Remembering Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955)

Saadat Hasan Manto’s centenary is being observed quietly by friends and admirers in Lahore. No official recognition or mention. He’s almost become a non-person. Manto died in Lahore in 1955. He was forty-three years old. The life of  one of our greatest short-story writers had been prematurely truncated. I was eleven years old at the time. I never met him. I wish I had. One can visualize him easily enough. In later photographs the melancholy is visible. He appears exhausted as if his heart were entrenched with sadness. In these his face displays all the consequences of a ravaged liver.

But there are others. Here his eyes sparkle with intelligence, the impudence almost bursting through the thick glass of his 1940’s spectacles, mocking the custodians of morality, the practitioners of confessional politics or the commissariat of the Progressive Writers. ‘Do your worst’, he appears to be telling them. ‘I don’t care. I will write to please myself. Not you.’   Manto’s battles with the literary establishment of his time became a central feature of his biography. Charged with obscenity and brought to trial on a number of occasions he remained defiant and unapologetic.

It was the Partition of India in 1947 along religious lines  that formed his own attitudes and those of his numerous detractors. The episodes associated with the senseless carnage that accompanied the withdrawal of the British from India loom large in Manto’s short stories. A few words of necessary explanation might help the reader to understand the corrosive impact of  Manto on the reading public. The horrors of 1947 were well known, but few liked to talk about them. A collective trauma appeared to have silenced most people. Not Manto. In his stories of that period he recovered the dignity of all the victims without fear or favor. Even the perpetrators of crimes were victims of a political process that had gone out of control.

In these bad times when the fashion is to worship accomplished facts real history tends to be treated as an irritant, something to be swatted out of existence like mosquitoes in summer, it is worth recalling that something terrible happened fifty years ago today when India was divided.  It is time to recognize it and see if it can be understood and transcended. The survivors owe it to those who perished. At least a million men, women and children lost their lives during the carnage of ‘ethnic cleansing’ that overcame Northern and Eastern India as the Punjab and Bengal were divided along religious lines.

In the months that preceded Partition, Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other glared into each other’s hate-filled eyes before embarking on  frenzied blood-baths. The character and scale of the butchery was unprecedented in Indian history. In fact even Jinnah, as late as June 1946, was prepared to consider a federal solution as proposed by the Cabinet Mission sent to India by the Labour Government. It was the Congress Party which made that particular solution impossible.

This failure meant that exactly one year before Partition, the Hindu-Muslim riots started in Eastern India. During four days in August 1946, nearly 5000 people were killed and three times that number wounded in Bengal. The mood in the Punjab became edgy. Fear overcame rationality.

My mother, an active member of the Communist Party, often recalls how in April 1947, heavily pregnant with my sister and alone at home, she was disturbed by a loud knock on the front door. As she opened the door  she was overcome by anxiety. In front of her stood the giant figure of a Sikh. He saw the fear on her face, understood and spoke in a soft, reassuring voice. All he wanted to know was the location of a particular house on a nearby road. My mother gave him the directions. He thanked her warmly and left. She was overpowered by shame. How could she, of all people, without a trace of prejudice, have reacted in that fashion?  Nor was she the  only one. Manto’s stories help us to understand the madness that was bursting into bloodshed.

Trains became moving graveyards as they arrived at stations on both sides of the new divide, packed with corpses of fleeing refugees. As always, it was  the poor of town and country who were the main victims and they were buried or burnt in  hastily dug pits. Neither the song of the nightingale nor lamps or flowers would ever grace their graves. They are the forgotten victims of that year. No memorial in India or Pakistan marks the killings. The Partition of India was a tragedy and a crime. It was neither inevitable nor necessary and  its traces are only too visible in the unending anguish of the great  sub-continent. Faiz Ahmed Faiz,  one of the greatest of 20th century Urdu poets,  born in what  became Pakistan, spoke for many  in his poem Freedom’s Dawn on August ‘47:

This leprous daybreak, dawn night’s fangs have mangled—

This is not that long -looked-for break of day,

Not that clear dawn in quest of which those comrades

Set out, believing that in heaven’s wide void

Somewhere must be the star’s last halting place,

Somewhere the verge of night’s slow-washing tide,

Somewhere an anchorage for the ship of heartache.

