“Here lies buried Saadat Hasan Manto in whose bosom are enshrined all the secrets and art of short story writing. Buried under mounds of earth, even now he is contemplating whether he is a greater short story writer or God.”
It is not easy to write about the life and works of a man who wrote the above words as an epitaph for himself. It is no ordinary task to try and understand a man whose journey was as complex as the period he lived in.
It was only posthumously that Manto was recognised as one of the greatest short story writers in Urdu, ever. During his lifetime, however, not only was he traumatised by the events of partition, but also faced several court cases on account of dealing with “obscene” subjects in his writings. Even though he remains famous mostly for his stories that dealt with the partition, he talked about the lives of sex workers and years of adolescence with equal ease. The most remarkable thing about his stories remains the use of a microscopic lens of an individual’s life to analyse the macro history of larger events. Be it the dog in ‘Dog Of Tetwal’ was stuck between the two borders or the asylum patients in Toba Tek Singh who were to be transported across the borders according to their religion, his narratives were rich with the use of symbols.
Witnessing the trauma of partition at close quarters led him to question the very rationality of the events that took place. The mindlessness of the carnage and the ‘freedom’ that came troubled his mind. The confusion can be seen in one such excerpt from a letter he wrote to his friend:
“Now before our eyes lie dried tracks of blood, cut up human parts, charred faces, mangled necks, terrified people, looted houses, burned fields, mountains of rubble and overflowing hospitals. We are free. Hindustan is free. Pakistan is free.”
Manto, who, both as a person and writer, was shaped by the vibrant heterogeneous culture of Bombay, eventually chose to cross the border to go to Pakistan. However, till his premature death due to alcoholism in 1955, he regularly expressed a yearning to come back to the land he had left behind. In one of his letters addressed to Ismat Chugtai, he wrote:
“Try as I did, I wasn’t able to separate Pakistan from India and India from Pakistan. Again and again, troubling questions rang in my mind: Will Pakistan’s literature be separate from that of India’s? If so, how? Who owns all that was written in undivided India? Will that be partitioned too?”
His characters too expressed similar anguish over the confusion that had been created by the birth of new identities overnight. A patient in ‘Toba Tek Singh‘ climbed a tree and famously said, “I neither want to live in India nor in Pakistan. I’m happy in this tree”.
Thus even after 64 years of his death, Manto lives on as the writer, the man and the voice of all those who were stranded between conflicting identities. His journey highlights how arbitrarily defined borders around the world cut through hearts and words, shaping lives and literature. It also reminds us that Manto’s work is just one of the many shared legacies that the two countries share and that they must vouch to preserve and protect it, irrespective of political differences.