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Revisiting Saadat Hasan Manto: Lessons in Secularism and Humanism

By Sana Khan

Imagine a time when you hear news that the country in which you are living has ceased to be one country and cracked into two. You are isolated without complete information. You hear band of thugs are looting and people are carrying out rampant killings. You can see houses going up in flames, and gradually the place where you live starts to become tense. People don’t speak with each other. Doors and windows, which used to be open all the time, are shut tightly. The neighbours with whom you used to share sweets, borrowed milk and sugar now appear to be people you can’t trust. Tempers grow shorter.  Death inches closer. You learn that your relatives have been raped, killed, butchered, your own people are dying. What do you do? Should you also kill? Can you resist the urge to?

 How would you respond – self protectively, aggressively, or generously?  This was the time during partition of Hindustan in 1947; the partition that was accompanied by massive violence and strange savagery as people went on a killing spree. The monsoon months of that year were marked by mistrust between communities and frenzy – a two-way migration that added to the madness of the divide. Hundreds of thousands of people – Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs – were killed. A white line was drawn to mark borders; on one side lay India and, on the other, Pakistan. Seventy years have passed since 1947, yet our stories remain the same.

India and Pakistan are like old lovers – quarrelling and loving. Whatever the level of hatred, in moments of peace, the two countries have shared many a thing – culture, music, dramas, and memories of pain and hope. We have fought wars and then talked about unifying our cricket teams. This ceaseless love-hate relationship gathers many thoughts. At the present moment in history when both these nations are high on social conservatism of religious nationalism and violence is more or less normalized, it’s important for us to ask whether it is possible to see our story tellers as social theorists. Is it then possible to revisit Saadat Hasan Manto and learn some lessons from him about secularism and humanism?

Saadat Hasan Manto, arguably the most controversial Urdu writer was born on 11th May, 1912, in Samrala, now in the Indian state of Punjab. He was not even forty-three when he died in Lahore, Pakistan on 18th January, 1955. In this short period, he gave the world an enthralling body of literature. In a career spread over two decades of literature, journalism, radio-scripting, and film-writing, he produced twenty-two collections of short stories (over 250 short stories), one novel, five collections of radio plays (over 100 plays), three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches, and a number of film scripts. He was tried for obscenity several times, thrice before and thrice after partition. Manto’s last years (1950-1955) were spent in severe poverty and intense creativity.

Manto appeals to a broad spectrum of readers because his stories disenchant us with the apparent truths of our own times. Manto, to assert again, is especially relevant at the present moment in history because our society is plunged into sectarian and communal killings, against which Manto wrote vehemently. One idea that Manto tried to rescue and which we must rescue today was the idea of secularism. He saw the notion of the secular not as categorically a right of the state but as a vitality of a culture. The significance of Manto in the Indian context is telling if one can go beyond secularism as a politically correct concept.

Secularism in India means all religions are to be treated equally by the state. It is interesting to note that the constitution of India does not define the relationship between the state and religion with clarity. The 42nd amendment in 1976 lay stress that India is a secular nation. India’s secularism through the persistence of personal laws, which are predicated on religious and cultural practices, upholds the freedom to practice one’s choice of religion, and at the same time guarantees individual freedom – no one is to be discriminated against on the grounds of race, creed, caste, sex, etc. But does it actually mean this? How do we conceive secularism today? Secularism today is perceived as a form of political correctness propagated by left liberals, who are often called as ‘Sickulars’. We have not been able to create a culture that could go beyond secularism as political correctness. We need to ask questions like whether our cultures can’t be more creative in understanding differences. Or if being religious would stop one from being secular. One thinks of Ustad Bismillah Khan, a great musician who embodied a spirit of composite culture by being true to his art – he wanted his shehnai[1] to smell of Banaras. Why can’t then we have our secularism to touch upon our stories, our myths, and our memories? Manto wrote to find the secular within the workings of a culture. He goes beyond Gandhi’s ethics, Nehru’s science and rationality, and Jinnah’s mannerisms. Manto wrote the history of everyday in the extraordinary.

His partition stories treat partition as a human and psychological tragedy and a continuous process rather than an event in history or a political occurrence unified over and above personal experiences. Manto first expressed his shock regarding the violence of partition in ironic and brutal short stories such as “Siyah Hashiye” or “Black Margins”. As an introduction to this collection, Manto wrote:

For a long time I refused to accept the consequences of the revolution, which was set off by the partition of the country. I still feel the same way; but I suppose, in the end, I came to accept the nightmarish reality without self-pity or despair. In the process I tried to retrieve from this man-made sea of blood, pearls of rare hue, by writing about the single-minded dedication with which men had killed men, about the remorse felt by some of them, about the tears shed by murderers who could not understand why they still had some human feelings left. All this and more, I put in my book, Siyah Hashiye. (Manto as quoted in Hasan 1997: 1)

