As India and Pakistan celebrated 75 years of independence in August, Saadat Hassan Manto’s bold and painfully prophetic writings on the partition trauma remain ever-relevant.
Standing at Zero Line, Haji Abdul Rasheed raises his right hand to wave at his cousins from the other side of the border as the refreshing breeze blows his snow white beard. They make some barely audible greeting noises from across the stream—a de facto border for the divided Kashmiris—enquiring about his wellbeing.
After exchanging pleasantries with his relatives, Rasheed retreats to the vantage point where Indian and Pakistani troopers can be seen manning the territory from their bunkers.
“We live a life of Manto’s dog here,” says Rashid, referring to Saadut Hassan Manto’s short story, Teetwal Ka Kutta – The Dog of Teetwal.
Rasheed often comes to Seemari, the last village in north Kashmir’s Teetwal area, and stands on the cliff to wait for his cousins whose forefathers remained on the other side of the line after the bloody events of 1947.
“Silent guns are at least making these meets possible now with certain regularity,” Rasheed says with a thoughtful gaze. “For the last 75 years, our families have been praying for peace, but our pleadings hardly matter.”
The border commotion doesn’t always make it a cakewalk for the locals divided by the Line of Control (LoC) to have a distant glimpse of each other or occasional get-togethers. They have to run for their lives whenever shells start raining from both sides.
Thankfully for them, India and Pakistan arrived at a ceasefire agreement last year. The families have to take a detour to reach here, while remaining wary of landmines and multiple security hassles.
The fear of the explosives seeded into the frontline soils to neutralize infiltrators often lurks these border rendezvous.
“One wrong step and you’re either dead or maimed for life,” says Rasheed.
“And then there are these gumshoes around who keep questioning you every now and then as if we are here to exchange some state secrets,” he says.
“That boozard from Bombay with roots in Kashmir had long back predicted this dog-like life for us Kashmiris,” the teacher continues. 75 years down the line, says Rasheed, Manto’s Partition tales are only coming of age in Kashmir.
In his celebrated short story Teetwal Ka Kutta, Manto writes about a new normal for Kashmiris caught in the hostile border games. Despite being petted by one side, Manto’s dog ultimately becomes a symbol of suspicion for both the sides and is shot dead in no-man’s land. “He died a dog’s death,” quips a character in Manto’s conflict chronicle.
Rasheed first read the story during his college days and went on to draw parallels between Manto’s dog and the commoners caught in the border strife.
“Even if you stay neutral in the competing tug-of-war being played in our homeland, you’ll end up as a casualty,” the retired teacher says.
“Certain literature based on predictions reflects our perpetual pathos and Manto’s tales do that with precision.”
Over a hundred kilometers away in Srinagar, Qasim Amin enters a theme-based café to talk about his exhaustive research on Manto and his works around Kashmir and the Partition.
Amin’s combination of long curly-hairdo, thick glasses and unkempt beard makes him a nerdy academic. In his five years of literary exploration, the downtowner has met many characters like Rasheed who’re only living Manto’s Partition plot.
“Powerful fiction can never be disconnected from reality,” says Amin, adding sugar to his cappuccino. “Manto’s stories amaze us because they examine political events, their explanations and their courses of action.”
Over the cup of coffee, Amin talks about Manto’s Akhri Salute—The Last Salute—written about his homeland’s Partition tragedy.
Written in the fall of 1951, the story came as a commemoration of the first war on Kashmir which erupted in October 1947.
The story is about two friends, Ram Singh and Rab Nawaz, guarding two opposite border posts. The childhood friends are glad to hear from each other. But the moment Singh exposes himself to Nawaz, he gets hit in a flash in a misfire as his childhood friend pulls the trigger in excitement..
“Do you really need Kashmir?” the dying Singh asks his friend. “Yes,” replies Nawaz.
Before the mishap, the two buddies recall their good old times and laugh their hearts out.
“The story tells us that old friendships exist despite hostility,” says Amin. “Manto, however, recognises the Kashmir conflict and its complexities. He makes no bones about it in his letter to fellow Kashmiri, Jawaharlal Nehru.”
Written a year after Nehru sent Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to prison in Kashmir Conspiracy Case, the letter details Manto’s wish to serve in his homeland.
In the Old City’s Khanqah-e-Maula area, Syed Hameed is an unassuming archivist with historical collections ranging from Dogra rule to the tumultuous post-1947 timeline of the valley. He dusts his records to retrieve the letter that Manto wrote to Nehru on 27 August 1954.
“You’re the Prime Minister of India and I’m the famed story writer of Pakistan,” writes Manto. “A deep gulf separates us, but what is common between us is that we are both Kashmiris. You’re a Nehru, I’m a Manto. To be a Kashmiri is to be handsome…”
Manto goes on: “Being Kashmiris, we’re bound together. But now I wonder where the need is! One Kashmiri does run into another. You settled on the bank of a nahr [stream] and came to be known as Nehru. I don’t know how I became Manto. You may have visited Kashmir a million times. I could just go up to Banihal. My Kashmiri friends who know the Kashmiri language tell me that Manto means manut, i.e., a measuring stone weighing one and a half ser. If I’m just one and a half ser, then there is no comparison between us. You’re the whole stream while I’m just one and a half ser. But we both are the kind of guns that, as the well-known proverb about the Kashmiris goes, take a shot in the dark. Please don’t get me wrong. When I heard this proverb, I felt terrible. But I mention it lightheartedly because it sounds interesting. Otherwise, we both know that we Kashmiris have never accepted defeat…”
At this point, Hameed takes a pause and ponders over Manto’s wit to strike old familiarity in the new political reality. A househelp, meanwhile, walks in with tea and snacks. The letter in a book form rests on a shelf for some time. The discussion starts around the recent shrine reforms in Kashmir before Manto returns to the center-stage on the eve of the 75th independence day celebrations in India and Pakistan.
