The Short Stories

8 Saadat Hasan Manto: Toba Tek Singh

Saadat Hasan Manto: Toba Tek Singh

An Analysis

           The Author and his Milieu

In the world of Urdu Short Stories, one name that stands towering above all others is that of Saadat Hasan Manto.The sheer intensity of his stories, particularly those on the Partition of India., leaves one almost gasping for breath as it were. Manto lived through the experiences of the Partition and like many other writers who belonged to that period of time, re-lived the horror and the incomprehensible violence and brutality of that year through his writings on the theme. What was different about Manto’s stories was that he wrote dispassionately and objectively, taking no sides and pronouncing no judgements. He was deeply wounded by the sudden savagery leashed upon man by man, upon brother by brother, on neighbour by neighbour, upon one community by the other. He delineated this insanity and this incomprehensibility in an extremely effective manner but at the same time he tried to salvage some hope by hinting at the humanism which could still be located in characters like Toba Tek Singh or Mozail.

Manto belonged to a middle-class Kashmiri family of Amritsar. He was born in Sambrala (which is some miles from Amritsar) on the eleventh of May 1912. His short life span saw him migrate to Pakistan after the partition, where he died in Lahore in 1955 at the age of forty three.

The name ‘Manto’ at once creates an interest in Saadat Hasan’s life and raises our curiosity as to what the word means. Various reasons have been attributed to the use of the name ‘Manto’ by his forefathers as well as himself. Manto commented on it once and explained that the name goes back to his roots being in Kashmir. He pointed out that ‘Mant’was a measure of weight used by his forefathers to weigh the gold and silver that they possessed and hence the name ‘Manto’. Dr Brij Premi, who has done extensive research on the life and works of Manto, has pointed out that the name ‘Manto’ indicates links with the Saraswat Brahmins of Kashmir. According to him Mant and Manwati are two branches of the Saraswat Brahmins. Those who embraced Islam were called Mant’and those who remained Hindus were called Manwatis. These two castes can be located till today m present day Kashmir. Yet another source of this name has been pointed out by Manto’s wife. According to her ‘Mant’ is a particular measure amounting to 1.5 seer. Since the members of the ‘Mant’ tribes used to demand 1.5 seer as tax, they were called ‘Mantos’ Safia Begum’s claim, however, has not been authenticated by any other information. The famous Kashmiri historian, Muhammuddin ‘Fauk’, in his book TarikhAkkawam-e-Kashmir, points to yet another reason.. According to him, Manto’s father had once placed a bet to eat 1.5 seer or Manvati of rice at one time and had won that bet. Since that time the family came to be known as Mantos. Whatever be the reasons for the curious appendage, ‘Manto’ was the name Saadat Hasan was known by in the literary world and is still known today.

Manto’s father, Maulvi Ghulam Hasan, was a well educated man and worked as a government official in Sambrala. Soon after Manto’s birth he shifted to Amritsar and set up residence in Kucha Vakilan. He retired as Additional Sessions Judge.Though originally hailing from Kashmir Manto could never actually visit the place in his life time excepting the three months he spent at Bataut, a place near Kashmir when he was recovering allegedly from tuberculosis. Yet he was, like his father, very proud of being a Kashmiri and was always eager to meet people from there to whom he used to introduce himself as being a Kashmiri as well as an Amritsari!

As far as formal education is concerned, Manto failed to make his mark. He could clear his school leaving examination only in the third attempt and it is highly ironical that one of the subjects which he was unable to pass was Urdu, only to emerge as one of its major exponents. He entered The Hindu Sabha College in Amritsar in 1931 but failed in the first year itself and so dropped out.  A few years later, in l934, following the advice of a school friend in Amritsar, he took admission in the famous Aligarh Muslim University. But the story got repeated all over again and Manto did not do well. This time however, he was asked to leave the University because of being diagnosed as having contracted tuberculosis and was advised a change of place. He went towards Kashmir but the alarm proved to be a false one and he returned soon.

