Urdu Literature

Saadat Hasan Manto: A Portrait Through His Stories & Letters

Saadat Hasan Manto: Stories

This is the first part of our series on the life and works of Saadat Hasan Manto. Read the second part here.

“For me, remembrance of things past has always been a waste of time, and what’s the point of tears? I don’t know. I’ve always been focused on today. Yesterday and tomorrow hold no interest for me. What had to happen, did, and what will happen, will” – Saadat Hasan Manto.

Born in 1912 in the bread basket of British India, in the north-western state of Punjab, Saadat Hasan Manto, in his own words was All India’s Great Short Story Writer and after partition was Pakistan’s Great Short Story Writer.

He began his career as a translator of French and Russian works to Urdu, after studying at the Aligarh Muslim society and thereafter began to write short stories, essays, radio plays, and even few screenplays.

Saadat was the son of a judge of a local court, an extremely harsh father and his second wife, a woman with a tender heart. Manto described his urge to write as nothing more than “a result of clash” between his parents’ personalities.

In his writings, he always tried to mirror the society and ‘sew’ it accordingly.

“I feel like I am always the one tearing everything up and forever sewing it back together.”

Manto faced trial for obscenity in his writings six times, three times in undivided India and three times in Pakistan after 1947.

Was it really obscenity of which he had been charged or was he being persecuted for having the veracity to speak the truth?

मैं काली तख्ती पर सफ़ेद चाक इस्तेमाल करता हूँ ताकि काली तख्ती और नुमाया हो जाए

“Main kali takhti par safed chalk istemaal krta hun, taki kali takhti aur numaya ho jaye.”

I use white chalk on blackboard so the black of the board is more apparent.

Manto’s writings were just like the one white chalk against the tyrannical blackness of the world we live in, creating a contrast so strong, that no one dares to ignore.

Manto’s literary acclaim does not lie in the use of high sounding, intellectual phrases understandable only by the educated few, but is comprehensible even by the common masses because of the use of commonplace literature.

He never embellished his words to create an unreal image.


Manto’s language was economical and has the sting and precision of a whiplash. Manto’s Urdu original with the grating roughness of his diction, the sardonic irony of his images and the harsh rhythms of his prose affects the reader’s soul with a pain so sharp that wound those who are not alert to their existence.

Manto and Partition

Some of his best-remembered works were the stories written after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

He represented the brutal, bloody maddening senselessness which was unleashed by politically motivated actors who threw the lives of ordinary people and are much evident in the stories like- “Toba Tek Singh”, “Khol Do”, “Thanda Gosht”, “Tetwal Ka Kutta” etc.

Manto vividly explains the plight of the common people during the partition. The multitude of emotions felt by them is brought to the forefront by his biting satire.

In Toba Tek Singh, he showed the collective madness that he saw in the ensuing decade of his life.

“सूरज निकलने से पहले साकित-ओ-समित बिशन सिंह के हलक से एक शि्गाफ चीख़ निकली..इधर उधर से क‌ई अफ्सर दौड़े आए और देखा कि वो आदमी जो पंद्ह बरस तक दिन रात खड़ा था, औंधे मुँह लेटा है। उधर खारदार तारों के पीछे हिंदोस्ता था…इधर वैसे ही तारों के पीछे पाकिस्तान। दरमयान में ज़मीन के उस टुकड़े पर जिस का कोई नाम नहीं था, टोबा टेक सिंह पड़ा था।”

Before the sunrise, the always composed Bishan Singh let out a cry from his throat. All the officers came running and saw the man, who has been standing for fifteen years is lying with his face down. On the other side, beyond the fence was India. On this side, behind the similar fence was Pakistan. Toba Tek Singh was lying in the middle on the ground with no name.  

In one of his story “Kasar-e-nafsi” a running train is halted and the people of the other religion are atrociously murdered. Before leaving the train, the murderers said

“भाईओं और बहनों।

हमें गाड़ी की आमद कि इत्तिला बहुत देर में मिली। यही  वजह है कि हम जिस तरह चाहते थे उस तरह आप की खिदमत न कर सकें।“

Brothers and sisters, we would have loved to serve you better but due to the delay in the arrival of information about the train, we couldn’t.

In the short story ‘Sorry’, Manto gives the priority to the “knife”. It hovers like a threatening presence over the text and controls it thematically.

छुरी पेट चाक करती हुई नाफ़ के नीचे तक चली गई।

इज़ार-बंद कट गया। छुरी मारने वाले के मुँह से दफ़्अतन

कलमा-ए-तअस्सुफ़ निकला।

“चे चे चे चे…

मिस्टेक हो गया”।

The knife slitting the stomach went below the navel. The belt was cut, the knife holder suddenly cried ‘Oh lord, I made a mistake’

The man who wields it is merely a part of the mechanism of slaughter, he has no will, no religion and no nationality. The victim whose body is being cut open is only a cadaver.

By making the knife such a powerful presence, Manto wants to suggest that the partition has nothing to do with freedom or religion.

Those who want partition is only concerned with power-with all its intoxication, pride and humiliation.

In these stories, Manto never brings his political views in his stories. He is impartial in what he wrote. He talks about the soldiers and the common people who were suffering because of the whim of the political leaders.

