Legendary storyteller Saadat Hasan Manto was much celebrated in India as well as Pakistan on his birth centenary in May, but official recognition for him in Pakistan came only on August 14, when the government conferred on him the Nishan-i-Imitiaz, Pakistan’s highest civilian award.
Described by his grandniece and historian Ayesha Jalal as a “terrific writer of memoir”, Manto is best known for his Urdu short stories, especially those that explored the impact of Partition, to which he was bitterly opposed. He voiced his views in Lahore in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when it was sacrilege to speak against the divide. “When I sat down to write, I found my mind in a confused state. Howsoever I tried, I could not separate India from Pakistan and Pakistan from India”.
Manto was born in a Ludhiana village on May 11, 1912, to a barrister practising in Amritsar and his second wife, a gentle woman with an artistic disposition. The strict father was unhappy because Manto had a poor record, unlike the three sons from his first wife. Manto failed twice in the school leaving examinations, and cleared only on the third attempt. Among the subjects he failed was Urdu. He wrote about the common man, those on the fringe, so his language had to be colloquial.
Attempts to study at Hindu Sabha College and Aligarh Muslim University failed, but he did get to interact with other writers. Back in Amritsar, he was taken under the wing by a learned man, Abdul Bari Alig, who introduced him to European literature, and coaxed him to translate Hugo, followed by the likes of Chekhov, Gorky and Oscar Wilde. The massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar inspired Manto to write his first story “Tamasha”.
Except for a two-year stint with All India Radio in Delhi, Manto lived in Bombay till January 1948. It was there that he made friends and experienced poverty. Occasionally he made money from writing film scripts, which he shared with some of his needy friends. Manto left India in 1947 because of a deep sense of loss and insecurity, not out of choice. He has since made a comeback to India via translations, mostly in English. Aficionados of Urdu lament that the language he wrote is no longer courted with reverence it once enjoyed. Yet, this may not have worried Manto, who said: “A language is not made, it makes itself.... And no amount of human effort can kill a language.”
Disillusioned and lonely in a strange land, he sought solace in alcohol, and did not live long. Manto’s three daughters are planning a new theatrical adaptation of his work, says Ayesha Jalal. She has written a thesis on how Pakistan turned the Urdu writer into an alcoholic. According to filmmaker Shama Zaidi, Manto could never get over Bombay.
Few could have put the madness of Partition in a better perspective than Manto did in “Toba Tek Singh”, his most celebrated work, set in a lunatic asylum.
The Tribune, 19 August 2012