Partition lives on in the consciousness of people, across borders, in its division and contradiction. Manto’s stories remind us that the very humanity has been assaulted and violated; there are only victims whose trauma go beyond the physical pain and loss of life but remain scarred both in mind and soul. Manto’s stories have offered a different kind of language that goes beyond fixed categories of good and evil, victims and perpetrators, and a narrow-minded focus on the insanity and barbarity of partition. The human dimension of the cleaving – dealing with loss and sharing, grief and joy, friendship and enmity that were lost in capturing the political developments leading to partition – were noted astutely by Manto. These stories provide insights into the relationship between two communities, a struggle, a resistance coloured with trauma, violence, pain, and suffering. Two-line vignettes in Manto’s “Siyah Hashiye” speak of the kind of weariness that filled the air because of religious differences, where killings took place and people were forcibly converted to other religions. A story called “Determination” reads thus, “Under no circumstances am I prepared to be converted to a Sikh. I want my razor back.” Another powerful story, which also reminds one of Gujarat riots and the callousness of the police, is “Prior Arrangement”, where Manto writes:

The first incident took place near the barricade. A constable was immediately posted there.

The very next day, another incident took place in front of the store. The constable was shifted to where the second incident had taken place.

The third incident happened near the laundry at midnight. When the inspector ordered the constable to move to the new place, he took a few minutes before making the request: “please depute me to that spot where the next incident is going to take place.”

Sometimes in Manto’s stories when the characters confront ruthless violence and inhumanity, it seems their only conceivable response is madness. His stories like “Khuda ki Qasam” depict that.  Physically, partition may have separated people but psychologically India-Pakistan remained connected intimately. Manto’s greatest story, as considered by many, “Toba Tek Singh” uses madness as a metaphor for sanity. The story narrates how the times of 1947 were illogical and senseless. The madness seemed to grip even the lunatic asylum. The decision makers of the two countries thought it was only logical to exchange lunatics – non-Muslim lunatics in Pakistan should be sent to India and Muslim lunatics to Pakistan. When the day of exchange arrived, Bishen Singh or Toba Tek Singh refused to leave the place where he stood while the exchange went on. At sunrise, Toba Tek Singh gave out a loud cry and fell flat on his face: “there, behind barbed wire on side lay India and behind more barbed wire, on the other side lay Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.” The story renders the pain and trauma of the experiences of the partition with great sensitivity. The story questions the wisdom of partition and the madness it unleashed. Some scholars say that people who witnessed the bloodbath of partition wait and pray for a death like Toba Tek Singh, a Sikh who stands on no man’s land between two pious and ethically pure nations and calls down curses and rejects them both. The story is the tragedy of common people (portrayed by individual characters in Manto’s other stories as well) whose lives turn upside down when political decisions are suddenly thrust upon them.

Manto’s secularism and humanism allowed him a space to handle these upheavals. His stories like “Thanda Gosht” (“Cold Meat”) or “Khol Do” (“The Return/Open It”) continue to resonate with us. In his stories, it’s not the Hindu or the Muslim that dies but the human being who dies or kills. With characters from the marginal sections of the society, Manto’s world recognizes differences and does not necessarily demand equality but emphasizes on human dignity. When normal becomes barbaric and banal, perhaps it is the marginality, madness, and creativity that build the secular. This space belongs to the common people – where secularism and humanism offer a room of affinity that allows one to share intimacies, where people need faith, trust, conversation, and an exchange of bodies, minds, and cultures. Manto’s secularism thrived outside the world of politics, where one revisits, recalls, and returns.

Manto’s stories relate not just loss of moral senses, of life, of home, of tradition, of an integrated community but they place us in the midst of a depraved, absurd universe. One cannot help but ask, “Will I be courageous enough to be essentially human to bring down the senselessness and brutality of violence?” The full value of Manto’s humanism and secularism would only be realized when the white chalk with which he wrote on the blackboard to enhance its blackness becomes a catalyst for reassessing ourselves across borders; when we’re able to write a new narrative of a shared history, culture, pain, fear, love, and hope. Hope that will avenge itself on history.

[1] A musical instrument made out of wood. It has a double reed at one end and usually a metal bell at the other end.


Hasan, Mushirul (ed.) (1997), India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom, Vol. 1, New Delhi: Roli Books.

Manto, Saadat Hasan Manto (2008), Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto, Khalid Hasan (ed.), Translated by Khalid Hasan, New Delhi: Penguin Books (Used for Translations).

Image-courtesy: Avik Kumar Maitra

Sana Khan is pursuing her doctoral research in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). She has taught at Jamia Millia Islamia University. Apart from research and teaching, good literature, theatre, and music keep her enchanted.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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