I confess that I hadn’t read a single Saadat Hasan Manto story before I picked up the slim volume of his stories published by Penguin as part of their Penguin Evergreens. What little I knew about is pretty much known by all those who’ve heard of this great Urdu writer: that he was tried for obscenity half a dozen times, wrote screenplays in the Hindi film industry in Bombay and moved to Lahore during his last years. I had heard that he had written some of the most incisive and hard-hitting stories about Partition and that in terms of both style and content, his stories were very much ahead of their times. And yet, I wasn’t prepared for the wallop that they delivered when I actually read them.
The Evergreen collection, named Toba Tek Singh, after his single-most famous piece of fiction, is a good introduction to this wonderful writer. It’s in equal parts a showcase of the writer’s deep humanity as well as his cutting wit. Toba Tek Singh is a fantastic story about the partition: the Indian and Pakistani governments decided they should exchange lunatics as well, so the muslim lunatics will be sent to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics will be sent to India. The reactions of the inmates themselves is hilarious – one inmate climbs a tree and says he wish to live there, not India or Pakistan. Another inmate, when asked what Pakistan is, says, “The name of a place in India where cut-throat razors are manufactured.” Another declares himself to be Muhammad Ali Jinnah. However, the overall mood of the story is one of bemusement: why did this bloody split have to happen in the first place? This bewilderment is reflected in the garbled speech of one Bishen Singh and his obsessive question: is his village, Toba Tek Singh, in India or Pakistan? There is a strong strain of the absurdist that pervades this story:
“One of the inmates had declared himself God. Bishen Singh asked him one day if Toba Tek Singh was in India or Pakistan. The man chuckled. ‘Neither in India nor in Pakistan, because so far, we have issued no orders in this respect.’”
Naturally, the story ends on a tragic note, with Bishen making the no man’s land between India and Pakistan, his final resting place. In The Dog of Titwal, similarly, a friendly dog is martyred in the never-ending one-upmanship between the two neighbouring countries, with each side accusing the poor dog of belonging to the enemy’s camp. The end is cruel, but Manto deals with the traumatic effects of the subcontinent’s partition the only way he can: by pointing out how absurd it all is.
Other stories can be even more brutal in how they explore the violence that lies beneath all of us, only thinly covered with a veneer of civilization. In Colder than Ice, a Sikh man returns to his lover and confesses how he got carried away by his violent urges during the Partition riots and ended up raping a young Muslim girl, only to find out that she had been dead while he was violating her. Bitter Harvest sees a ma,n whose wife and daughter have been raped and murdered, go berserk and ultimately find out that he’s not very different from the animals who brutalized his family.
What I liked best, however, were the stories populated with more colourful characters: Green Sandals is a long domestic argument, where threats of divorce and hideous insults between the couple, evaporate when the trivial cause of their fight is uncovered. The Price of Freedom has a young couple in love realizes that certain sacrifices, even when made for a cause, are just not worth the pain they cause. One particular delight was A Woman for All Seasons, which is a thinly veiled recounting of the rise and fall of India’s first female star, Devika Rani. It wasn’t the best written of the lot, I admit, but I found it amusing simply because of the casual irreverence with which it is written. It gives one a fascinating glimpse into the world of Hindi cinema when it first began, and I would like to get hold of more of Manto’s writings about this period of his life.