Manto, The Short Story Writer Who Chronicled India’s Partition

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912–1955), one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century that South Asia has produced. Writing mainly in the Urdu language, he produced 22 collections of short stories, a novel, five series of radio plays, three collections of essays and two collections of personal sketches. His best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics. Manto was known to write about the hard truths of society that no one dared to talk about. He is best known for his stories about the partition of India, Saadat Hasan Manto’s words continue to haunt generations because of their prophetic nature.

Manto chronicled the chaos that prevailed, during and after the Partition of India in 1947. Manto strongly opposed the partition of India, which he saw as an “overwhelming tragedy” and “maddeningly senseless”. He started his literary career translating the works of Victor HugoOscar Wilde and Russian writers such as Chekhov and Gorky. His first story was “Tamasha”, based on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Amritsar. Though his earlier works, influenced by the progressive writers of his times, showed a marked leftist and socialist leanings, his later work progressively became stark in portraying the darkness of the human psyche, as humanist values progressively declined around the Partition.

From Partition to prostitution, politics to cinema, society to family and graveyard to cigarette, everything was in the bucket of his writing.

His most famous work, Toba Tek Singh, was published after his death. A powerful satire on partition, 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 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. What is unique about Toba Tek Singh is, unlike other stories or novels on partition, this story does not depict violence or hatred, yet you feel for the protagonist, because his characteristics hold true for the sane also.

The Manto you read in this story and others of its kind is bitter, traumatized, and filled with hatred. However, there is another Manto, the man before partition, the man who was the darling of the film industry, then called Bombay Talkies. Manto wrote a collection called Bombay Storieswhich talk 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. The Manto of Bombay had a sly sense of humor, romanticism and affection for life.

“A writer picks up his pen only when his sensibility is hurt.”
— Manto to a court judge

His final works, which grew from the social climate and his own financial struggles, reflected an innate sense of human impotency towards darkness and contained satire that verged on dark comedy, as seen in his final work, Toba Tek Singh. It not only showed the influence of his own demons, but also that of the collective madness that he saw in the ensuing decade of his life. To add to it, his numerous court cases and societal rebukes deepened his cynical view of society, from which he felt isolated. No part of human existence remained untouched or taboo for him, he sincerely brought out stories of prostitutes and pimps alike, just as he highlighted the subversive sexual slavery of the women of his times. To many contemporary women writers, his language portrayed reality and provided them with the dignity they long deserved. He is still known for his scathing insight into human behaviour as well as revelation of the macabre animalistic nature of the enraged people, that stands out amidst the brevity of his prose.

Manto faced trial for obscenity in his writings in both India (then under British rule) and Pakistan, including three times in India before 1947 (‘Dhuan’, ‘Bu’ and ‘Kali Shalwar’) and three times in Pakistan after 1947 (‘Khol Do’, ‘Thanda Gosht’ and ‘Upar Neeche Darmiyaan’) under section 292 of the Indian Penal Code (by the British Government) and the Pakistan Penal Code in Pakistan’s early years. He was fined only in one case. Regarding the charges of obscenity he opined, “I am not a pornographer but a story writer”.

In the famous court case after he shifted to Lahore, Manto was on trial against charges of obscenity for the fifth time in his life, for his short story, Tẖanḍā Gōsht. The interest of the police in Manto’s library is remniscient of Professor K Satyanarayana’s recent account of the police entering his house with a search warrant in August. If during the early 50s, it was dangerous to produce a certain kind of literature in Pakistan, in 2018, it is dangerous to even possess certain kind of books today in India. You can be implicated not only for what you write, but what you read. Our times are worse than Manto’s.

At least one commentator compares Saadat Hasan Manto to D. H. Lawrence, partly because he wrote about taboos of Indo-Pakistani Society. His concerns on the socio-political issues, from local to global are revealed in his series, Letters to Uncle Sam, and those to Pandit Nehru. On his writing he often commented, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth”.

Manto was a writing-machine. The writer exists only at the table where he writes. The table is Manto’s real court of law, his confession box, his bed of nightmarish lovemaking, where he dissects a world that has lost its mind. It is also a world where the mad alone, like Toba Tek Singh, retains the sensibility to realise the madness of Partition. A truly contemporary writer is always a misfit for her times. She fits her times too violently, for it to bear all of her. Manto is our double, the one we are scared to remember. Can we bear Manto today, just because we eulogise him?