But now, word goes, the birth of day from darkness

Is finished, wandering feet stand at their goal;

Our leaders’ ways are altering, festive looks

Are all the fashion, discontent reproved;–

And yet this physic still on unslaked eye

Or heart fevered by severance works no cure.

Where did that fine breeze, that the wayside lamp

Has not once felt, blow from—where has it fled?

Night’s heaviness is unlessened still, the hour

Of mind and spirit’s ransom has not struck;

Let us go on, our goal is not reached yet.

A year later, another poet Sahir Ludhianvi, who crossed the border and came to Pakistan could not bear the atmosphere and returned to India. He sent an explanation in the form of a dirge addressed to fellow-writers in Pakistan:

Friends, for long years

I have spun dreams of the moon and stars and spring for you,

Today my tattered garments hold nothing

But the dust of the road that we have travelled.

The music in my harp has been strangled

Its tunes buried by wails and screams

 Peace and civilization are the alms I crave

So that my lips can learn how to sing again.

Saadat Hasan Manto, was moved to write ‘Toba Tek Singh’. Manto wrote sparsely, each word carefully chosen. His diamond-hard prose was in polar contrast to the flowery language of many  contemporaries. He wrote about sexual frustration and its consequences, of jealousy and how it often led to murder. One of his stories, ‘Behind the Screen’, describes a wife’s revenge once she discovers her husband has a secret mistress. The wife takes the husband to his lover’s apartment and in his presence has her body chopped into tiny pieces. The story was based on an actual event that took place in the North West Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan. Manto spared his readers the real life ending: the wife  had her rival’s flesh cooked and forced her husband to eat the cooked flesh, a striking demonstration of the saying that truth is stranger than fiction. (footnote: cf Khalid Hasan, ‘Sadat Hasan Manto: Not of Blessed Memory’, Annual of Urdu Studies, 4, 1984, P.85)

‘Toba Tek Singh’  is a masterpiece, set in the lunatic asylum in Lahore at the time of Partition.  When whole cities are being ethnically cleansed, how can the asylums escape? The Hindu and Sikh lunatics are told by bureaucrats organizing the transfer of power that they will be forcibly transferred to  institutions in India.  The inmates rebel. They embrace each other and weep. They will not be parted willingly. They have to be forced on to the trucks. One of them, a Sikh, is so overcome by rage that he dies on the demarcation line which divides Pakistan from India. Confronted by so much  insanity in the real world, Manto discovered normality in the asylum. The ‘lunatics’ have a better understanding of the crime that is being perpetrated than the politicians who have agreed to Partition.

Few politicians on either side had foreseen the results. Jawaharlal Nehru’s romantic nationalism portrayed independence as a long-delayed “tryst with destiny”. He never imagined that the tryst would be bathed in countless gallons of Indian blood. This was partially the result of a failure by the Congress High Command to make the large Muslim minority an offer it could not refuse.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a second-rate politician, but with a first-class lawyer’s brain. Initially he had used separatism as a bargaining ploy. Even later, he genuinely believed that the new state would simply be a smaller version of secular India, with one difference. Here Muslims would be the largest community. He really believed that he would still be able to spend some time every winter at his mansion in Bombay, the only city where he had found love and happiness.

Jinnah conceived of  Pakistan as an amalgamation of an undivided Punjab, an undivided Bengal together with Sind, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province. This would have meant that forty percent of the Punjab would have consisted of Hindus and Sikhs and forty-nine percent of Bengal would have consisted of Hindus.   It was, alas, a utopian nonsense. Once confessional passions had been aroused and neighbors were massacring each other (as in the former Yugoslavia during the last decade of the 20th century) it was difficult to keep the two provinces united.

