Review: The brave books of Saadat Hasan Manto

Photo by Joliet Morrill  Manto's books have sparked international controversy.

Photo by Joliet Morrill

Manto's books have sparked international controversy.


In the spirit of Banned Books Week, Saadat Hasan Manto’s Urdu short stories deserve attention. In Pakistan, Manto is both respectable and notorious. A few of his short stories, like “Toba Tek Singh,” are part of some school curricula, but others are hardly ever even mentioned aloud. Approximately 60years after his death in 1955, he still continues to be one of the most controversial Indo-Pakistani writers of all time.

Manto’s brutal honesty is one of his best qualities; it’s also one of the reasons his works are deemed as highly obscene. Manto says things as they are. When he means to say “breast” he writes the word without the euphemistic phrases that writers of his time and culture used. He does not give way to romanticization. In his story, “Colder than Ice” Manto describes a kiss with, “his whiskers got into Kalwant Kaur’s nose, and she sneezed.” Manto is raw and earthy, making his narrative gripping.

Within this raw clarity, however, Manto also uses symbols to exemplify the truth he wants to convey. This quality of the narration allows his message to carry across translation. In the same short story, “Colder than Ice,” is a stark, horrifying account of a man who becomes sexually impotent when he discovers that the girl he kidnapped to rape was dead. The story is set in a pre-partition subcontinent, during a massacre of Muslims. Iswar, a Sikh, kidnaps a girl from a Muslim family he murders. Using these motifs, while retaining the reality of fundamentalist hatred in India, Manto brings to light men’s participation in violence, rape, misogyny and the pursuit of power.

In other stories, Manto uses the partition of India and Pakistan as a central theme. These stories expose the partition as a time when society was at its most exposed, with all its demons in clear view for everyone to see. Manto does not take any sides on the issue, but rather portrays individuals who were affected by the events that took place.

“Toba Tek Singh” is a story about a Sikh man in a mental asylum in Pakistan. Two to three years after the partition, the governments of India and Pakistan decided to exchange the residents in their mental asylums, so that Muslims went to Pakistan and non-Muslims went to India. The story is a poignant account of the Sikh man’s suffering as he questions why he must go to India, not understanding the concept of partition.

While the issues Manto discusses are difficult and layered, his brevity is always a shocking surprise; Manto’s stories are hardly ever more than seven pages long. They are like voyeuristic snapshots from the lives of complex people facing complex struggles. This makes the stories all the more poignant, especially given Manto’s skill at ending at just the right moment. The last sentences of “Toba Tek Singh,” for example, are “On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.” The reader is left wanting more, while acknowledging that there is nothing more to say.

Manto’s work is a must-read for anyone who reads and loves Nikolai Gogol, Albert Camus and Oscar Wilde, for their keen observation and brave portrayal of societal norms. There are many English translations of his works, most notably “Bombay Stories and Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto.” His stories are succinct, vivid accounts of people who often go unseen — the prostitutes, pimps and criminals. They are required reading for everyone interested in social criticism and the trauma of the subcontinental partition.  

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