Brave, bold
Urdu’s enfant terrible

Rakshanda Jalil recaps the life and works of Saadat Hasan Manto, the quintessential storyteller, who left an indelible mark on the literary history of the Indian subcontinent

"I write with a black pen, but I never write on a blackboard with a black chalk. I always use a white chalk so that the blackness of the board is clearly visible"
— Saadat Hasan Manto

In an impudent epitaph written for himself a year before his death, Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) wrote: ‘Here (Manto) lies buried – and buried in his breast are all the secrets of the art of story-telling.’ Immodest, yes, but by no means outrageous, for it is true that whatever the merits of Manto’s style and craft, he was a story-teller par excellence. He had the rare gift of being able to narrate the most blood-curdling events with faithful accuracy and an unsparing eye for detail. Provocative, outrageous, scandalous, sometimes even blasphemous, Manto was the original enfant terrible of Urdu literature. Cocking a snook at society, literary norms and most notions of propriety, he nevertheless touched the hearts of many with his convincing and utterly original portrayal of human fallibility.

Dismissed by literary critics and arbiters of good taste as a voyeur, a purveyor of cheap erotic thrills, a scavenger of human misery, a compulsive scraper of the wounds of a sick and ailing society, or at best a mere rapporteur and no more, Manto upset every conceivable notion of literary propriety and license.

An under-achiever all through school and college (he even flunked in Urdu!), Manto drifted through various jobs in All India Radio and the Bombay film industry before he found his true calling: as a story-teller. Like his contemporary, Ismat Chughtai, he, too, loved to handle bold and unconventional themes that had so far been taboo in Urdu literature. However, unlike Chughtai’s homely and colourfully idiomatic language, Manto chose a stark, spare, almost staccato style, unembellished and unaffected, deliberately shorn of all appendages of style and convention.

Prolific writer

Never one to impose his own interpretation of events, Manto could look at people and events with a consciousness uncoloured by notions of nationalism, religion, morality, and least of all sentimentality. He wrote what he saw and felt, and he wrote compulsively and prodigiously. In the 43 years that he lived, he published 22 collections of short stories, one novel, five (some say seven) collections of radio plays, three collections of essays and two collections of sketches of famous personalities (one called, rather evocatively, Ganje Farishte or ‘Bald Angels’!). Though much of his writing was in the nature of ‘command performances’ – to feed the twin demons of drink and acute, chronic poverty – there is still a great deal in his eclectic ouvre that is touched by greatness.

"Manto hobnobbed with filmstars, first as a film journalist and then as a scriptwriter, made money and frittered it all on drinking, gambling and the good life"

Of his various collections, many stories appear in more than one collection, occasionally appearing under different names. Always hard up, Manto was known for ‘selling’ his stories to different publishers at different times, sometimes he would tweak a story or its ending to make it somewhat different.

The roots

Manto, meaning ‘weight’ in Kashmiri, belonged to a family of wealthy Kashmiri traders who had come to the plains and had settled in Lahore. His grandfather, a dealer in pashmina, moved to Amritsar where the family prospered but remained deeply, quintessentially, religious. Manto’s father, Maulvi Ghulam Hasan married twice and had 12 children in all. Manto, born from the second wife, was in awe of his step-brothers who were not only older but much better educated. While he was fond of his mother, his relations with other family members remained distant. He lived in especial dread of his father, who had retired as a sub-judge from Samrala, a town near Ludhiana, and returned to Amritsar to live in the Kucha Vakilan neighbourhood of the old city.

Manto’s rebellious streak can be traced to living in fear of his father’s acerbic tongue and authoritarian ways. Harshly critical of films, theatre, music and other forms of plebian entertainment, Maulvi Ghulam Hasan wanted Manto to study hard and do as well as his other sons, who had studied abroad and become barristers. He disapproved of Manto’s growing irreligiosity and impertinence. Yet, despite all his chaffing against his father’s harshness, Manto dedicated his first collection of short stories, Aatish Parey (Slivers of Fire), to his father and hung his somewhat grim and disapproving portrait in his room.

