Book #35 of 2021. This year I aim to read 60 books. This was one of them. Be sure to check out my Goodreads.
The first time I heard of Saadat Hasan Manto was during the start of year 12. We used to do something called Cultural Perspective classes (CPs for short). These were essentially extra-curricular classes where we learned new skills in addition to our main A-level subjects. Unfortunately, I could not get the CPs I wanted and was subsequently put into a creative writing CP.
Funnily enough, this is where I began to take storytelling seriously. Indeed, Allah works in mysterious ways. I began working on a novella called Home Is Where the Heart Is. Like many other projects of mine, it’s still unfinished, and I haven’t touched it in a long time. Perhaps I may post it on my blog someday. That is if my one singular reader would like to see it. Would you like to see it, reader?
Alas, I have digressed. As part of the CP, our teacher asked us to bring a short story from our respective cultural backgrounds (we were a very diverse cohort). I had never read a book by a Pakistani author, so I had no idea what story I’d bring in. I asked my dad, who suggested I take in a short story called Toba Tek Singh, by Saadat Hasan Manto.
This essentially kick-started my exploration into South Asian history and literature. Every book I’ve read since, from The Sole Spokesman, by Ayesha Jalal (fun fact: her mum was Manto’s sister-in-law), to Twilight In Delhi, by Ahmed Ali, started with Manto. In fact, seeing as I started this blog with research into Pakistani history, you could say that if it wasn’t for Manto, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.
Recently, I decided to revisit Manto and purchased Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Khalid Hasan. This book collects 51 short stories, 1 play, 32 literary sketches, 15 literary portraits, 9 letters to Uncle Sam, 4 pieces by Manto about himself, as well as 3 appendices by Manto’s friends and family about the author. And so, there is a lot to get through in this here book review. But first, a bit of background about this groundbreaking Urdu writer.
Saadat Hasan Manto was born on the 11th May 1912 in Punjab, British India, to a Kashmiri Muslim family. His father was a local judge, and after his retirement, the family moved back to Amritsar, where Manto grew up. He had what seems like a difficult relationship with his father, who discouraged Manto from writing at an early age after he announced he would be writing for his school’s newspaper.
Manto struggled in school, failing his final examinations twice. Ironically, one of the subjects he failed to pass was Urdu, yet he would go on to become one of the greatest – if not the greatest – Urdu writers of all time. Despite his academic shortfalls, Manto was able to get into an Amritsar college but dropped out after failing his first-year examinations twice. It seems to me that Manto didn’t believe in “third time’s the charm.”
The biggest turning point for Manto was in 1933 (aged 21) when he met Bari Alig, author, critic and historian, who encouraged Manto to read French and Russian literature. Bari Alig persuaded Manto to undertake an Urdu translation of Victor Hugo’s The Last Days of a Condemned Man, which he completed in two weeks and published in Lahore. He also translated Oscar Wilde’s play Vera; or, The Nihilists. During this time, he wrote his first short story Tamasha about the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919, which was published anonymously due to fear of British reprisal.
In 1934, Manto enrolled in the famous Aligarh Muslim University, where he wrote more short stories for magazines. Predictably, he did not do well as a student and left after nine months after being falsely diagnosed with tuberculosis. He subsequently moved to Lahore, where he got his first regular job at a magazine called Paras. He also got involved with the Indian Progressive Writer’s Movement, a group of anti-imperial writers that spoke out against British Rule.
In 1936, Manto moved to Bombay to write for a film weekly called Mussawar. Thus began his love affair with India’s movie capital. He fell in love with the city and spent the next decade living there, only briefly leaving in 1941 to work for All-India Radio. Manto would go on to form friendships with many of India’s leading film stars, including Ashok Kumar, Noor Jehan and Sunder Shyam Chadda. He joined Filmistan in 1943 and began writing screenplays for movies such as Aatth Din, Shikari, Chal Chal Re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib.
Unfortunately, due to the Partition of India, Manto was forced to leave Bombay behind and move to Lahore in 1948. This move was one that deeply saddened him, causing him to fall into the jaws of depression and the grip of alcoholism. His life in Pakistan was one of financial difficulty, emotional devastation and physical ailment. However, it was in Pakistan that he wrote his most poignant pieces on the horrors of Partition, single-handedly creating a new genre of literature.
