Urdu Literature

Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai: A Tale of Friendship

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Any celebration of friendship would become bootless without the mention of the unrivaled friendship between Saadat Hassan Manto and Ismat Chughtai.  Ismat was always encouraging of Manto’s work and Manto often teasingly took a jibe at Ismat as any friend would. 

Their friendship demonstrates a unique diversion from the strong competition that is usually present between two contemporary writers. They strived together through the grave and unfortunate criticism attracted by their realistic short stories. Manto and Ismat’s relationship of friendship was so apparent that once a gentleman from Hyderabad wrote a letter to Manto asking “How is it that Ismat Chughtai and you didn’t marry?

To this Manto wrote in his essay ‘Ismat Chughtai’ :

“Had we thought of getting married, then instead of drowning others in wonder and agitation we ourselves would have been drowned in it. And when we would have come to our senses after the initial shock, then our wonderment and agitation would have changed not into joy but sorrow. Ismat and Manto, nikah and marriage—what a ludicrous idea!”

Ismat and Manto were both progressive Urdu writers of those times. It was a time when the society was unable to deal or was rather uncomfortable with the issues of gender and sexuality. They shared a deep understanding of human emotions and captured every emotion effectively in their stories.

In the Preface of Chotein, Krishan Chander writes: Ismat and Manto could not be more similar in their fictional art. Few Urdu writers can match them in their ability to leave a reader entirely clueless, to arouse his wonderment and suspense and then, in the end, suddenly change this wonderment and suspense into joy.

They openly defended each other’s work and even faced the trial for the alleged “obscenity” in their respective stories together. 

When “Dozakhi” was published in Saqi, Manto’s sister read it said, “Sa‘adat, how shameless this Ismat can be? She didn’t spare even her dead brother! How can she write such things about him?” To this Manto replied, “ if you promise to write a sketch like this after my death, I swear to God, I’m ready to die this very day.”

Ismat Chughtai was defending her critically acclaimed novel Lihaaf, which explored homoeroticism while Manto was facing the same charge for his novel Bu.

Here is an interesting extract from the court trial where both of them participated together and gave us some serious friendship goals.

An extract from Kaghazi Hai Pairahan (The Lihaf  Trial)

Extract from India Dissents: 3,000 Years of Difference, Doubt, and Argument. Translated by M. Asaduddin.

…We appeared before the court on the day of the hearing.

The witnesses who had to prove that Manto’s story Bu and my story Lihaf were obscene, were all present there. My lawyer instructed me not to open my mouth till the interrogation began. He would answer the queries as he thought fit.

Bu was taken up first.

‘Is this story obscene?’ Manto’s lawyer asked.

‘Yes,’ answered the witness.

‘Can you put your finger on a word which is obscene?’

Witness: ‘The word “chest”.’

Lawyer: ‘My Lord, the word “chest” is not obscene.’

Witness: ‘No. But here the writer means a woman’s breasts.’

Manto was on his feet instantly and blurted out: ‘A woman’s chest must be called breasts and not groundnuts.’

The court reverberated with loud guffaws. Manto too began to laugh.

‘If the accused shows frivolity a second time he will be turned out or punished for severe contempt of court.’

Manto’s lawyer whispered into his ear and he understood the situation. The debate went on. The witness could find no other word except ‘chest’ and it could not be proved obscene.

‘If the word “chest” is obscene, why not knee or elbow?’ I asked Manto.

‘Nonsense!’ Manto growled.

…The court was crowded the next day. Several people had advised us to tender an apology. They were ready to pay the fine on our behalf. The excitement surrounding the lawsuits was waning.

The witnesses who had wanted to prove Lihaf obscene were thrown into confusion by my lawyer. They were not able to put their finger on any word in the story that would prove their point.

After a good deal of reflection, one of them said: ‘This phrase… “collecting lovers” is obscene.’


‘Which word is obscene: “collect” or “lover”?’ the lawyer asked.

‘Lover,’ replied the witness a little hesitantly.

‘My Lord, the word “lover” has been used by great poets most liberally. It is also used in naats, that is, poems written in praise of the Prophet. God-fearing people have accorded it a very high status.’

‘But it is objectionable for girls to collect lovers,’ said the witness.


‘Because… because it is objectionable for good girls to do so.’

‘And if the girls are not good, then it is not objectionable?’


‘My client must have referred to the girls who were not good. Yes, madam, do you mean here bad girls collect lovers?’


‘Well, this may not be obscene. But it is reprehensible for an educated lady from a decent family to write about such things,’ the witness thundered.

‘Censure it as much as you want. But it does not come within the purview of law.’

The issue lost much of its steam.

‘If you agree to apologize, we’ll pay up the entire expense incurred by you…,’ someone I didn’t know whispered into my ear.

‘Should we apologize, Manto Sahab? We can buy a lot of goodies with the money we’ll get,’ I suggested to Manto.

‘Nonsense!’ Manto growled Manto and his peacock eyes bulged out again.

‘I’m sorry. This madcap Manto doesn’t agree.’

‘But you…why don’t you…?’

‘No. You don’t know what a quarrelsome fellow he is! He’ll make my life miserable in Bombay. I’d rather undergo the punishment than risk his wrath.

The judge called me into the ante-room attached to the court and said quite informally, ‘I’ve read most of your stories. They aren’t obscene. Neither is Lihaf. But Manto’s writings are littered with filth.’

‘The world is also littered with filth,’ I said in a feeble voice.

‘Is it necessary to rake it up, then?’

‘If it is raked up it becomes visible and people feel the need to clean it up.’

The judge laughed.

I was not terribly worried when the suit was filed, neither did I feel elated now that I had won it. Rather I felt sad at the thought that it might be a long while before I got a chance to visit Lahore again.

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