Saadat Hasan Manto: The Writer Who Is Not To Be Read

Having been born into a family of intellectuals and book lovers, I was astounded when a book was taken away from me on the account of me lacking the sensibility to understand it. This is how I would like to explain my first ever encounter with Manto. I was extremely intrigued by this incident. The curiosity I had as a child later developed into my teenage-self having a keen interest in reading and processing Manto’s writings. Having been born in his neighboring city, I take immense pleasure in reading Manto’s literature. However, that does not mean that I shy away from any opportunity of getting to reconsider the obvious positive or negative conclusions drawn from his body of work. To give credit where credit’s due, Manto’s literature indeed tends to evoke in its readers a range of intense emotions that accentuates his work and often makes it a topic of literary discussions in both India and Pakistan.

Saadat Hasan Manto’s literature was primarily accused of obscenity. He was considered to be a sex maniac who would titillate the public and offend his reader’s morality through his work. He even faced legal trials for some of his most talked-about short stories, including Khol Do, Bu, and Thanda Gosht. Each one of these stories has either sex or sexual exploitation as one of its core themes. Khol Do, which loosely translates to ‘open’ is a short story documenting the tragedies of the partition era in which a father (Sirajudeen) who has lost his seventeen-year-old young daughter (Sakina), while moving from India to Pakistan, desperately asks a group of young volunteers to help him locate his lost daughter. In doing so, he explains Sakina’s physical features to the group in the hope that his actions would assist them in bringing back his daughter. The youngsters eventually manage to find the girl based on her physical description. However, they get allured by Sakina’s physical beauty and end up gang-raping her, which, however, has not been explicitly mentioned in the story. All this while, the father regularly follows up with these young men, and they continue to give him hope every time he reaches out to them. One day, Sirajudeen witnesses a group of four people bringing a female corpse into the hospital. Initially, he waits outside the hospital but, after some time, hesitatingly enters it. In doing so, he realizes that the woman lying on a stretcher is none other than Sakina herself. Upon seeing his daughter, Sirajudeen screams her name to which the doctor reacts by interrogating Sirajudeen about his whereabouts. After Sirajudeen confirms to be Sakina’s father, the doctor senses a pulse in Sakina’s wrist and asks the father to open the window saying ‘khol do.’ Even before Sirajudeen advances to follow the doctor’s instructions, he perceives a fragile movement in Sakina’s hand. At the same time, Sakina tries to undo the knot holding her salwar (a lower garment which is mostly worn by South Asian women), pulls down her clothing and spreads her thighs wide open. Sirajudeen yells with sheer happiness realizing his daughter is alive, while the doctor stands shuddered at the incident.

Khol Do is a classic piece of writing portraying the afflictions of the Partition era. It takes a while for the readers to understand the level of trauma Sakina must have gone through to undo her salwar, while the instruction ‘khol do‘ which translates to untie or open concerning the window in this case, was not even aimed at her. Manto has narrated the story soaked in deep sensitivity and empathy for humans. The chastity of the emotional bond between a child and a father is highlighted when Sirajudeen screams out of joy on seeing his daughter alive while being indifferent to the fact that she has been gang-raped and emotionally offended. The relationship between Sirajudeen and Safina underlines the purity and selflessness of the love between humans. It promotes values like compassion, empathy, and acceptance. Manto focuses on pure humanitarian emotions while using the backdrop of the Partition to convey his message. The story Khol Do serves the dual purpose of making its readers empathize with Sakina and Sirajudeen while maintaining the atrocities the Partition had brought through. However, the subtleties of Khol Do did not go too well with the society back then and continue to raise the solicitudes, even in the contemporary literary world. 

Another short story that Manto had to face judicial prosecution for was Bu. Bu (‘Odor’) is the story of a man called Randhir who, after getting bored of his sex life, one day decides to offer shelter to a rain-drenched working-class girl. As she walks inside his house, Randhir advises her to change into dry clothes as he is afraid she might catch pneumonia. While the girl begins to undo her clothes, a button gets stuck, and she asks for Randhir’s help. As Randhir starts to assist the girl, he ends up touching her breasts. Against the backdrop of rain in the night, Randhir and the girl fuck. Randhir senses an odor from the girl’s body, which is described as both pleasant and unpleasant. He gets mesmerized by the smell and tries to attain it in every part of her body, including her armpits, naval, and her hair. After the night passes, Randhir returns to his sensationless life. However, he cannot seem to forget the night of the sexual encounter and the odor from the girl’s body. The story ends with a scene revealing Randhir sitting next to his newlywed bride, the daughter of a first-class magistrate, a Bachelor of Arts graduate who was a college sweetheart but failed to rekindle Randhir’s masculine interest whatsoever. 

