Manto’s Pakistan

Published: May 22, 2012
The writer is assistant professor of history at Forman Christian College and an editor at Oxford University Press

The writer is assistant professor of history at Forman Christian College and an editor at Oxford University Press

Pakistan is a very special country indeed. We disown our greatest minds because they do not conform to our views and we honour those who have committed crimes. Saadat Hassan Manto, of course, falls in the former camp. Undoubtedly, Manto was one of the best short story writers of Pakistan. However, rather than cherishing this great writer who left a good deal of fame and fortune in Bombay to move to Lahore in early 1948, Pakistan proved to be a-less-than-the-free-homeland which Manto had envisioned. Once, when he tried to get a train ticket and even offered a bribe, he was sternly told that  “This is Pakistan” and that such things no longer happen in this country. The sense of change was strong in the early years of Pakistan. Nevertheless, the result of this ‘freedom’ was that Manto was prosecuted for obscenity three times in independent Pakistan and the publishers and newspapers which published his stories and columns came under strong pressure from conservatives to refrain from giving him a platform. As a result, even now, only a small percentage of people know and read Manto. Manto is neither taught at the school or university level nor is there discussion or assessment of the great writer and his work in civil society at large.

Recently, the 100th birth anniversary of Manto was marked by several events. An edited work of Manto’s plays and essays was launched by Professor Ayesha Jalal and Nusrat Jalal, and Ajoka Theatre put together a four-day festival of readings and dramatised versions of Manto’s stories. While all of these are commendable efforts, I wonder if even the people who thronged to hear and see Manto’s work really internalise the issues he has highlighted. Obviously, if we had understood Manto’s work and learnt from it, Pakistan and, more importantly, its people, would not have been in these dire straits.

On one of the days during the Manto festival, the play Naya Qanoon was dramatised. Succinctly, the play is about a tonga driver, Mangoo, who is very excited about the Naya Qanoon which is about to come and change everything. Mangoo overhears the conversations of his customers and then relates them to his friends that this Naya Qanoon is going to give real freedom to the people and transform the state and society. Watching this play in 2012, it seemed as if it was about our current condition since almost everyone is hoping and eagerly waiting for ‘change.’ However, the Naya Qanoon of Mangoo was not the tsunami of Imran Khan or any such promises but the Government of India Act 1935! I wonder what the audience would have thought if the organisers had not announced in advance that the play was about the 1935 Act. In any case, the heightened expectations with the 1935 Act, which gave provincial autonomy and a measure of self-government to Indians, is the same that we expect from almost all of our politicians, who repeatedly claim that their rule will usher in a new era and change everything. More than half a century later, the disappointment of today’s Mangoo’s will soon be evident on the morning after.

Manto’s India and then, Manto’s Pakistan were peculiar countries where everything was topsy-turvy, everything made the opposite sense and satire was the naked truth. Today’s Pakistan is also very much the same. Pakistan where criminals are given a hero’s welcome and laudable writers are forgotten. In the same week where Manto’s centenary only received city pages worth of coverage, the return of a person who is under trial for committing a grave criminal offence gets prime time coverage and official protocol. Seeing this, I am only reminded of Manto’s immortal words at the beginning of Toba Tek Singh “Two or three years after Partition, it occurred to the governments of Pakistan and Hindustan that like criminal offenders, lunatics, too, ought to be exchanged…”

Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2012.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • Azizullah Khan
    May 22, 2012 - 1:14AM

    As usual, well written and streamlined article full of information, satire and, guideline for those of us who matter. Creator of this article is emerging like a rocket in the intellectual world of Pakistan.

    Today’s Pakistan is no different from Manto’s; we have amidst us descendents of conservatives of Manto’s era who lose no opportunity to terrorize intellectuals and dictate extremist ideas to them.


  • Cynical
    May 22, 2012 - 3:23AM

    Reading Manto today one might feel he lived (at a mental level) in a different world though in reality he was as grounded as the people he wrote about.
    He was way ahead of his time, much ahead of the people who presided over the destiny of the nation from either side of the divide.
    Do we ever learn? Shall we ever?