Those were times of political turmoil. The Jalianwallah Bagh massacre was not too distant in the past. Manto had been just seven years old at the time yet the horrifying memories plagued him all through his life and he was to write one of his very well known stones about it ‘It Happened in 1919’. Manto was rebellious by nature and the turbulent times only fanned his restlessness further. Along with his friends he began dreaming of bringing about a revolution. One of Manto’s favourite heroes was the young and daring revolutionary Bhagat Singh. It was around this time that he met Bari Alig, the man who put him on the path of becoming a writer. Bari was himself a writer and journalist and immediately sensed Manto’s bent of mind, his talent and his fascination with the idea of bringing about a revolution. He introduced Manto to Russian and French literature and set for him the task of translating Victor Hugo’s play The Last Days of a Condemned Man into Urdu. Manto finished it in an incredibly short time of two weeks! This translation was published and was followed by a translation of Oscar Wilde’s Vera. Having successfully completed these tasks Manto was easily persuaded to tiy his hand at creative writing, writing original stories in Urdu. Here too Manto proved to be a man truly gifted with the power of creative expression. He could write out his stories in an incredibly short span of time and rarely needed to revise his drafts. How much the massacre at Jalianwallah Bagh had impressed upon the mind of the seven year old Manto is evident from the fact that one of his first short stories to be published in a magazine was about the tragic incident and he returned to the bloody memories in a later story written almost in the last years of his life when he wrote ‘It Happened in 1919’.

Around 1935 Manto spent about three months at a hill station in Batauàt to recover from tuberculosis. When it was found that he was suffering from no such ailment, he returned to Amritsar and then moved to Lahore where he took up his first regular job with a magazine called Paras. Disillusionment soon followed and he gave up the job and moved to Bombay in 1935 itself, this time to work as editor for a flim magazine Mussawar, at forty rupees per month. Manto stayed in Bombay from 1935 to 1947, only to leave it for one and a half year in between when he went to Delhi to work with All India Radio.

These were the best years of Manto’s life. He was in his element. The life of a metropolis suited his temperament which was basically radical, liberal and modern. In Manto’s literary world there was no place for beautiful descriptions of Nature or of the ideal villages which were thought to be the epitome of simplicity or for nostalgia for a golden.past. Instead, in his world we find the cold, ruthless and harsh reality of the world of criminals, prostitutes, pimps and other marginalized sections of society. His was a world of cruel reality rather than one of sentimental indulgence in romance. When he came to Bombay he had almost no money on him and for a long time he lived in a tiny room infested with bed bugs. It is small wonder that his particular bent of mind resulted partly from his circumstances. Despite his financial difficulties and failing health Manto loved Bombay intensely and always regretted having left it after the Partition of India. All along Manto continued writing stories, plays and essays. The first collection of his stories appeared in 1940 and was followed by a volume of essays in 1942. In his one and a half year stint with All-India Radio, he wote more than a hundred plays. Not being very happy in Delhi, Manto moved back to Bombay to take up his old job at Mussawar. He soon branched off into free-lancing for various film companies as their screenplay writer. He worked for Saroj, Movietone, Hindustan Cinetone and Imperial Film Company. In 1943 he joined Filmistan for which he wrote a number of films most notable among which wasEight Days where Manto himself played a small part. He even wrote the story of the famous film Mirza Ghalib but unfortunately this film was made after Manto had left fbr Pakistan. The screenplay for the film was written by Rajinder Singh Bedi and it was directed by Sohrab Modi. From Filmistan Manto moved to join Bombay Talkies.

Manto met his future wife Safia Begum in Bombay. It was an arranged match and he was taken aback when he was accepted by Safia’s family despite his irregular income, ad-hoc nature of job and his habit of drinking. But Manto’s life with Safia was a happy one and together they tried to combat their difficult financial circumstances. The couple had four children—a son Arif (who passed away tragically at the tender age of one and a half years) and three daughters Nikhat, Nuzhat and Nusrat.

Manto’s family was on the other siide of the border the day India was partitioned. He was literally torn between the two countries, unable to decide whether to stay or go. All around him was chaos and anarchy unleashed on the world with a sudden ferocity and with so much of barbarity that it was impossible to make any sense of it. How could man stoop to the level of something worse than a beast? How could such frenzy overtake so many people suddenly? How could a man turn on his neighbour with whom he had shared his life’s joys and sorrows, and kill him in cold blood only because he belonged to.a different community and practised a different religion? These questions were driving many people insane as they traumatized Manto too. His family was in Pakistan and he was in the land where his roots were. Should he cross over the line or not was the question that constantly plagued his mind. Emotionally he could never accept the fact of the Partition but an incident which suddenly put things in perspective is recounted by Manto in a memoir devoted to his lifelong friend, the popular screen actor Shyam. Manto writes:

