“If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don’t even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that’s the job of dressmakers.”
― Saadat Hasan Manto
The words succinctly sum up Manto’s writings. His stories reveal the darker underbelly of the nation, things that the society would rather cover up, shun, shame, forget, lie about and relegate to the margins. Be it a 15-year old girl forced into prostitution by her mother, the horrors of partition or transgressions of men, Manto’s stories show us up for who we are.
In his famed short story, Toba Tek Singh, an exchange of lunatics is agreed upon. Hindu lunatics are to be sent to India and Muslim lunatics to Pakistan. The news sets the asylum abuzz. What is Pakistan? Where is Pakistan? Confusion and questions reign, especially for an inmate called Bishen Singh Bedi, who can’t figure out where his ancestral land now lies. In Bedi’s refusal to leave and subsequent fate, Manto depicts the inanity of carving up a nation. Our collective zeal for borders over lives is further reinforced in the Dog of Tithwal.
As much as these stories expose the futility of borders, Khol Do and Thanda Gosht are more painful to read. Both are a searing indictment of the violence against women perpetuated during partition. However, Khol Do lays bare the hypocrisy of men waging wars and dividing countries under the garb of saving one’s ‘community’. It’s also one of the stories for which Manto was persecuted by the Pakistani government. The writer, had faced legal issues before as well, but the trails for obscenity in Pakistan were severe on him, sending him into a spiral of alcoholism and financial ruin.
What was radical about his stories was the insight they provide into the Indian society. Of thinking men meekly following so-called godmen, of desperate women pledging their firstborns to shrines so they got pregnant, of how a society treats widowed and tribal women. Where Nesti isn’t given a licence to drive a horse cart but is asked instead to sell her body, the tribal girl caught in the rain – whose name is never even mentioned – is expected to sleep with the saheb. Each of these stories exposes our biases and patriarchal attitudes.
Manto’s women, however, have their own urges, ambition, agency and circumstances. Even when he writes about prostitution, the judgement is instead reserved for men, for whom alcoholism and extramarital sex are commonplace. In Sharda, the protagonist Nazir falls for a sex worker who leaves the city soon after she meets him. When she turns up again, thinking of Nazir’s kindness and love as an anchor, he starts seething. He can’t digest her agency and it is only in his discomfort that he feels the first stirrings of guilt for cheating on his wife. Manto exposed the duplicity of men like Nazir and their honour in these words:
“A man remains a man no matter how poor his conduct. A woman, even if she were to deviate for one instance, from the role given to her by men, is branded a whore. She is viewed with lust and contempt. Society closes on her doors it leaves ajar for a man stained by the same ink. If both are equal, why are our barbs reserved for the woman?”
Why are the barbs reserved for women? This is a question women are still grappling with world over, but one that is brought to fore in his stories. In the two translations I read – one by Aatish Taseer and other by Muhammed Umar Memon – stories overlap. Of the 20 collections of short stories he wrote in his short lifetime of 43 years, they showcase hardly a dozen. These are enough to get you digging for more though, especially to understand the tragedy of partition, which is a lingering presence in many of his stories even when not centrestage.
In Ram Khilavan, he captures the mood in Bombay, where a dhobiwala wants to kill all Muslims but doesn’t associate his saheb as one. The tense scene, use of the common man, his anger and brainwashing, speak volumes in a few short pages. This economy of words and his ability to showcase the evil, unspoken bits is what make Manto relevant even today. It’s no wonder really that he is regarded as one of the greatest short story writers of the subcontinent.