  • Uza Syed
    May 22, 2012 - 5:27AM

    Manto, Manto, Manto ————all over the place——every one is suddenly missing him——how true—–“Pakistan is a very special country indeed.” —– and us the Pakistanis truly very strange people——–I wonder what has suddenly cured our collective amnesia and jolted our memory? Why this sudden love and admiration and all this ‘Mantonamas’—-what provoked this all–I wonder.Recommend

  • ajit harshe
    May 22, 2012 - 8:40AM

    manto is cherished in india more than in pakistan. he is considered greatest urdu language storyteller of india along with premchand.


  • sidjeen
    May 22, 2012 - 10:32AM

    @Uza Syed you should read Manto and you will realize why?


  • SM
    May 22, 2012 - 11:39AM

    Manto is one of the intellectuals who heralded the situation a century before


  • mateensaeed
    May 22, 2012 - 12:08PM

    Excellent observation, It seems we are all Mangoos collectively.


  • wonderer
    May 22, 2012 - 12:59PM

    @Uza Syed:

    Did you not know that the occasion was the Birth Centenary of Manto?


  • Uza Syed
    May 22, 2012 - 1:57PM

    My point is we must remember and eulogize a great man, a great philosopher, a great writer, a great critique, a great humanist like our this great Sadat Hasan Manto much more often. If he is truly as great as we all say he is (which he is without any questions!) than let’s read him, explain and understand him and do a serious, very serious, introspection of our collective psyche.

    @wonderer: Which means what —– that we would wait for his Bicentennial to talk next time about the ‘wonder’ that Sadat Hasan Manto is? Is that what you are saying?

    @sidjeen: O’ I did and understood and appreciate his stand on our collective hypocracy and abhor it even more. The died, very unhappy, disgraced way back when and whatever he had to say, said before he went which was some 57 years ago. I’m just wondering where have we all been all these years—–You know what I mean.


  • qomi
    May 22, 2012 - 3:48PM

    we are never going to accept our failure…… that’s the only thing. it is good to mention manto’s ideas and thoughts among us but what lesson we are getting from it and are we really going to make the things right?????


  • Ali Tanoli
    May 22, 2012 - 5:09PM

    I love Munto, Prem chand, Patras Bukhari, Mustanser Hussain Tarar, etc,


  • V K Bajaj (New Delhi)
    May 22, 2012 - 10:18PM

    Some more facts about Saadat Hasan Manto:

    He was born on 11th May 1912 at Samrala in Ludhiana Distt. (Samrala is situated on Ludhiana – Chandigarh Highway and is about 35 km from Ludhiana). His father was sub-judge and originally family was Kashmiri.

    Mantoo could never pass URDU exam though he wrote many stories in Urdu and Hindi. His remarkable works are KAALI SALWAR, BOO (bad smell), Dhuan, Dhanda Gosht etc. etc. During his life time he remained over occupied with court cases for his various writings. He was frequent traveler from Bombay to Delhi – Lahore – Karachi and became very conversant with the court procedures. The last court fine of Rs. 25/- was at Lahore Court. In one case even the book sellers were fined. Thus he was Indian as well as Pakistani. True he migrated to Pak in 1948 with the hope to get some recognition but failed and died in 1955.

    NOW society has accepted his all writings. It is happening through the ages that a true man ultimately gets recognition living or dead. A poet has written correctly ” murde noo puje eh duniya jinde dee keemat kuchh bhi nahi ( a man is worshiped on death when he hold no value while living), jee karda e mein hus ke iss duniya noo thokar maar diya ( I wish to die happily to get rid of this world).



  • malik
    May 23, 2012 - 10:06PM

    Every now and then, we get nostalgic and we talk about Jinnah’s Pakistan, and Iqbal’s Pakistan and we have failed to live upto their ideals. And now someone has discovered Manto. It looks like we have failed Manto too.

    Anyone else still available?


  • Cynical
    May 24, 2012 - 2:53AM

    Offcourse we failed Manto. And evrytime we failed him we actually failed ourselves.

    I do not want to digress from the main thurst of this article.But just to put things in perspective I would say that Sadaat Hasan Manto belonged to a very different creed of human being from both Jinnah and Iqbal. I mean no disrespect to either Jinnah or Iqbal.It’s just that they had a different worldview from the one Manto held.He never tried to define an ideal world much less to suggest the right path to enlightenment.Essentially he tried to paint a human being as he is with all his highs and lows and in doing so tried to help us not loosing our sanity.

    Lastly, I also wonder like you did, ‘anyone still available?’


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