In 1948, Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto boarded a ship from Bombay (now Mumbai) for the newly created nation of Pakistan.
His wife and daughters had already relocated, but in an essay written years later, Manto would recall that his decision to leave his favourite city behind had been sudden, provoked by the simmering tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the wake of the Indian subcontinent’s Partition.
Manto would never return to the country of his birth, but on his death in Lahore in 1955 at the young age of 43, he had left behind a body of work that unflinchingly captured the horror and madness of that defining period, establishing his legacy as a bold chronicler of the Partition era.
In a rare instance of a writer getting his due on India’s silver screen, Manto’s life has inspired a new biopic, directed by Nandita Das, which opens in cinemas today (Sept. 21). Coming a few years after a Pakistani film on him, Das’s movie is an opportunity to rediscover the master storyteller who’s been compared to Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, and even F Scott Fitzgerald.
Manto was born in what is now the Indian state of Punjab on May 11, 1912, to a middle-class Kashmiri family. A disinterested student and college drop-out, he started out translating Russian and French literature into Urdu at the urging of a friend, who eventually convinced him to start writing his own stories. Later, Manto would work as an underpaid film journalist and screenwriter in Bombay, where he lived until Partition tore India apart.
In his over 250 stories, plays, and essays, though, Manto captured much more than the violence of 1947. He wrote frankly about sex and desire, prostitutes and alcoholics, drawing protests from conservative critics who labelled his work pornographic. He was tried for obscenity several times, and six of his stories were banned, the first three in colonial-era India, and the rest in Pakistan. But decades later, these stories would be among those that established his reputation as one of India and Pakistan’s greatest writers.
Wondering where to start with Manto? Here’s Quartz’s handy guide:
Manto on Bombay
Manto arrived in Bombay in 1936 to work for the film weekly Mussawar, and the city quickly became what he described as his “second home,” a place he would write about in countless stories and long for after he moved to Pakistan.
“That piece of land had offered shelter to a family reject and it had said to me, ‘You can be happy here on two pennies a day or on ten thousand rupees a day, if you wish,” he wrote in a letter to readers, published in the appendix of a short-story collection in 1952.
Life in Bombay wasn’t easy as Manto started out on a salary of Rs40 a month and often had to sleep in the office. Even when he began working for the film industry, money was scarce, and as he describes in the endearing essay The Story of my Wedding (published in Why I Write, edited and translated by Aakar Patel) it took all kinds of luck to make things work in the maximum city. But after he moved to Lahore, his nostalgia for Bombay inspired some of his best stories, which he set in a city peopled by prostitutes and pimps, aspiring actors, and migrant workers.
For a trip back to an unfiltered Bombay seen through Manto’s eyes, start with Bombay Stories.
Manto on Bollywood
The film industry was a big part of Manto’s life in Bombay, and he would even write several successful movies while working for Filmistan, a company set up by friends he had made at the famous Bombay Talkies.
The film world also features in Bombay Stories, but some of his most fascinating pieces about the industry were non-fiction. In the gossipy collection Stars from Another Sky, translated by Khalid Hasan, Manto takes the reader behind-the-scenes with some of the biggest names in 1940s Hindi cinema, including Ashok Kumar and Nargis, and captures a time now long gone in Bombay.
The most poignant piece of them all is titled Shyam: Krishna’s Flute. It was written after the tragic death of Manto’s close friend, an actor whose grand romances, heavy drinking, and various highjinks are fondly remembered. The story also captures the mounting communal tensions in post-independence Bombay, and the sudden spark that prompts Manto to quit the city, and India, for good.
Manto on Partition
Manto’s brilliant and best-known short story, Toba Tek Singh, in which the Hindu and Muslim inmates of a lunatic asylum contend with the Partition of India, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his incisive writing on the events of 1947. In numerous other stories, he would capture the chaos that reigned at the time, but it’s his brief sketches, first published as Siyah Hashye, that are particularly haunting. Some are just a paragraph long, but the looting, rape, and murder they reveal are all the more horrifying because they are told in such spare sentences.
In the introduction to Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto, which includes the sketches, editor and translator Khalid Hasan writes that Manto chose not to identify the characters in them by their religion to emphasise that murder was murder, regardless of who committed it.
“If a man killed, it did not matter whether he killed in the name of gods or for the glory of his country or his way of life. To Manto, he was a killer. In his book, nothing could justify inhumanity, cruelty or the taking of life,” Hasan writes.
Manto on Pakistan
Years after leaving Bombay, Manto would write (paywall) that “Despite trying, I could not separate India from Pakistan, and Pakistan from India.” To compound the problem, his financial situation in Lahore was especially precarious as he got hardly any work and was unofficially banned from writing for the radio, the main means by which other writers made money.
Nostalgic for Bombay and hurtling towards the alcoholism that would eventually lead to his death, Manto still managed to write some of the most memorable stories of his career in Pakistan. But at this time, between 1951 and 1954, he also wrote a series of comic “Letters to Uncle Sam,” in one of which he somehow managed to predict the future of Pakistan, suggesting that the US “will definitely make a military aid pact with Pakistan because you are really worried about the integrity of this largest Islamic sultanate of the world and why not, as our mullahs are the best antidote to Russia’s communism.”
And in the provocative satirical essay God is Gracious in Pakistan, collected in Why I Write, he painted an alarming picture of the country that Pakistan could become, a country in which poetry, music, and art were increasingly censored on the grounds of blasphemy. In this, too, he proved to be remarkably prophetic.
Feature image by VikramVajir on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.