What Manto Means To Me
By Justice Markandey Katju, former Judge, Supreme Court of India
Today, the 18th of January, is the death anniversary of Saadat Hasan Manto (1912 – 1955), who I regard as one of the greatest short story writers of the world, comparable to Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham, D.H. Lawrence, O. Henry, Musnshi Premchand, etc.
I never had the privilege of meeting Manto, but I used to often meet his friend Upendra Nath Ashk, himself a well known Hindi short story writer, in the Coffee House in Civil Lines, Allahabad. I was then a lawyer in Allahabad High Court.
Ashkji had been Manto’s colleague in the All India Radio in Delhi in 1941-2, and he told me much about Manto (he even wrote a book on him called Manto Mera Dushman). Ashkji told me that Manto was an emotional, angry, highly sensitive man.
Manto’s stories e.g. ‘Khol do’, ‘Bu’, ‘Kali Shalwar’, ‘Dhuan’, etc were called pornographic by some people (just like Maupassant’s stories ) and he often wrote about the seamy, squalid, sleazy, and sordid side of society, which no other writer dared to do. He was tried for obscenity six times in a court of law, though never convicted. He himself said “People call my stories dirty, but that is because your society is dirty. I only tell the truth.”
Manto strongly opposed the 1947 Partition, calling it madness. At that time he was living in Bombay, writing for films, but he had to depart for Pakistan when Muslims connected with the film world started receiving death threats. In Lahore, he would associate with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Nasir Kazmi, Ahmad Rahi, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and other writers who frequented Pakistan Tea House, but it seems he was never happy, and he became an alcoholic and died of cirrhosis of the liver before he was 43.
Manto’s stories about Partition highlight its horrors and reveal the macabre, animalistic side of human beings whose minds had been filled with communal hatred e.g. ‘Thanda Gosht’, ‘Tiithwal ka kutta’, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ etc.
His ‘Letters to Uncle Sam’ are a satire on Pakistan’s situation, which he believed had become a neo-colony of America.
It is a pity that such a great writer died so early.
Markandey Katju is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India. He was also the Chairman of the Press Council of India.