Manto eventually lost his battle with alcoholism on the 18th January 1955 and died due to cirrhosis of the liver at the age of forty-two. He was survived by his wife and three daughters. Manto wrote his own epitaph; but, it did not appear on his gravestone due to his family’s fears that it would enrage the orthodox Muslim Ulama:
Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and mysteries of short-story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, wondering who of the two is the greater short-story writer: God or he.
The 51 short stories collected in Bitter Fruit are considered by the translator to be Manto’s best works. Each and every one of them serves to bring to light the shadows of the world Manto lived in. It is for this reason that the subject matter is not for the faint-hearted. Almost all the stories tackle taboos in some way, whether it be prostitution, alcoholism or rape; however, despite the grim themes, Manto’s humanist approach shines through. The stories set during Partition are particularly gripping. The endings of which hit like the punchlines to an obituary.
While all the stories in Bitter Fruit are worthy of praise, I believe a few of them deserve special mention in this review. Here are five stories that stood out to me amongst the collection: By the Roadside, The Last Salute, The Great Divide, The Return, and The New Constitution.
The play In this Vortex is a short melodrama depicting the struggles of newlyweds Amjad and Saeeda. They had just gotten married and were on their way home when they got involved in a train accident in which Amjad was subsequently paralysed. The story follows on from there as Amjad struggles to come to terms with being an invalid, and Saeeda begins to look elsewhere for sexual gratification. While it may not be as good as his short stories, it is still a decent play nonetheless and serves as a testament to his range as a writer. I may even try to get a group of people together and perform/film it when I’m at university.
Most of the 32 sketches depict the rioting and looting that followed Partition. Being literary sketches, there isn’t much to say about them other than the fact they represent brief flashes of Manto’s imagination. That being said, they were entertaining. Here’s one such sketch:
‘I placed my knife across his windpipe and, slowly, very slowly, I slaughtered him.”
‘And why did you do that?’
‘What do you mean why?’
‘Why did you kill him the halal way?’
‘Because I enjoy doing it that way.’
‘You idiot, you should have chopped his neck off with one single blow. Like this.’
And the halal killer was dispatched in accordance with the correct ritual.
The 15 literary portraits were most entertaining due to Manto’s signature wit yet, at the same time, still deeply insightful. The one he did on Muhammad Ali Jinnah focused more on the Quaid-e-Azam’s home life than his political one, thus presenting him in an entirely new light compared to anything I’d read before. Manto also dedicated a heartfelt portrait to his mentor, Bari Alig. However, most of the portraits were of famous figures within the Bombay movie industry, so now I consider myself an expert in 1940s Bollywood gossip. Ashok Kumar, V.H. Desai and Kuldip Kaur were quite the characters.
The 9 letters to Uncle Sam are satirical letters to the US government. It is via these letters that Manto’s wit and political knowledge is brought to the forefront. Manto talks of all manner of subjects from the cold war to the differences between American and Pakistani women. He also expresses concern over the US’s military involvement in South Asia, which would plague the Subcontinent for years to come. Thereby illustrating that Manto was way ahead of his time. All in all, they make for very entertaining reads due to their absurdly wacky nature.
The 4 pieces by Manto about himself gives the reader an insider’s view into the writer’s life, much like a journal does its author. To My Readers is a heartbreaking account of Manto’s emotional turmoil about having to leave Bombay and the struggles he faced while in Pakistan. Meanwhile, in Manto on Manto, he becomes victim to the same sharp wit he so generously heaped on others.
The 3 appendices are the reflections of those that knew Manto best: his friends and family. They allow the reader to understand the kind of person Manto was behind the page. Uncle Manto, by Hamid Jalal, is the tale of Manto’s struggle with alcoholism and the strain it put on his family. It ends with a detailed account of the writer’s final moments before he died, a most tragic end to the greatest short-story writer that ever lived.
In a literary career spanning over twenty years, Manto wrote over 250 short stories alongside a large body of plays and essays. His legacy is one rife with controversy. He was tried six times for obscenity; thrice in British India and thrice in Pakistan. Yet, he is still acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century in both India and Pakistan.
In an age of political turmoil, Manto wasn’t afraid to write about the darkest depths of human depravity, and his contribution to literature continues to inspire generations of writers (including yours truly).