‘It seems such a long time ago.The Muslims and Hindus were engaged in a bloody fratricidal war. Thousands died each day from both sides. One day, Shyam and I were with a newly arrived Sikh refugee family from Rawalpindi [Shyam came from Rawalpindi which was now apart of Pakistan] and listening in shocked silence to their horrifying account of what had happened. I could see that Shyam was deeply moved. I could well understand what was passing through his mind. When we left I said to him: “I am a Muslim. Don’t you want to kill me?” “Not now,” he replied gravely, “but while I was listening to them and learning of the atrocities committed by the Muslims, I could have killed you.” His remark shocked me deeply. Perhaps I could have killed him too when he made it. When I thought about it later, I suddenly understood the psychological background of India’s communal bloodbath. Shyam had said that he could have killed me “then” but not “now.” Therein lay the key to the communal holocaust of Partition.’

Manto was tormented by innumerable questions when he saw the merciless killings and unprecedented violence all around him. Both India and Pakistan were free but, as he observes, ‘man was a slave in both countries, of prejudices, of religious fanaticism of bestiality of cruelty’. He was unable to decide which of the two countries he would now call his homeland. He stopped going to Bombay Talkies and kept mostly to his room. He began to drink heavily and would lie on his sofa all day ‘in a sort of daze.’ Then all of a sudden he decided to leave. He packed his bags and boarded the ship to Karanchi. Shyam was the only friend who waved him good bye.

Manto lived for seven years in Pakistan in Lahore and died from his drink induced liver ailment on l8 Jan. 1955. These seven years were strife-torn years for a sensive writer who was uprooted from the land he loved and that he carried with him in his mind till his last breath. He faced extreme poverty and deprivation as he had no steady source of income. In his last days he was reduced to a state of virtual penury and had to take refuge at his in-law’s place. But these seven years were very profitable from the point of view of Manto the writer as he wrote one hundred and twenty seven short stories during this time apart from various essays, sketches and memoirs. The nightmarish reality of the horrific division of the subcontinent was transformed into great literature as Manto wrote one story after another on the theme. Siyah Hashiye, a collection of short sketches on the Partition, is notable for its grim humour and utterly detached tone that becomes a powerful tool for recreating the horror without any sentimentality or perverse, obsessive indulgence in violence. The book was termed objectionable by the custodians of public morality and was banned. Some of his stories too were found to be ‘obscene, anti-state and degrading.’ Notable among them was the short story titled ‘Khol do’ or ‘Open it’ in which a young and beautiful Muslim girl is first abducted and raped by the Hindus and Sikhs during the partition of Punjab and then recovered, rescued and brought to Pakistan and again raped and left dead by some of her new Muslim countrymen. None of the details are gone into. In fact the whole story evokes the horror through suggestiveness. Yet Manto had to face a charge of obscenity for this story in 1918. He had faced a similar charge in 1940 tco and on both occasions he was acquitted. But the events emphasize the radical path breaking nature of Manto’s writings in which he defies and rejects the hypocrisy of the apparently respectable people and exposes the seamy reality behind the mask.

           The New Story

The New Story or the Nai Kahani in Hindi and the Naya Afsana in Urdu was a direct outcome of basically two major influences. On the one hand the Western influences of Marxist and Freudian ideas prompted these writers to look at familiar subjects with a new insight and it also propelled them towards subjects which had hitherto been considered forbidden. On the other hand there was the experience of the Partition of the subcontinent which had shattered traditionally held ideas and beliefs and had thrown up a horrifying and completely incomprehensible aspect of man’s bestial nature. As put by Sukrita Paul Kumar, the Partition ‘did not merely mean two new geographical dominions but as the examination of imaginative literature on it proves, it gave birth to a new psychic dominion as well.’ In Manto’s writings both influences are seen to be at work. The movement towards realism had been initiated by Premchand, who takes the credit for salvaging the Urdu short story from the realms of romance and fantasy and placing it firmly on realistic ground. Manto, along with his contemporaries like Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai and Ahmed Qasami, contributed effectively in taking the Urdu short story towards stark realism and exploring human relationships and experiences with a psychologically analytical eye. Manto even rejected the realistic, though bordering on the ideal, representation of Indian villages seen in Premchand’s stories and brought the Urdu short story to the city. Even in the city he preferred to write about the marginalized sections of society—the criminals, pimps, prostitutes and other profligates. The influence of French literature, particularly of Guy de Maupassant is evident in the careful structuring of Manto’s stories, especially the ending where no words are wasted.