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Saadat Hassan Manto: Stories of resistance, partition, and women

by Aditya Kalyan

Saadat Hassan Manto, one of the greatest short story writers of all time was born in Samrala, a city in the district of Ludhiana, Punjab. Manto is not an easy person to categorize as an author. If he had to be described, he would be an enigma. An individual whose life was marred with incidents that shook him. Despite the hardships and the trauma of surviving the partition, Manto wrote about women who were involved in the resistance. He wrote not only about women in elite households but also about those who resided on the fringes of society. Most of Manto’s stories contain women who are not dependent on men for their existence to be validated. They have their voice that carries forth in the story and are not a crutch for patriarchal advances.

While Manto is touted to be a partition writer, he was a writer who laid bare the reality of the society around him. His raw and accurate descriptions of the world he saw through his eyes earned him several callings to the court. Some of his most famous stories were Toba Tek Singh, Khol Do, and Thanda Gosht. The horrors of partition are present in the background of all these stories. Manto’s characters are akin to the common folk but are also the most alienated members of society. In Toba Tek Singh, Manto handles the topic of mental disorders. He takes us through the journey of Bishan Singh who is supposed to be a lunatic. While the story revolves around the behavior of the inmates at the Lahore Asylum, Manto’s brilliant story-writing mind draws a parallel between the institution and the partition. The inmates of the asylum had problems similar to that of the people who were caught in the events of partition. They experienced similar terror and fear. Bishan Singh like most people could not fathom the idea of dividing a nation and had a million questions about them. The real question then was whether Bishan Singh was really a lunatic or did the partition brought around traumatizing forces that affected every citizen in the country. Bishan Singh was on the quest to find his native land “Toba Tek Singh” as he called it and thus began his journey where he was taken to the border so that he could be handed over to the Indian Government in return for Muslim lunatics. Bishan Singh dies at the end of the story, and his exhausted body collapses on a piece of unclaimed land. Manto refers to Bishan Singh as “Toba Tek Singh” equating him to the land that he was in search of. Although the story discusses mental disorders, the main purpose was to equate the fear and terror people lived with during the partition.

One of Manto’s chilling stories “Thanda Gosht” talks about a woman’s sexual desire while simultaneously describing communal violence that erupted during the partition. The story revolves around Eesher Singh and his lover Kalwant Kaur. Kalwant Kaur enquires about Eesher’s whereabouts since she hadn’t seen him in over four days. Eesher stammers an excuse that Kalwant doesn’t believe, yet she expresses her desire to be with him and talks about having sex with him. When Eesher is unable to show the same affection as Kalwant, she accuses him of infidelity and stabs him in the neck with his own dagger. Kalwant asks him with whom had he spent the night and Eesher replies. He admits to having killed an entire Muslim family and taken the young girl to rape only to find that she was already dead. 

This story of Manto was charged with obscenity in Lahore for his depiction of necrophilia and other counts. Manto was accused of writing stories that were against society’s norms and ideals. His stories were thought to have a corrupting influence over those who read them but what Manto did in fact was talk about emotions that were not represented in popular culture. Manto wrote about topics that made us uncomfortable, not because they were full of deceit and falsehood but because of how grim the truth is. “Thanda Gosht” takes the shame away from the victim and projects it onto the perpetrator. The victim is normally shown to be traumatized, but Eesher is rendered impotent in the story. The rape had made him impotent and, in this way, Manto shifts the trauma onto the perpetrator, emasculating him and subverting the image of rape which is supposed to be a show of masculine strength. Manto’s stories do away with the linear approach of storytelling but rather move towards defiance and resistance to authority. His stories came at a time when most writings were centered on the idea of nationalism. He wrote accounts that accurately described one of humankind’s most harrowing events. Most of his stories were devoid of sentimental appeal but rather focused on the subversion of authority and the reality of society. 

Manto focused on the marginalized and the outcastes and believed in seeing women as he saw men. He did not write about women who were sexually repressed but as beings who had desires. They were not sexless objects but rather were vocally independent and had diverse personalities. Manto did not use symbols to describe women’s anatomy but rather said it as they were. This was his resistance against the bigots, conservatives, and the state apparatus.

Aditya Kalyan is the winner of the Swaroop writing competition organised by the Centre for New Economics Studies

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