Manto and Politics

Manto opposed politicians and their politics on the basis of religion for their own glorification. He firmly rejected hypocrisy and deception.

His series of “Letter to Uncle Sam” written in the early 1950s to the American government give a remarkable overview to the disastrous foreign policy dictated at that time.

In his fourth letter he posted, he wrote:

“India may grovel before you a million times but you will

definitely make a military aid pact with Pakistan because you are really worried about the integrity of the largest Islamic sultanate of the world and why not, as our mullahs are the best antidote to Russia’s communism. If this sect of mullahs is armed American style then the Soviet Union will have to pick up its spittoon from here, even whose gargles are mixed up in communism and socialism.”

In “Save India from its leaders written in pre-partition India, in 1942, Manto shared his foresight about the opportunists and time-servers as our politicians.

“These so-called leaders go about carrying the carcasses 

of politics and religion on their shoulders and to simple-minded people who are in the habit of accepting every word uttered to them in high-sounding vocabulary, they bandy that they will breathe new life into the carcass. When these leaders cry their hearts out telling people that religion is in danger there’s no reality to it. Religion is not something which can be endangered. If there is danger, it is from these leaders who endanger religion to achieve their own ends.”

Manto and Society

Manto very clearly portrayed human feeling and selfishness. He was well aware of the hardships, the conditions, the psychology and the disaster the masses faced. His disappointments, wayward lifestyle and alcoholism took him to a lunatic asylum, which became a metaphor of the insane world for him.

In the story Bu, the protagonist finds himself trapped in a marriage to a woman of his own class, a carefully chosen, socially coordinated wife.

She was the ideal woman for any man of Randhir’s status, yet she failed to kindle his “masculine interest”. He still yearned for that exotic “Bu” he discovered in a sexual encounter with a rain-drenched, working-class girl.

He was transfixed by the “Bu” from her skin, from her armpits, her thighs ..which was both pleasant and unpleasant. In his well-made bed, he is condemned to remember and regret.

In this story, Manto unveils the prejudice existing in the society. Though everyone among the people living in today loves to flaunt their progressive nature, their display of charity, their humane faces Manto very rightly brings down the curtain over such flamboyance and show humans what they really are.

When it comes to the individual, the lower castes are still abhorred, the dark-skinned still faces disregard, the minorities are not paid attention and the right to an opinion of all of them faces negation.

The individual wants the same status as he/she has though in their hearts of hearts they might desire something entirely different. Without understanding the subtleties of “Bu” Manto was charged with a British colonial law for obscenity and summoned to court.

In his story “Khol do”, he made the character of Sirajuddin, the father of Sakina-a very beautiful girl according to Manto come to life. The ending feels so twisted, it will make you perspire and bow your head down in shame at the same time reflecting on the level of degradation humanity has undergone.

“डाक्टर ने स्टरीचर पर पड़ी हुई लाश की तरफ देखा। उस की नब्ज़ टटोली और सिराजुह्दीन से कहा “खिड़की खोल दो।“

सकीना के मुर्दा जिस्म में जुंबिश पैदा हुई। बेजान हाथों से उस ने इज़ारबंद खोला और शलवार निचे सरका दी। बूढ़ा सिराजुद्दीन खुशी से चिल्लाया। “जि़ंदा है…मेरी बेटी जि़ंदा है…” डाक्टर सर से पैर तक पसीने में ग़र्क हो गया।“

Sakina though already declared dead, on hearing as trifle a phrase as “Khol do” gained her senses to give in her last effort into undoing her salwar.

It is really unimaginable as to what sort of excruciating pain Sakina may have gone through. She had not the sense to even realize where she was but that one phrase “Khol do” shook her so hard that she started to undress.

Manto has so lucidly sketched the predicament of that young raped girl that one would never believe that such heinous acts actually happen. Be it the tabloids, the newspapers or the news channels, just to sell their stories have transformed “rape” into an economic commodity to be sold whenever their company encounters a loss.

With all his satire, his truth, his veracity Manto truly championed nearly all the causes that are eating away humanity bit by bit.

Manto remains alive

Saadat Hasan Manto succumbed to alcoholism soon after his move Lahore with his family in 1948 and passed away at the age of 43 in 1955. Altogether he produced 20 short stories, 5 radio dramas, 3 essays, 2 sketches, 1 novel and a number of film scripts.

Literature may not be able to change the norm of this society but is effectively able to provide it with a mirror by speaking the bitter, stinging, raw truth.

Until and unless we have more people with the audacity of standing up and speaking the harsh truth, we will never be able to give justice for the transgression of individual rights.

As Manto said,

“नीम के पत्ते कढ़वे ही सही, खून तो साफ करते है।अगर आप इन अफ़सानों को बर्दाश्त नहीं कर सकते तो इसका मतलब यह है कि यह ज़माना नाक़ाबिले-बर्दाश्त है।”

Though neem leaves are bitter, they cleanse the blood. If you are not able to bear these stories, this means this world is unbearable.

Even after so many years, Manto will remain unforgettable to us for his irreverent writing as he says –“It is also possible, that Sadat Hassan dies but Manto remains alive” 

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The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Artykite.

About the Author

This article is written by Soumi Paul. She is a student of medicine. She writes poems, stories, articles as a hobby.

Key contributions are given by Atashi Chatterjee.


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