Saadat Hasan Manto: Heretic, Lunatic, Genius


Nostalgia is turmoil. With indefatigable resilience and sensational poise it kneads out memories into pavilions shrouded by a thick seamless cocoon of emotions. Such was the scenario whilst I was having a quick chat with my grandfather. Having authored a few books had converted his persona from a heckling lawyer to a gentle Urdu literate. Our conversations usually took about a minute’s time to reach abrupt conclusions. It was perhaps an idiosyncratic discourse that stretched the limit or it could have been Sarmad Khoosat’s new film that was crafted well for a slot in popular culture. It was hard to tell. It was the year 2015.

‘Manto was a fragile man with a delicate soul. Some would now call him a revolutionary but he was anything but.’

Manto’s Struggle

This is how the old man started off his conversation. It was a fairly gripping start to a tale that ended in a tragedy. To the many and including myself, Manto was a force not to be reckoned with; someone whose pen was a well-sheathed blade ready to scythe through society’s woven webs of normalcy. It was perhaps true to the valor in writing such profanity but rarely has one found an anecdotal account of Manto yielding a sword to put an end to tyranny. His method was an open call for freedom of thought and that was in itself a revolution. The old man recounted the time when an ailing Manto came to his office to discuss a lawsuit that was troubling him. He had little to offer in return for the old man’s services as his solicitor but claimed to sign a book if things go smoothly. My grandfather accepted the case, won and decided to keep that signed copy somewhere nobody would be able to find it including himself.

Manto Film Poster
Manto Film Poster

‘This film, I would like to go see it.’ His zeal and adamancy to watch Sarmad Khoosat’s rendition was remarkable. We took him to the nearby theater where he sat through the entire length of the movie without a hint of discomfort. As soon as the credits rolled, he was quick to respond to my frivolous query about the film’s authenticity:

‘I wasn’t tied to him. But this is as close to it as it can get. He wasn’t much of a talker, kept to himself. His somnambular personality was infectious. A malang lived inside his head who had much to say but very little to do. Doused in alcohol and soaked in worldly affairs, it felt like he was in a state of trance where at one moment he would be curled up in a chair and in the other hungrily inking through any piece of paper he could find.’

A Notorious Legend

Manto’s legacy has a definitive imprint on local pop-culture. He is regarded as one of the finest writers to have been produced by Pakistan. It is ironic to see a nation owning a hero as soon as he developed a cult following of pseudo-free thinkers inadvertently tying his works to patriotism where the man himself had anti-separatist sentiments throughout. This peculiarity has been widely transformed into complacency toward glorifying a true artist posthumously. Manto’s story is not one of rags to riches. In fact, according to Khoosat’s biopic (which was heavily derived from literature produced by Manto’s daughters) the legend had little to thrive on. His income was poor and sporadic. His celebrity status was acknowledged but was never given the credit that he deserved. His scripts for the television industry were considered illustrious but were never well compensated financially.

Meanwhile the music industry was worshiping Madam Nur Jehan as the undisputed champion of the Pakistani showbiz. Manto kept his recluse from the glitz and glamour but called for appreciation like any other artist of his generation. He was however ridiculed for his vulgar takes on simple aspects of life and was vilified for his blatant alcoholism. His constant disregard for the mullahs of the community and the glorification of brothels and prostitutes stung the simple minded inclined toward religiosity. Such was the tale of a heretic.

Melancholic Ending

His lunacy was called out soon. Friends turned into foes, society methodically started practicing see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. This evil, self-proclaimed and demanding in terms of banishing those who were found committing to it. The putrid smell of hypocrisy enraged Manto who was used to saying it out loud. His soul was crushed again and again to the point where he could not take it anymore and was enlisted in Lahore’s mental asylum.

The rehabilitation techniques practiced there were archaic and were an ineffective treatment. His return had turned him into a vegetable more or less recovering from which was painful. His proclivity to the bottle was injuriously battering out life from his debilitating body till it finally gave in.

Decades after his death the Urdu language would find itself in hot waters. The national language would be informally changed to English as you had a better chance of financial progress by anglicizing oneself. Urdu now serves a perfunctory purpose. Manto’s works would be reduced to an ensemble of publishers with little readership. The government would introduce lesser vulgar stories for students enrolled in matriculation and intermediate. The pool created by Cambridge University would have a dearth of students having much knowledge about the author.

This changed when Khoosat’s film/teleplay depicted a troubled genius at work. The unmindful millennials happily accepted the mad literate as a relatable icon and Manto was back in popular culture. A recent breakthrough with Nawazuddin Siddique portraying the author was released where, as opposed to Khoosat’s rendition of a shy melancholic Manto, he is seen as a confident lecturer defending his claim of free-thought and with that unpoliced action. His rhetorical dialogue remains ever-inspiring:

‘How can I undress a society which is already naked?’

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