Manto: A Man Ahead of His Times
By Dr A. Khan
Chicago, IL


May 11, 2012 marked the birth centenary of Sadat Hasan Manto, one of the greatest short story writers of the twentieth century. Manto’s progressive vision, delicate sensitivity for societal equity, and love for humanity made him a writer ahead of his times and his contemporaries. Manto chronicled the social, political and economic trials and tribulation of ordinary people and in the process of writing the truth, Sadat Hasan passed away but Manto became immortal.

Manto’s stories covered a wide spectrum of topics dealing with societal inequities and injustices, British Raj issues, and geo-political realities. His stories reflected his sensitivity towards societal injustices, and his strong observation of human behavior. In his stories he used simple but powerful language. His vivid description of story characters, embedded in well-structured plots, brought them to life and made them immortal.

Growing up in Amritsar, Manto was a young man who loved adventure. Remembering, Manto’s adolescent years, his nephew Hamid Jalal in an autobiographical sketch of Manto, writes: “Manto was around twenty. This was time when everyone was talking of Master Khuda Bukhsh’s great feat of driving a car blind-folded at Piccadilly. And then there was another person named Master Allah Rakha who arrived in Amritsar, and claimed to be the teacher of Master Khuda Bakhsh. Allah Rakha’s unique claim to fame was his barefoot walk on a bed of burning and glowing coal. One day during his demonstration, he looked at the crowd and said, is there anyone who can trust God and me? Such a person can walk with me on burning coal without feeling a thing. The crowd remained silent. Then suddenly a young man from the crowd emerged and volunteered himself for the walk. Master Allah Rakha asked the young man to recite the Kalama, then the two walked on the bed of burning and glowing coal. The crowd went ecstatic with appreciation and applause. The young man examined his bare feet for boils or wounds but none were there. Thus, it was the first dose of crowd appreciation that young Sadaat Hasan Manto received. For rest of his life he continued to play with fire by writing on the burning issues of society and times.” (Manto MamooN, NaQuosh, Shakseeyaat number, p. 373, January 1956).

In Amritsar, Manto loved to play practical jokes on his friends. His ten-year old young nephew, Hamid Jalal, was his partner in crime. Hamid recalls once such episode. In Amritsar, Manto, sitting with his friends, would call Hamid in the room, then introduce him to his friend by saying that Hamid has just arrived from Lahore. And then Manto would ask Hamid: “Have you got any reliable news about Taj Mahal?” Hamid would obediently reply, “Yes, I do, everyone even all kids in Lahore know that the British have sold Taj Mahal to the Americans. They are bringing in heavy machinery to transport Taj Mahal to New York.” The very next day this would become the biggest news in Amritsar; Manto would enjoy this sitting behind his desk, with a grin on his face.

According to Hamid Jalal, Manto was fond of two things: expensive pens and exquisite Khussa shoes. He would buy dozens of Schaeffer and Parker pens. Cost of one Shaffer or Parker pen was around Rs. 150 in those days. He would gift pens and shoes to his friends in Delhi and Bombay. Manto had two typewriters - English and Urdu. He used to write his short stories with pen, and preferred to use the Urdu typewriter for writing dramas and plays.

Manto was a very well-dressed person. He always wore immaculately clean crisp kurta pajama. He always kept himself very clean and neat. According to Hamid Jalal, even on his death bed in hospital just hours before his death, so frail and weak unable to speak, he tried to tell his barber that the shave job needs to be redone as the shave was not close enough.

In a recent television interview, Manto’s daughters Nighat, Nusrat and Nuzhat have reminisced about their father. Nuzhat recalls that during the ethnic riots of partition, Manto asked one of his close friends Shyam about his feelings about the ongoing massacre and bloodshed; his friend replied, “Given a chance you will be the first person that I will kill.” This incident shook up Manto tremendously and he really got depressed, and decided to move back to Lahore.

Manto was a very compassionate, kind and caring person. His eldest daughter Nighat recalls that after school when she used to return home with friends, Manto showered his affection on all the children and served them fruits and other goodies.

Remembering her father’s progressive vision and personality, Nusrat recalls that he wanted dignity for all people, he wanted all to be educated and progressive. Missing her father, Manto’s younger daughter Nuzhat says that despite my father’s tremendous fame, he was a very unfortunate man; he did not watch us grow, go to school and get married.

Saadat Hasan Manto was born on May 11, 1912 in East Punjab, British India. He received his primary education at Muslim High School in Amritsar. His early childhood was marred with internal and external struggles. Externally, it was the time of civil unrest and political activity of the independence movement. Internally, Manto experienced a difficult childhood, especially after his father married for the second time. Manto’s father was a strict disciplinarian, and Manto resented it. As a result Manto struggled in school, he had difficulty in passing exams. He preferred to be educated by active learning process rather than rote learning processes. He opted for active learning to expand his horizons by reading English novels and tried to pursue drama and liberal arts activities. But again because of his father’s strict emphasis on discipline he could not channelize his intellectual energy for any positive outcome.

