Saadat Hasan Manto, undoubtedly one of the most controversial Urdu writers of modern India, has a special place in the heart of literature lovers. His works are notoriously known for their savage and blunt, yet coherent portrayal of human nature. His stories are marked by darkness, evil and social taboos. But it is this accuracy and the highest level of observation and detailing of his characters that make him stand out.
A major proportion of his characters are women — not the everyday, well-to-do women, but the most downtrodden, naked form of the gender. Sex workers were one of his favourite characters. In spite of Manto’s rather unconventional choice of protagonists, women in his stories come from diverse backgrounds and bestow upon his stories a dazzling performance.
Manto was tried for obscenity six times in his entire career, but was never convicted. In this write-up, we will look inside the prolific writer’s life and understand the 1940s feminist that he was. We will go through some of his short stories and appreciate the women characters he imagined.
Manto’s stories are a clear reflection of his life and affected by the changing political and social circumstances. Partition, or batwara, as he liked to call it due to emotional and economic devastation that succeeded the Partition, had an immense impact on his life, and subsequently on his stories.
Mauzil is one such heart-wrenching story set up against the backdrop of Partition riots in Mumbai. Mauzil, the lead character, is a young woman belonging to a Jew family. She loves a Sikh man named Trilochan. Mauzil is an extremely progressive, unorthodox and broad-minded woman who is afraid to commit to a religious and somewhat conservative lover, the Sikh. She mocks his love, calling it possessive and unbearable for a girl like her.
She mocks his religious sincerity, calling him an idiot. She stands out as an uncanny, brave woman who couldn’t care less about what society thinks about her. She is an outgoing woman, who does not like to wear underpants under her skirt, the reason being that they make her uncomfortable. Their love story does not make it very far and they get separated.
After some years, during the riots, weird circumstances make them face each other once again. Mauzil finds out that the Sikh girl whom Trilochan currently loves is stuck in a Muslim ghetto in the riot-infested area. She hatches a plan to help him bring his lady love back to safety. In this attempt, Mauzil gives away her clothes to the girl to help hide her religious identity.
Mauzil, then, runs out, trying to distract the rioters, without a single piece of cloth on her own body. Naked. The girl is successful in sneaking away, while Mauzil meets with an accident and is gravely injured. The story ends with Trilochan trying to cover Mauzil’s naked body with his turban, which, earlier on, he was adamant about not taking off. Mauzil pushes his turban cloth away, saying that she does not need his religion to protect her. She lays there naked, dying.
Frankly, Manto has never been a fan of sugarcoating. What he perceived, he lay it in the front of the reader in its purest, rawest form. Physical description of Mauzil in this story is so vivid that it led to many people protesting for sexual inappropriateness. Manto’s description makes Mauzil stand out as a woman who is proud of her sexuality. She understands what effect her physical appearance is going to have on the rioters. As expected, they gather around this alluring naked lady, forgetting about their religious fanaticism, revenge and violence for a moment or two.
Mauzil is just one of the many stories Manto wrote on the issues of women. He considered his stories Khol Do and Thanda Gosht as his masterpiece. Khol Do is a story about a father who gets separated from his teenage daughter during the Partition. When he finds her, she is almost conscious, molested by rioters who belonged to her own religion. She was also raped by the very people his father had sent to find her. The story ends with a very chilling scene where her father, on seeing his daughter, ravaged and barely alive, starts dancing and screaming. These bone-shivering, cold stories are based on the plight of women during the Partition era.
It can be inferred from his works that Manto never intended to scandalise the lives of women. He put the utmost effort to showcase these stories in the most natural way possible. Stories such as Kali Salwar and Das Rupey give the reader an intricate insight into the lives of sex workers. He rejected the ideology that prostitution gives birth to immorality and infidelity. He saw this profession as an indispensable service to society and portrays these women having the strongest will and most developed minds.
His stories’ sex workers are not like the epitome of Umrao Jaan or any other fancy lady. These women belong to the most humble backgrounds. For example, the protagonist of the story Das Rupey is a 14-year-old girl named Sarita, who has been pushed into this trade of skin as her family business. Manto does not show her story in a dark manner. He portrays her as a very playful, cheerful girl who will make you believe that she loves doing this job. She is curious to explore new places with her clients. The story ends with a mellow happy scene where she returns the 10-rupee-note given to her by the client because she had enjoyed her day very much.
Saadat Hasan Manto was a feminist. He was as feminist as a male from India in the 1940s could be. Be it his characters or the storyline, he carefully used his stories to shove up a mirror in face of the hypocrisy of society of those times.
This essay has looked into some of Manto’s better-known stories with powerful women characters. Most of the women in his stories shattered the orthodox gender roles and revolted against the patriarchal notions of Indian society. If these characters were to be real, they would have been dismissed as mad and characterless. Just like Manto was.
Manto, in his last days, faced many economic and health-related problems. He became increasingly alcoholic and died in a mental asylum in Lahore, where he had migrated during the Partition.
“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.”
~ سعادت حسن منٹو
Saadat Hasan Manto