“I do not care how little you give me,” Jinnah is reported as saying in March 1947 to the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten,  “as long as you give it to me completely.”

A dying old man in a hurry, who could have been a willing collaborator in establishing a single state with important safeguards for the minority, had the Congress been capable of strategic insights, but now he wanted his own statelet, however small and awkward it might appear on the map.

India had come a long way in 1947. All previous rulers had attempted to govern with the consent of the ruling elites of whatever religion. The Mughal Emperors, themselves Muslims, had learnt this lesson very quickly and Akbar had unsuccessfully attempted to create a new religion synthesising Hinduism and Islam. Even the last of the great Mughals, the religious-minded Aurungzeb did not attempt any Islamicisation of his army:  his ablest Generals were Hindu chiefs!

The British, when confronted with the nightmare of actually governing India, realized that, despite their more advanced technology, they would not last too long without serious alliances. They could only govern India with the consent of its traditional rulers.  The raj was maintained by a very tiny British presence: in 1805 the pink-cheeked conquerors numbered 31,000; in 1911 they had grown to 164,000 and in 1931 there were 168,000. In other words the British in India never comprised more than 0.05 of the local population.

It was this fact that concentrated the finest minds of the raj on politics and strategy. The civil servants trained by Haileybury and other imperialist nurseries in Britain to govern a mighty sub-continent were political administrators, often of the highest order. They learned to speak Urdu and Bengali so that they could, when necessary, communicate directly with peasants and administer justice. They also learned how to divide local rulers from each other and how to fan religious prejudices. The birth of modern Sikhism and Hinduism owes a great deal to the British presence in India. In return, local potentates were permitted to learn English and taught the etiquette of nibbling cucumber sandwiches with His Excellency at Government House.

If the British had granted India self-government on the Canadian and Australian pattern after the First World War it is unlikely that the sub-continent would have been divided. Partition was not a planned conspiracy by either the British or Jinnah. It came about because of a combination of circumstance during the Forties, including the Second World War. Jinnah backed the war effort, the Congress demanded Independence. Some scores had to be settled. Pakistan was imperialism’s rap on the knuckle for Indian nationalism.

Nehru and Jinnah were both shaken by the orgy of barbarism. It offended all their instincts.  But it was Mahatama Gandhi who paid the ultimate price. For defending the right to live of innocent Muslims in post-Partition India he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a fundamentalist Hindu fanatic. Godse was hanged, but two decades later, Godse’s brother told Channel Four that he regretted nothing. What happened had to happen.

That past now rots in the present and threatens to further poison the future.  The political heirs of the hanged Godse are shoving aside the children of Nehru and Gandhi. The poisonous fog of the religious world has enveloped politics. History, unlike the poets and writers of the sub-continent, is not usually prone to sentiment.

Partition was a disaster, adjacent to which there lurked another. The two parts of Pakistan were divided by a thousand miles of India, culture, language and political tradition. The predominantly Punjabi military-bureaucratic elite belonged to West Pakistan, while the Bengali majority of the population (60%) lived in East Pakistan. The refusal of the military rulers to permit democracy led to a successful uprising in 1968. A dictator was toppled. In the elections that followed the Bengalis of East Pakistan won a big majority. They were not permitted to take office. The Army invaded the Eastern part of its own country.  There was a massacre of intellectuals and mass rape (Punjabi soldiers had been told to ‘change the genes’ of Bengalis forever) followed by a civil war. Bangladesh was born. One partition had led to another.

India, too, was severely damaged by Partition. The Nehru years (1947-64) disguised the processes underneath, but now the Furies are out into the open. Bombay, once the centre of cosmopolitanism is now Mumbai and under the sway of a neo-fascist Hindu organization. In their absurd search for a new Indian identity, the scoundrel parties have re-discovered Hinduism and sections of the ‘secular’ Congress have fallen into line.  Communal riots have claimed tens of thousands of lives over the last fifty years.

