Michaela Stone Cross
December 14, 2020
They called him kala qalam — the black pen. Saadat Hasan Manto, South Asia’s short story master, was revered and reviled in his lifetime, unable to find a home in a country torn in two. He was accused of everything, from being a pornographer to a reactionary, first by his enemies and eventually by his friends. Maybe that’s why he made no distinction between friend and enemy, calling them ‘dost-dushman.’
But Manto lived in times where people were drawing lines, not erasing them, and the bloodiest line drawn in his lifetime left him exiled in Pakistan, where he wrote his greatest, darkest tales.
“I dived into the ocean of blood that flows in the veins of human beings and selected a few pearls of the efforts made by man in spilling his brother’s last drop of blood,” wrote Manto, years later. Pearls from an ocean of blood — a perfect way to describe stories like “Thanda Gosht” (“Cold Flesh”), “Toba Tek Singh,” “Khol Do” (“Open It”) — Partition tales of horror and aesthetic mastery. Drinking himself to death in Lahore in the early 1950s, Manto sought to answer one of the oldest questions: how ordinary people can tear their fellow humans apart. He died in an insane asylum in 1955, aged 42. The times had eradicated his courage, but never quite his faith in his fellow humans.
“Where others weep, he laughs, and where others laugh, he weeps,” Manto wrote of himself in a piece titled “Manto’s Prayer.” “Faces blacked by evil, he loves to wash tenderly to reveal their real features.” He was, in his own words, one who hated sweetness but gave his life to tasting bitter fruit. He maintained, however, that those who didn’t like his writing could blame the world, not him. “How could I expose the bosom of society when it was already naked?” he wrote.
I came across his Bombay Stories in a Beijing bookstore — a fitting place for an American to stumble upon a socialist writer who loved Hollywood but hated Western imperialism. The Iron Curtain perhaps blocked Manto from really reaching the West, and his influence still lingers in China like an insect in amber from those Hindi-Chini bhai bhai days. Manto once spread a rumor that the Taj Mahal had been auctioned off to the Americans — it was precisely the kind of lie he loved to tell — a lie with a heart of truth. He would live to watch Pakistan sign a military treaty with America, trading an alliance with one imperial power for another, as far as he was concerned.
In his short life, Manto saw the Partition happen and lived as both a Pakistani and an Indian. Unlike many subcontinental writers, his work translates wonderfully into English: it’s his simple, conversational language, his hard-hitting concrete metaphors, and his characters who breathe through the page. He is more Hemingway-esque than Hemingway, with the perfection of Steinbeck or Chekhov, yet with a warm playfulness. Not many dead writers can make you laugh out loud, but Manto frequently does. He takes a heavy, serious subject and makes it absurd and nonthreatening.