We Can Learn To Express More Boldly From Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto

If the great Urdu writer, Saadat Hasan Manto was alive today, he would have been 105 years old. I wonder whether his spectacled and now old eyes would be surprised at how the world had further degraded in values of humanism. On second thoughts I doubt todays India or Pakistan with its ever increasing intolerance, extremism and gender inequality would really stir Manto. I imagine him sitting at the Pak Tea House in Lahore, grinning and muttering to himself “I knew it”, as back in the day he predicted the Pakistan of today. But sadly Manto is long gone, but the truth and power of his writings still exists and we can draw strength from his work, especially those living on the fringes.

Manto lived through the partition of 1947 and was deeply saddened by the sheer devastation it caused, it was evident in his writings. The Radcliffe Line which demarcates India from Pakistan is a crude border with 88 million people of different faiths livingthere at the time. While Sir Cyril Radcliffe must have applied some scientific formulae to draw this line, he and the Border Commission did not bother to think through the consequences for the people who were Muslim, Sikh and Hindu. At the end of the day they were just humans who were friends, acquaintances that turned into arch enemies. Manto didn’t appreciate the partition, not only because he had to leave his beloved city of Bombay like millions of Muslims but also the madness it brought with it. Women had it worse and Manto was sensitive to that fact and he wrote about it with a passion. But sadly after close to 70 years of Independence and freedom, women still are the worst affected in any social, political and economic crisis.

The women who Manto spoke about through his stories showed immense strength, a kind of coldness and detachment that one would only associate with men. And we are not talking about successful financially independent women here, but women who live on the margins of society, many of his protagonist were sex workers. I am fascinated by Manto’s Mozel, a Jewish woman who lived in Bombay and refused to commit to love a Sardarji as she experienced him as very religious and conservative for her liking. But they shared a special relationship which was left undefined in the book. Mozel is described as an extremely beautiful woman who is not afraid to love and die freely. I find this a stark contrast to how strong and independent women are portrayed in our narrative. Do we ever visualize women who could be role models of independence and strength, to be stark naked? I doubt it. But Mozel was, in her last show of strength she gave up her robe to save another woman and died naked and refused to be covered with clothing during her last breath. I am not suggesting that we should all choose to loose our clothing, I am referring to symbolism here. What are the kinds of symbols we assign to our values, is worth a thought.

Manto pushed boundaries, with his writing in Thanda Ghosht and Khol do. Both these pieces were graphic in portraying how women were violated during the partition. Khol do introduces the plight of women subjected to gang rape through Sakina, whose reaction leaves you shocked. When the doctor looking at her half dead body asks her father to open the window. Sakina’s spontaneous reaction is to undo the cord holding her Salwar and spread her legs. The horror of what this girl and thousands of others would have gone through is painful. On the other hand in Thanda Ghosht, Manto does not shy away from writing about Eesher Singh’s impotency after he raped a corpse of a girl. The vulnerability and weakness of men is rarely spoken, let alone written about.  You realise that women continue to live with these atrocities and nothing has changed. We hear about stories of women subjected to the worst kind of torture but it is left behind in the pages of a newspaper or in a signed petition.

While women are fighting back for their space and rights all over the world, Manto’s depiction of the raw emotions and characteristics of a woman even in the most dire situations is inspiring. After reading his work, I often wonder whether we have regressed as a society in the way we express. Have our expressions been diluted in the name of sophistication. I believe our times require boldness of expression and thoughts and Manto’s work is encouraging. As many celebrate this year as 70 years of independence for some it will be 70 years of partition. Horrors that existed then, are still prevalent today, but we don’t have Manto to write about them. What we do have is our freedom to express in the most true and raw form, something that we can learn from this brave and controversial man.

Neha Saigal Development Consultant, Yoga Teacher & Aspiring Writer



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