Manto was amongst the few who observed the bloodbaths of Partition with a detached eye.  He had remained in Bombay in 1947, where he worked for the film industry, but was accused of  favoring Muslims and was subjected to endless communal taunts, even from those who had hitherto imagined to be like him, but the secular core in many people did not survive the fire.  Manto came to Lahore in 1948, but was never happy. He turned the tragedies he had witnessed or heard into great literature. He wrote of the common people, regardless of ethnic, religious or caste identities and he discovered contradictions and passions and irrationality in each of them. In his work we see how normally decent people can, in extreme conditions, commit the most appalling atrocities. ‘Cold Meat’ is one such story. In 1952 he wrote: “My heart is heavy with grief today. A strange listlessness has enveloped me. More than four years ago when I said farewell to my other home, Bombay, I experienced the same kind of sadness…”

Years later he was still trying to come to grips with what had happened:

“Still, what my mind could not resolve was the question: what country did we belong to now, India or Pakistan? And whose blood was it that was being so mercilessly shed every day? And the bones of the dead, stripped of the flesh of religion, were they being burned or buried? Now that we were free who was to be our subject? When we were not free, we used to dream about freedom. Now that freedom had come, how would we perceive our past state?

“The question was: were we really free? Both Hindus and Muslims were being massacred. Why were they being massacred? There were different answers to the question; the Indian answer, the Pakistani answer, the British answer. Every question had an answer, but when you tried to unravel the truth, you were left groping.

“Everyone seemed to be regressing. Only death and carnage seemed to be proceeding ahead. A terrible chapter of blood and tears was being added to history, a chapter without precedent.

“India was free. Pakistan was free from the moment of its birth, but in both states, man’s enslavement continued: by prejudice, by religious fanaticism, by savagery.”

In a series of Open Letters to Uncle Sam he marked his displeasure at the state of world politics and Pakistan’s Security Pact with the US. He displayed a remarkable prescience as expressed in this extract from his ‘Third Letter to uncle Sam’, written shortly before his death:

“Another thing I would want from you would be a tiny, teeny weeny atom bomb because for long I have wished to perform a certain good deed. You will naturally want to know what.

You have done many good deeds yourself and continue to do them. You decimated Hiroshima, you turned Nagasaki into smoke and dust and you caused several thousand children to be born in Japan. Each to his own. All I want you to do is to dispatch me some dry cleaners. It is like this. Out there, many Mullah types after urinating pick up a stone and with one hand inside their untied shalwar, use the stone to absorb the after-drops of urine as they resume their walk. This they do in full public view. All I want is that the moment such a person appears, I should be able to pull out that atom bomb you will send me and lob it at the Mullah so that he turns into smoke along with the stone he was holding.

“As for your military pact with us, it is remarkable and should be maintained. You should sign something similar with India. Sell all your old condemned arms to the two of us, the ones you used in the last war. This junk will thus be off your hands and your armament factories will no longer remain idle.

“Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is a Kashmiri, so you should send him a gun which should go off when it is placed in the sun. I am a Kashmiri too, but a Muslim which is why I have asked for a tiny atom bomb for myself.

“One more thing. We can’t seem able to draft a constitution. Do kindly ship us some experts because while a nation can manage without a national anthem, it cannot do without a constitution, unless such is your wish.

“One more thing. As soon as you get this letter, send me a shipload of American matchsticks. The matchsticks manufactured here have to be lit with the help of Iranian-made matchsticks. And after you have used half the box, the rest are unusable unless you take help from matches made in Russia which behave more like firecrackers than matches.”

Given the circumstances it is hardly surprising that he sought solace in alcohol and drank himself to death. He had written over 200 short stories and had no doubt of  his place in literary history and left behind the following epitaph for himself:

“Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried the arts of short-story telling. Here he lies underneath tons of mud still wondering if he was a better short-story writer than God.”

TARIQ ALI’s latest book “The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad’ was published by Verso.







Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).