Manto with his wife Safia and sister-in-law Zakia | Manto Family Archive
Manto with his wife Safia and sister-in-law Zakia | Manto Family Archive

Any attempt to fathom the murderous hatred that erupted with such devastating effect at the time of the British retreat from the subcontinent, Saadat Hasan Manto remarked, had to begin with an exploration of human nature itself.

For the master of the Urdu short story this was not a value judgement. It was a statement of what he had come to believe after keen observation and extended introspection. Shaken by the repercussions of the political decision to break up the unity of the subcontinent, Manto wondered if people who only recently were friends, neighbours and compatriots had lost all sense of their humanity.

He too was a human being, “the same human being who raped mankind, who indulged in killing” and had “all those weaknesses and qualities that other human beings have.” Yet human depravity, however pervasive and deplorable, could not kill all sense of humanity. With faith in that kind of humanity, Manto wrote riveting short stories about the human tragedy of 1947 that are internationally acknowledged for representing the plight of displaced and terrorised humanity with exemplary impartiality and empathy.

Manto’s Partition stories are a must read for anyone interested in the personal dimensions of India’s division and the creation of Pakistan. Pieced together from close observations of the experiences of ordinary people at the moment of a traumatic rupture, his stories are not only unsurpassable in literary quality but records of rare historical significance.

Unlike journalistic and partisan accounts of those unsettled times, Manto transcended the limitations of the communitarian narratives underpinning the nationalist self-projections of both Pakistan and India. There is more to Manto than his Partition stories to be sure, but there is no denying his remarkable feat in plumbing the psychological depths of an epic dislocation with telling insight, sensitivity and even-handedness.

He did not create demons out of other communities to try and absolve himself of responsibility for the moral crisis posed by the violence of Partition. A cosmopolitan humanist, he rejected narrow-minded bigotry and refused to let distinctions of religion or culture interfere with his choice of friends. During a brief life that fell short of 43 years he lived in Amritsar, Bombay, Delhi and Lahore, forging friendships that survived the arbitrary frontiers of 1947. The constellation of friends he left behind in India included the trendsetters of progressive Urdu and Hindi literature, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai, and Ali Sardar Jafri as well as icons of the Bombay film industry like Ashok Kumar and Shyam.

Faced with a dramatic disruption in social relations along ostensibly religious lines, Manto rejected the communitarian modes of interpretation privileging religion over all other factors that have dominated explanations of Partition and its cataclysmic aftermath. “Knives, daggers, and bullets cannot destroy religion,” he had proclaimed in his semi-autobiographical story Saha’e, inspired by an exchange with Shyam after hearing the woeful tales of a Sikh refugee family that had fled the violence in Rawalpindi perpetrated by Muslims.

Manto had asked Shyam whether he could kill him for being a Muslim to which Shyam replied, “Not now, but when I was hearing about the atrocities committed by Muslims … I could have killed you.” If a Hindu killed a Muslim, Manto wrote in Saha’e, he would have killed a human being, not Islam, which would not be affected in the least bit. Muslims who thought killing Hindus could eliminate Hinduism were equally mistaken.

To make sense of the blood thirst that engulfed his own home province of Punjab at the dawn of a long awaited freedom, Manto looked into the inner recesses of human nature. What he saw of the violence and turmoil of 1947 and its lingering after-effects led him to conclude that it was neither religious zeal nor piety, but human greed and man’s astonishing capacity for bestiality that had brought the subcontinent to such a sorry pass. While creative writers have written more effectively on the human experience of Partition than professional historians, Manto excelled in this genre with his no-holds barred depictions of everyday life amidst chaos, simplicity of language and fast pace of story telling.

He gave as much attention to the perpetrators of violence as their victims, most controversially in Thanda Gosht, the first story he wrote on Pakistani soil and for which he was charged by the newly formed Muslim nation-state under the obscenity laws of the departed colonial masters. The story centers on a homicidal Sikh, who is rendered sexually impotent after discovering that the young girl he had kidnapped with the intention of violating was dead. Manto was inspired to write the story not because of any perversity as his tormentors among the state censors suspected.

He wrote passionately about the unconscionable humiliation and brutalisation of women by men of rival communities in Punjab. Which religion sanctioned such abominations? Who was responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people?

These questions have tantalised historians ever since 1947. With his deft blending of reality and imagination, Manto as witness to history blurs the boundaries of fictional and historical narratives, turning his literary corpus into a treasure trove for the historian of Partition. He shares another commonality with the historian — a considered view of Partition as a process rather than an event with neither an end nor a beginning. Not an aberration to be dismissed as a fleeting collective madness, Partition for Manto was part and parcel of an unfolding drama that gave glimpses into the best and the worst in humankind.