In 1931, Manto graduated from school and got admitted to the Hindu Sabah College in Amritsar. It was a time of great turmoil due to the independence movement. Manto produced his first short story Tamasha which reflected the realities of Jallianwala Bagh massacre by the British.

In 1932 when Manto’s father passed away, he got close to his family. In 1933 Manto got a big break when he met Abdul Bari Alig, a scholar and journalist, in Amritsar. Abdul Bari Alig advised Manto to channelize his energy on intellectual projects. Bari exposed Manto to the great works of Hugo, Layton, Gorky, Chekhov, Pushkin, Osar Wilde, Maupassant and others.

On Bari’s encouragement, Manto translated Hugo's The Last Days of Condemned into Urdu. The Urdu translation was published as Surguzisht-e-Aseer. After becoming a published author in 1934 he translated Oscar Wilde's Vera. Bari kept on encouraging Manto to translate European stories into Urdu; in addition he advised Munto to write fiction in Urdu.

Manto translated Russian short stories and published them as Russi Afsanay. In 1934 Manto was admitted to the Aligarh Muslim University where under the influence of progressive writers’ associate Ali Sardar Jafri, he produced a short story Inqlab Pasand which was published in the Aligarh Magazine (1935). Due to health issues, Manto quit Aligarh University, and was advised by doctors to go to Kashmir to recuperate from illness. In Kashmir he wrote some of his very famous works.

Manto’s first collection of short stories Aatish Paray was published in 1936. The same year he joined Paras newspaper, and later edited a weekly film magazine Musawvir in Bombay. During his stay in Bombay he also wrote scripts for films and was financially well off. He married Safia on April 26, 1939. But in 1941 financial troubles forced him to move to Delhi.

From 1941 to 1942, he worked at All India Radio, Delhi, as a drama writer and a feature writer. During his stay in Delhi, Manto published four collections of plays: Aao, Manto Kay Dramay, Janazey, and Teen AurantaiN. During his stay in Delhi he got acquainted with Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, Krishan Chander, Meeraji, Ansar Nasiri, Mahmud Nizami, Akhtar Husain Raipuri and a number of other writers and intellectuals.

In 1942, after developing difference with All India Radio director N.M. Rashid, Manto moved to Bombay to work for the film industry. By 1946 Manto was at the top of his professional career: he had written scripts for twelve films and acted in two.

Manto was a very loving, caring and hospitable person. He would invite friends and let them stay overnight at his flat in Bombay. Sometimes all his beds and floor spaces were occupied by his guests, he would sleep quietly on the wooden planks outside his bathroom.

In a very short life span, Manto produced volumes of intellectual creations. His acclaimed published work included Astish Paray (1936), Munto kay Afsanay (1940), DhooaN (1941), Lazat-e-Sung (1948), Chugaad, Siah Hasheaay (1948), Khaleey BotaalaiN Khaleey Dhubay (1950), Thunda Ghost (1950), Numrood key Khudai (1950), Badshahat ka Khateemah (1950), Yazeed (1951), Saraak kay Kinaray (1953), Parday kay Pechay (1953), SurkandooN kay Pechay (1953), Baghair Unwaan Kay (1954) Baghair Ijazat (1955), BurQay (1955), Shikaree AurataiN (1955), Phundanay (1955), Shaiytan (1955), RateeTolaa Mashaa (1956), Kali Shalwar (1961), and Muntoo key Bahtarian KhaniayaN (1963).

Manto’s Magna Opus, Toba Take Singh, reflects on the agonies of partition. He also authored pen sketches of his contemporaries, which have been published in book form as Gunjay Farishtay, and Loud Speaker.

Manto was a writer ahead of his times. He tried to show a mirror to society about the issues which were considered taboos at the time. His writings were challenged in court in India and Pakistan. But he was never convicted. He was a sensitive writer. He wrote about injustices and social issues, but the society at large was not ready to accept the harsh realities. During one of his court hearing, he told a Judge, “A writer picks up his pen only when his sensibility is hurt.” Indeed, Manto was a man ahead of his times. He even wrote an epitaph for his grave: Loh-e Jahan pay herfay mukarrer nahaiN thay.”

After partition, in January 1948, Manto returned to Lahore and faced a number of financial and professional challenges. He went into depression and started to drink heavily; and eventually his excessive drinking claimed his life at the young age of 42. Manto, the king of Urdu short story, passed away on January 18, 1955. Prominent writer Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi once advised Manto to cut down on his drinking habit, to which Manto replied, “Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, I have made you my friend, and not appointed you as the Pesh Imam of my conscience’s masjid.”

Manto started his career by translating literary pieces from other languages. Today, half a century after his passing away, his literary creations are being translated into other languages all over the world. Like Ghalib, he too, is being discovered globally after his death. Indeed, Manto was right when he said: Sadaat Hasan will die but Manto will live on. Long live Manto! Urdu literature is proud of you.


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