As readers, we grow accustomed to understanding a writer and the man behind the writer as a single entity. However, Saadat Hasan Manto the man was a devoted husband, a loving father. His only muse was his wife and pillar of strength, Safia Manto. Here was a writer whose excellence and vision consumed his life, while the man wanted to spend many more evenings with his three daughters. But his predicament led him to the grave sooner than expected. Even there, the writer proves that he knows the truth better than God. Reading Manto is like trying to understand an entire civilization in two lines. He spoke too much in few words, which invariably made the words sharp enough to pierce through our hearts.

He masterfully captured the underbelly of the city, telling stories of pimps, gangsters, salon madams and prostitutes living in cramped chawls. His stories were frank, forthright and imbued with a sense of moral outrage that aimed to give a voice to the voiceless. Manto has established his writings as an alternate source of the socio-cultural history of the times. 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.

Manto also wrote about the violence in Bombay during Partition like nobody else did, mentioned by historian Ayesha Jalal, his niece. Loving, living and leaving Bombay made him write ‘Bombay in the Riots’, ‘Bombay During Partition’, ‘Save India from its Leaders’, ‘The Guilty Men of Bombay.’ These are the pieces which are raw and naked with the truth of Partition, religious division, and corrupt political leaders. Being a keen observer Manto was terrified and confused about the communal violence in Bombay.

Manto’s world has returned without Manto. God save us.

Manto’s immense love for the city Bombay and Indian culture was inexplicable. He came to the city from Amritsar, after being dropped out from Aligarh Muslim University, to become a journalist.

Through the lens of Manto’s non-fiction, the history of Partition, anecdotes of his personal life, his struggle as an editor and writer, his beloved Bombay, his identical crisis as an Indian and getting identified as a Pakistani as well and all the other unfavorable paths that he walked have been translated meticulously, where the true essence of the original did not get lost in translation.

Salman Rushdie, the author of Midnight’s Children and one of Manto’s biggest advocates, describes him as “unparalleled in his generation”. “There are few writers,” says Rushdie, “who straddle both India and Pakistan as he does, and who engage with the deepest problems of both countries.”

From his relative obscurity through all these decades post his death in 1956, Manto has returned, now travelling posthumously all over the globe. The recent times saw the writer obtain unprecedented attention, unbridled praise, a remarkable shift from the treatment he had been meted out in his lifetime. Growing up in Amritsar, studying at Aligarh, working in Delhi/Bombay and eventually making a perplexing shift to Pakistan, Manto is now heard of in Lahore where he once received obscenity notices, as well as in those nostalgic speeches and papers that are read in Jammu where he went recuperating from a suspected bout of tuberculosis. Manto has also reached Norway, where a play Onkle Sam, based on his ‘Letters to Uncle Sam’, seeks questions on American imperialist designs through a polyphonic monologue, as well as London, where Black Shalwar (a play based on his Urdu story of the same title), investigates issues of community, diaspora and geo-political shifts. Khalid Hasan, Manto’s best-known and most prolific translator also speaks of a published Japanese translation of the Urdu writer’s short stories. From plays in Hyderabad, India to seminars in Texas in the USA, to right at our doorsteps through the homage of newspaper columns, the Manto-phenomenon is now inescapable.


  2. Chakrabarti Aritra, (4th January, 2017) “” manto-the-man-who-knew-the-truth/
  3. Bhalla, Alok (1997). Life and works of Saadat Hasan Manto. Indian Institute of Advanced Study. p. 113.
  4. Shivpuri, R.K. “Social and Political World-View of Saadat Hasan Manto”Kashmir Sentinel.
  7. Manzoor, Sarfraz (11 June 2016). “Saadat Hasan Manto: ‘He anticipated where Pakistan would go'”. The Guardian.
  9. “The Storyteller: Saadat Hasan Manto (May 11, 1912 – January 18, 1955”Dawn. 6 May 2012.

One thought on “Manto, The Short Story Writer Who Chronicled India’s Partition

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s