Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto

Toba Tek Singh, Manto’s most memorable classic. While thousands are involved in the unprecedented communal frenzy that follows the announcement of Partition, the inmates of a mental asylum find themselves in a strange situation. The authorities have decided that while the Muslim inmates can stay back, the Hindu and Sikhs will have to go to India. This creates confusion because the inmates have not heard of Pakistan. A Sikh inmate refuses to leave because, when he was brought in, the asylum was in India. What follows is confusion, confusion and more confusion. One lunatic gets so frazzled with the India/Pakistan question that one day he climbs a tree and refuses to come down, saying he prefers neither India nor Pakistan and wants to live on the tree. One Bishen Singh, who has been standing for 15 years in the asylum, lies face down on the ground with India on one side and Pakistan on the other, on a no man’s land. This is sharp literary irony about the falsity of man-made borders.

 

Ishwar Singh fails to rise to the occasion while making love to his wife Kalwant Kaur. As part of an arsonist gang he has killed six Muslim men with his kirpan. But his sexual tragedy stems from the beautiful girl he carried away to “gorge” on a “mouthful of this luscious meat”, first thinking to “shuffle her a bit” but later deciding to “trump her right away”, only to discover that he carried away a dead body, “a heap of cold flesh”. This is Colder than Ice, yet another bone-chilling tale by Manto.

 

Take the plight of Sirajuddin in the story The Return (originally titled Khol-do and rated as his greatest by Manto himself) who loses his daughter Sakina in Lahore on their journey from Amritsar to Lahore. In riot-ravaged Lahore, Sirajuddin, fleeing a trail of arson and fire, is forced to leave his wife — lying dead with her stomach ripped open — to save Sakina. The abducted Sakina is finally found by her father in a hospital where she lies in a traumatised state, raped not only by her abductors but her rescuers as well. The distraught father, unmindful of the ravages done to the body of his beautiful daughter and perhaps of the death of her soul, is happy to get his daughter back physically alive. The story is a powerful pull between physical life and moral death and, for its sheer brevity, is a masterpiece.

 

The Last Salute is a moving tale about two friends who belonged to the same village, had a shared childhood, but were condemned to fight one another because they served two armies of two different nations squabbling over Kashmir. The New Constitution, another Manto classic first published in 1937 as New Law, tells the story of Ustad Mangu, a tongawallah in Lahore, who discovers that the 1935 Government of India Act is a sham because the new law means nothing to colonised people like him.

 

But to sample the raw basic power of Manto, readers have to go into stories such as Odour where it is the smell of the women and the language of their bodies that talks to Randhir, and the unwashed perfume of one dark girl under a tamarind tree that sets his senses afire. Manto’s other heroes are people who live on the fringes of society and inhabit stories such as Siraj and Babu Gopi Nath. Stories that talk of base primal passions, like The Wild Cactus, Mummy”, The Room with the Bright Light, and Mozail, not only show Manto exploring the ritual of sex, the frills of love, and the taboos of polygamy, but also reveal, what many considered, his dangerously non-conformist strains.

 

 

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