By Linda Waldron
In Lahore in early December, I met Toni Usman, a Norwegian actor
of Pakistani descent working in Pakistan for a month to produce
a special edition of the left-wing newspaper Mazdoor Jeddojuhd (Workers’
Struggle). This January 13 edition was to commemorate the 50th anniversary
of the death of the most gifted, popular and notorious short-story
writer in Urdu, Saadat Hassan Manto (1912-1955).
Manto wrote about anti-imperialism, religious oppression and
social misery. The horrific madness caused by India’s partition
and the creation of Pakistan inspired many celebrated works such
as Toba Tek Singh, Naiya Qanun (New Law) and Babu Gopinath. A
fine example of Manto’s ironic wit is in his description
of a communal riot in The Garland:
“The mob suddenly veered to the left, its wrath now directed
at the statue of Sir Ganga Ram, the great philanthropist of Lahore.
One man smeared the statue’s face with coal tar. Another
strung together a garland of shoes and was about to place it around
the great man’s neck when the police moved in, guns blazing.
The man with the garland of shoes was shot, and taken to the nearby
Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.”
Manto’s protagonists are prostitutes, mentally insane inmates,
criminals, poor people and beggars. His works evoke a great love
for humanity and a sharp analysis of contemporary crises. According
to Usman, Manto’s characters “belong to a working-class
world. His prostitute can be pious. His pimp can be honest. His
street tough has a kind heart. His factory workers are revolutionaries.
But at the same time, he is a realist. He can show the worst crimes
and can immortalise the bloody partition of India in his writings.”
Manto’s personal life was one of sadness and struggle.
He never recovered from the death of his first child, he had a
tempestuous home life and he died at 42 from alcoholism. His fractious
relationship with his wife largely stemmed from his sensitivity
to women’s oppression. His wife objected to him meeting
“whores” from the red-light district to write of their
exploitation. During one such argument, Manto shouted back at
her: “Don’t call them ‘whores’, it is
the situation that has turned them to what they are doing.”
Many women from Lahore’s red-light district came to Manto’s
In 1998, Usman’s theatre group in Oslo, Kultur Kompaniet,
adapted Toba Tek Singh for theatre. According to the Norwegian
daily Klassekampen (Class Struggle), “To broaden our cultural
horizon, Norway needs such plays.”
Toba Tek Singh is about a Sikh, Bashan Singh, who lives in the
Lahore Mental Asylum until partition, when the authorities decide
he must be moved to India. Unsure how partition will affect his
home town of Toba Tek Singh, Bashan asks the other inmates whether
the town is in India or Pakistan. No-one can help him because
the inmates do not understand the concept of Pakistan. At the
frontier, Bashan learns from a Pakistani official that Toba Tek
Singh is in Pakistan. He cries, “Toba Tek Singh is here!”
and collapses on the border, “on a piece of land that had
According to Usman, Manto’s appeal is his internationalism.
“Toba Tek Singh is about India-Pakistan partition. But it
is true for Yugoslavia. It is true for Eritrea and Ethiopia. I
mean wherever you go, you find such traumas.”
The special 100-page edition of Mazdoor Jeddojuhd reprints his
famous five banned stories. The edition includes new interviews
with two of his sisters-in-law and first-time interviews with
all three of his daughters. There is also a debate about Manto’s
left credentials, discussing his radio play Karl Marx. His most
famous short story Toba Tek Singh is given central prominence.
The editorial team was unable to win funding from any Pakistani
organisation, so the paper was funded by Usman, along with donations
from supporters of Mazdoor Jeddojuhd in Canada and Norway.
No state function marked the anniversary of Manto’s death.
No officials laid wreaths on his grave at Lahore’s Miani
Saab cemetery. Yet Manto himself would probably have preferred
his works to be discussed in a workers’ paper rather than
from an official platform. Usman believes that Manto “wanted
to belong to the working classes and not the state — even
after his death — let alone a religious state like present-day
Manto’s eldest daughter, Nighat Patel, told Usman that
“Manto used to say his spirit will not find peace if his
grave becomes [a] tomb”.
The official apathy is no surprise for a writer whose life was
a constant battle with the British and Pakistani ruling classes.
Due to his subject matter and disreputable characters, his works
were banned under “obscenity” laws, both before and
after partition. Today his works are still banned on Pakistani
radio and TV.
Manto offended the establishment, not by giving voice to prostitutes
and beggars, but by writing of anti-imperialist struggles, by
refusing to endorse partition, and for demanding a secular and
humanist society. He exposed the exploitation of the Pakistani
people by a new ruling class and he polemicised against Western
Manto wrote in his First Letter to Uncle Sam (1951): “That
section of my country’s population, which rides in Packards
and Buicks, is not really my country. Where poor people like me
and even poorer people live, that is my country.”
His witty and roguish Letters to Uncle Sam are a prescient analysis
of the role of US imperialism in the Muslim world. Two decades
before the US armed the “mullahs” of Afghanistan,
Manto wrote some advice for the US government in his 1954 Fourth
Letter to Uncle Sam that perhaps it took too seriously:
“Regardless of India and the fuss it is making, you must
sign a military pact with Pakistan because you are seriously concerned
about the stability of the world’s largest Islamic state,
since our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism. Once
military aid starts flowing, the first people you should arm are
these mullahs. They will also need American-made rosaries and
prayer-mats, not to forget the small stones that they use to soak
up the after-drops following a call of nature.”
Manto’s works are politically relevant and insightful today.
And as Usman points out, “Manto is a living history, a cultural
reference for the Indian sub-continent. What Chekhov is to Russian
literature or what Maupassant is to French literature, Manto is
to Pakistani/Indian literature.”