

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