The Myth of the Lone Ranger

A new biography of Saadat Hasan Manto fails to do justice to either to his world or his words

01 June 2013

IN THE PAST FEW DECADES, mostly on the strength of English translations of his Partition stories, the Urdu author Saadat Hasan Manto has ascended to the status of a non-English language author who is nevertheless widely read and discussed in the subcontinent. His short stories appear in more translations than any other Urdu author, and those about Partition, especially the short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’, have been extensively read and commented upon in the English-language world. In his English-language incarnation, Manto seems to be considered an anomaly, a fiercely independent spirit who is not generally associated with any literary movement or group of authors. This is a state of affairs that Manto would no doubt be pleased by; during his lifetime he did, more often than not, promote such characterisations. Manto’s alcoholism, the six obscenity trials he faced both pre- and post-Independence for allegedly objectionable content in his fiction, and his racy stories all add to his suitability for literary cult status.

In her new biography of her great uncle (The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide, HarperCollins India, 265 pages, Rs 599), historian Ayesha Jalal does little to dispel the notion that Manto should be lionised as a unique writer who need not be considered in the context of a literary milieu. Though she does nod at his many contemporaries, this is only to showcase Manto’s place as a combative genius among lesser figures. This tendency is particularly noticeable when she discusses his relationship with the Progressive Writers’ Association, which blacklisted him in 1948 for being a ‘reactionary’ writer. Relying mainly on Manto’s own narrative of events, she depicts a scenario in which Manto the iconoclast stands apart from the lockstep of the PWA, ignoring the fact that there were many writers who fought and made up with the organisation in those days and that Manto was one of them. It is not clear whether Jalal’s portrayal of Manto is owing to the fact that she is not familiar enough with the literary history of the time (she states repeatedly that she has not set out to write about Manto from a literary standpoint) or because she has relied too heavily on Manto’s own recounting of his life. In either case, the end result is a biography that seems curiously thin and borders on the hagiographical.

An example of the latter arises in discussions of Manto’s alcoholism. According to Jalal, Manto was merely a “heavy drinker” when he lived in Bombay, but became a true alcoholic after he moved to Pakistan, due primarily to the terrible local liquor he was forced to drink. The premise of this argument is that the quality of the liquor he drank in Pakistan was so poor that it somehow hastened his early demise. While we can only speculate on the true nature of Manto’s alcoholism and his early death, this reads a bit like a family story: if only good whisky had been available in Pakistan, Manto wouldn’t have been taken from us so soon! The rotgut he drank in Pakistan was also referenced by Manto himself, but cirrhosis of the liver doesn’t take root overnight and there is plenty of evidence in his own writings and accounts by his contemporaries to suggest that he was probably a confirmed alcoholic many years before he moved to Pakistan.

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    Daisy Rockwell is an artist and writer who divides her time between Delhi, Chicago and Vermont in her imagination, but actually lives in the middle of New Hampshire.

    Keywords: Pakistan Partition Saadat Hasan Manto biography Urdu literature progressive writers movement