Bu signifies the contrast between pure human ecstasy and societal ways of dealing with human sexual fulfillment. Randhir, the protagonist, tends to find absolute sexual pleasure with the working girl as opposed to his wife, who ticks all the boxes for being an ideal partner. The sexual confrontation between the girl and Randhir is not merely a physical activity but is also depicted as a medium of communication as they only talk through the heavy sighs, the panting, and the expressive use of hand movements. At one point in the story, the two are explained to be still, yet in motion, momentary yet stable, like a bird so high in the sky that it starts appearing like a dot. When Randhir comes back to his harmonious life, he begins to struggle between choosing the absolute ecstatic experience as opposed to an insipid occurrence with a carefully selected, supposedly perfect life partner. Bu’s nuances were misunderstood for vulgarity, and Manto had to face both constitutional and ethical allegations for his short story. 

Thanda Gosht (‘Cold Flesh’) is one of the most talked-about stories written by Manto, which somehow continues to be popular, albeit for the wrong reasons. Set against the background of Partition, Thanda Gosht is a story of a Sikh man named Ishwar Singh, who, by the end of the story, is killed by his mistress, Kulwant Kaur, on the ground of infidelity. Ishwar fails to satisfy Kulwant Kaur’s sexual desires and ends up getting killed by his jealous mistress. All through the story, the male protagonist is incapable of justifying to his mistress the reason for his impotence while Kulwant Kaur continues trying to seduce him. By the end of the story, Ishwar Singh reveals that under the influence of communalism, he tried forcing himself on a Muslim girl only to find out that she was already dead. The incident had left him in severe shock, and he was incapable of any sexual activity whatsoever. 

Thanda Gosht relies on the shocking incident at the end to imply the horrors of communal hatred and Partition. The reader is hooked to figure out the reason behind Ishwar Singh’s inability and critical trauma. It is an extremely clever use of irony by the author, as the title, Thanda Gosht, not only refers to the dead Muslim girl, but it also aims towards Ishwar Singh himself, who was left broken by the incident. However, the helpless irony, sex, and uncertainty in Thanda Gosht sometimes make it hard for readers to understand the point, and there is a strong chance that the reader might get distracted from the core theme of communalism and religious hatred. 

Manto was often condemned for writing about prostitutes, sinners, and other marginalized sections of society. In a short story called Hatak, which means an ‘insult’, Manto writes about a prostitute by the name of Sugandhi, who chooses to reject her greedy so-called companion Madho, after she feels repudiated by a client of hers. Despite being a sex-worker, Manto empowers the character to take her own decisions and disregard her partner, who seeks to exploit her.

Another story called Khushiya is an account of a pimp who feels dejected as a man after a courtesan decides to appear before him naked because he is her pander, and the two belong to the same profession. The story is a spin on the concept of masculinity and how a women’s most prized possession, her nakedness, is fatal enough to hurt the male ego. To authenticate his manhood, Khushiya, the male protagonist, captures the women by the end of the story, and the two are confirmed to flee to the Juhu beach. Khushiya humanizes the pimp and allows its readers to comprehend beyond the male lead’s profession into the complexities of his male brain.

I believe it is Manto’s success as a writer that he manages to make his readers understand the characters who would have never been acknowledged otherwise because they belong to a certain section of society or do a specific job to earn two meals a day. Manto has a trait to refine his characters and define them as humans, as opposed to concentrating on the segments of the society that they belong to. Saadat Hasan Manto has a remarkably sympathetic and pro-human attitude that comes across through his collection of work. His characters are genuine and not ideal. His work is primarily humanitarian. He either mocks the exploitation of human values through irony, or he chooses to narrate heart-ripping accounts by being straightforward and outspoken. 

Saadat Hasan Manto can also be recognized for skillfully documenting his times as his novel, stories, and sketches give a precise account of the kind of times that he lived through. Manto’s stories before the Partition represent his Bombay, the city which he insisted was a part of him. The pieces of the Partition era illustrate the hardships of the divide while concentrating on complicated human relationships. Manto was also a great visionary; in Letters to Uncle Sam, Manto foretells the fate of Pakistan with relation to America and Islamic Jihad while using irony and sarcasm to convey his concern.  

It started with the one who must not be read, and it led up to the realization of him being one of the most progressive writers that South Asia ever had. Manto’s write-ups talked about the wrongs of an unjust society in a way that a part of his work continues to remain relevant even in today’s era. If the predicaments he talked about so many years ago are still applicable today, I think we, as a society, need to reassess our growth and progress since Partition into modern times. 



Featured Image via Goodreads


Glory Singh

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