Tryst with Bombay

Manto went to Bombay in search of work sometime in 1935, landing a job as editor of a weekly called Mussavvar. The glamour and gaiety of the city’s high society, as also the grit and grime of its underbelly, provided ample fodder for a man of Manto’s disposition. The red light district of Forres Road, the chawls of Nagpara, the paanwallas, taxi drivers, washermen, Parsi landladies and Jewish hotel keepers, the editors of motley Urdu newspapers became rich sources of inspiration. Manto wrote prolifically and some of his most memorable characters are drawn from the people he met in these halcyon days in Bombay from 1935 to 1947. Manto hobnobbed with film stars, first as a film journalist and then as a scriptwriter, made money and frittered it all away on drinking, gambling and the good life. He lived, briefly, in Delhi for a year and a half when he worked at the All India Radio but irreconcilable differences with the legendary Pitras Bukhari, the Station Director, made him give up the only job he enjoyed, one that also fetched him a handsome regular salary.

Back to Pakistan

No one quite knows why Manto went away to Pakistan. Was it in a huff or on a whim? Was it to seek a better future, broken as he was by chronic drinking and acute poverty? Was it the thought of starting afresh, on a clean slate as it were, that attracted him whenever he did think of his wife and three daughters whom he loved dearly? Was it out of genuine disenchantment with the increasingly strident and communally charged atmosphere of the ‘bohemian’ film industry? Or was it, as some suggest, the dream of owning an "allotted" mansion the moment he crossed over?

One gets a glimpse into Manto’s state of mind when he made the journey across in ‘Sahay’ and in ‘Zehmat-e-Mehr-e-Darakhshan’ but with Manto there are never any clear answers.

His seven years in Pakistan were years of hard drinking, acute penury, a near hand-to-mouth existence and a time of ever-mounting frustrations and humiliations. Manto wrote like a man possessed, often producing one story a day, a bit like a hen laying an egg a day! Some of his finest work was produced during these years of near-manic productivity, poverty and profligacy. He died on January 18, 1955 in Lahore of cirrhosis of the liver. His last wish, literally made with his dying breath, was for a swig of whiskey.

Formidable legacy

Manto’s legacy constitutes a formidable body of work; it is as vast as it is varied, yet unfortunately certain stories have been most anthologised and are, therefore, understood to be the most representative of his ouvre. I don’t believe it is so. There is far more to Manto, I do believe, than Toba Tek Singh or Khol Do or Kaali Shalwar. Most of these provocative stories belong to the last years of his life when the shadows were darkening not just in his personal life but over the sub-continent too, and when Manto’s demons had begun to trouble him to the extent of driving him, briefly, to a mental asylum. These are dark stories, unrelieved by even a tinge of the humanity and liberalism that one sees in his early work. Unfortunately, it is these stories that are understood, in popular perception, to define Manto’s ouvre.

The truth, however, is that his world is peopled by the good as much as the bad. If anything, Manto possesses the rare knack of making the reader share his delighted discovery of goodness and beauty whenever he comes across it in the midst of wickedness and ugliness. Maybe it was the age he was born in, or the circumstances of his own life that made Manto see the darkness more acutely than others. But Manto was not blind to light. He cherished goodness whenever he stumbled upon it.

Some writers shape their ouvre, others have it shaped by events and circumstances larger and beyond them. So, while Manto wrote almost obsessively about the events that lead to the division of the sub-continent and the terrible suffering it inflicted on innocent people, he wrote on other subjects too. Most notably on Sex! So much so, that those who do not see Manto’s prolific outpouring over a period of 20-odd years in its entirety, often regard him as a writer unhealthily obsessed with sex.

Rebutting charges of voyeurism and sacrilege, Manto wrote:

‘I am no sensationalist. Why would I want to take the clothes off a society, civilisation and culture that is, in any case, naked? Yes, it is true I make no attempt to dress it — because it is not my job; that is a dressmaker’s job. People say I write with a black pen, but I never write on a black board with a black chalk. I always use a white chalk so that the blackness of the board is clearly visible.’

And that is precisely what he does in story after story.

Rakhshanda Jalil has introduced and translated a collection of Manto entitled Naked Voices: Stories and Sketches. She blogs at