Through up-close and personalised representations modeled on real people, Manto used his admirable command of the short narrative form to lay bare the hearts and minds of his fictional characters. He is among the best practitioners of Partition storytelling not only because he questioned its wisdom – as in his acclaimed stories Toba Tek Singh, The Last Salute and the like – or wrote without malice towards any community.

Manto’s stories are important sources for historians because they unsettle and disturb the dominant communitarian mode of analysing Partition violence. He knew how to sting and rankle. The success of his stories about the violence unleashed by the British decision to divide and quit can be measured in direct proportion to the discomfort felt by those used to perceiving and seeing things through the distorting prism of religious identities.

In Tayaqqun, Manto derided the efforts of the two post colonial states to sew together the tattered pieces of women’s honour by rehabilitating those who were abducted during the communitarian frenzy in Punjab. The heartbreaking story revolves around a disheveled and crazed woman who is desperately looking for her daughter. The liaison officer communicating the story tells the old woman that her daughter had been killed and she should accompany him to Pakistan. She refuses to believe that her beautiful daughter could have been killed.

One day she spots her daughter walking down the street with a young Sikh, who upon seeing her tells the girl, “Your mother”. The young woman glances at her mother and walks away. The distraught mother calls after her daughter, only to drop dead when the liaison officer swears on God’s name that her daughter is indeed dead. Manto leaves it mystifyingly unclear whether the young woman had run away with the Sikh or, if she was kidnapped, had made her peace with him and no longer wanted to be reunited with her hapless and tragic mother.

Combining facts collected from forays into refugee camps with elements of realistic fiction, Manto documented the multifaceted Partition miseries that have eluded professional historians due to the methodological limitations of their craft. Unencumbered by the statist narratives of two rival post-colonial states projecting their clashing national ideologies, he pierced the souls of the perpetrators and victims of violence without compromising his sense of humanity and reasonableness. Was Manto a better historian then, if that term means someone with the ability to narrate the past in a manner that withstands the test of time? And did he realise that he was playing the role of both witness and maker of history?

“I rebelled against the great upheaval that the Partition of the country caused,” Manto confessed, and “I still feel the same way”. But rather than wallow in despair, he came to terms with “this monstrous reality”. Falsely accused of being intemperate in his treatment of sensitive social issues, all he did was to plunge himself in the sea of blood to find “a few pearls of regret at what human beings had done to human beings … to draw the last drop of blood from their brothers’ veins.” He had “gathered the tears that some men had shed because they had been unable to kill their humanity entirely” and strung them together in a book called Siyah Haashiye (Black Margins), published in 1948, which was translated into English by Khalid Hasan and has a wide transnational readership, scholarly and general.

Would Manto be the rage in the Western academy today without his Partition stories? The answer depends on how quickly his broader literary corpus is translated and disseminated internationally. Manto would still be Manto in the subcontinent if he had not written classics like Toba Tek Singh and Khol Do, such is the weight of his literary output. But it is an open question whether undergraduates in American and European universities would have known his name if not for these stories.

While the non-Urdu speaking world has much to learn about Manto’s life and work, he remains untaught, misunderstood and maligned in his adopted homeland,Pakistan. Despite the lack of state sponsorship, the maverick whose name has been immortalised by his stories about murderers, criminals, prostitutes and pimps, as well as fraudulent men of religion, enjoys a large and dedicated readership in Pakistan. In India where his works are available in English but remain to be translated into regional languages other than Hindi and Bengali, Manto is well known in literary, intellectual and artistic circles.

On his 100th birthday, Manto stands taller on the literary horizon than others who wrote about the mass migrations of 1947. Where he needs greater appreciation is in the role he played as a witness to history through his chilling narratives of Partition. In a country where history as a discipline has suffered from calculated neglect in the interests of projecting statist ideology, Manto’s Partition stories are an excellent entry point for enquiring minds eager to understand the past that has made their present fraught with such uncertainty and danger.

The ever-percipient Manto had anticipated the problems of treating religion as a weapon rather than a matter of personal faith and ethics, which have over the past three decades surfaced with a vengeance in Muslim Pakistan.

His words of warning have a resonance that is louder than when he said: “Our split culture and divided civilization, what has survived of our arts; all that we received from the cut up parts of our own body, and which is buried in the ashes of Western politics, we need to retrieve, dust, clean and restore to freshness in order to recover all that we have lost in the storm.”

If there is a birthday present Pakistanis and Indians can jointly give Manto, it is to admit the reality of the problems he spelt out in his writings on Partition. It may then become possible for them to take the requisite steps towards recovering what has been lost by the myopic refusal of their respective nation-states to understand each other’s position, rectify past errors, and strike a mutually beneficial and sustainable historical compromise.

This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2012 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University and author of The Pity of Partition: Manto as Witness to History (Princeton University Press, forthcoming).