Hameed resumes reading the letter.
“In politics,” says Manto, “I can mention your name with pride because you very well know the art of contradicting yourself. To this very day, who could beat us Kashmiris in wrestling? Who could outshine us in poetry? But I was surprised to learn that you want to stop rivers from flowing through our land. Panditji, you’re a Nehru. I regret that I’m just a measuring stone of one and a half ser. If I were a rock, I would have thrown myself into the river….”
Hameed takes another measured pause. “Please, have your tea. Manto isn’t going anywhere,” Hameed tells me before he resumes reading out the letter.
“Whenever my late father—who was, obviously, a Kashmiri—ran into a hato, he would bring him home and treat him to some Kashmiri salty tea and kulchas. Then he would tell the hato proudly, ‘I’m also a Koshur’. Panditji, you’re a Koshur too. By God, if you want my life, I’m all yours. I know and believe that you’ve clung to Kashmir because, being a Kashmiri, you feel a sort of magnetic love for that land. Every Kashmiri, even if he has not seen Kashmir, should feel that way…”
Inside the café, Amin finally sets the tone for Manto’s Partition tales.
As a writer, the researcher avers, Manto questions the endless and dizzying events of 1947. “Could it be, as he notes, that all this was done to confuse people?” says Amin, as if to question history itself.
“In The Last Salute, Manto makes us believe that everything happened after the strategic negotiations. The protagonist knew that they were fighting for Kashmir and annexing it was significant for Pakistan but when he spotted some familiar faces, his confusion returned and he forgot the purpose of the battle.This is exactly what transpired in India and Pakistan on the heels of Partition. Manto saw it coming because he had a literary prowess to investigate real world problems,” explains Amin.
Inside his office cabin, Farooq Zargar sheds light on Manto’s Kashmiri ethnicity, creating a sense of belonging in him, for writing about the valley’s tragic past.
The history lecturer from Srinagar traces Manto’s birth to Paproudi village of Samrala in Punjab’s Ludhiana district on 11 May 1912. Born in a Muslim family of barristers, his father Molvi Ghulam Hasan was a typical turbaned Koshur of yore.
From early on in his life, Manto was a nonconformist. Unlike his siblings, he had his own take on religion and the ethical conduct of life.
Manto’s forefather Rahmatullah had migrated from Kashmir, settled in Lahore before shifting to Amritsar to expand his trade.
“It’s generally believed that Manto’s ancestors migrated from the valley during the 1833 famine,” Zargar says, looking over his trendy glasses. “Plenty of Kashmiris moved to Punjab in search of livelihood then.”
However, some historians believe that Manto’s ancestors were Shawl traders from Dooru Shahbaad in South Kashmir who migrated to escape heavy taxes imposed on weavers by the Dogra regime.
In exile, many of these migrated Kashmiris would establish shawl-weaving units in Punjab in the early 19th century. “And since Amritsar was a thriving trade centre because of the Darbar Sahib shrine,” Zargar believes, “this might have attracted Manto’s forefathers to shift from Lahore to Amritsar.”
What’s also interesting is Manto’s family ties with Saif-ud-Din Kitchloo, a famous political leader of Kashmiri origin framed in the notorious Amritsar conspiracy case.
Manto faced hardships due to his father’s meager salary. He failed in his Class 10 twice and finally got through with a third division. And of all the subjects, he failed in Urdu, a language that was to make him a literary stalwart.
In the lawns of Kashmir University, scholar Adfar Khan explains Manto’s childhood as deeply troubled and tense. “His father wanted him to study abroad and be barrister like his brothers,” she says.“But he would instead play a drama of Agha Hashr Kashmiri with his friends.”
Despite drawing his conservative father’s ire for his aptitude for art and drama, Manto kept following playwright Aga Hashr Kashmiri.
Hashr’s 1931 play Yahudi Ki Ladki became a script of the1958 movie, Yahudi, featuring Dilip Kumar, Sohrab Modi and Meena Kumari.
“While doing his play, Rustum-o- Suhrab in Lahore, Hashr one day read Sarguzasht-e-Aseer (a prisoner’s story),”says Khan.“The book was an Urdu translation of The Last Days of Condemned by renowned French poet and playwright, Victor Hugo. Hashr patted Manto on the back for the flawless translation.”
Before bumping into Hashr who boosted his literary morale, Manto had met his mentor, Abdul Bari Alig, editor of Masawaat. It was Bari who put him to translating literary works of Russian writers and polished his art of short story writing.
During this period, a wrong Tuberculosis diagnosis meant he had to be sent to Batote for some clean air. It was May 1936 and he eventually visited Kud and Kishtawar but never Kashmir.
In his letter to Nehru that Hameed reads in his heritage Shehr-e-Khaas home, Manto mentions that he did not cross Banihal.
“I have been to Banihal only. I have seen places like Kud, Batote and Kishtwar. I have seen their poverty alongside their beauty. If you have removed that poverty, then Kashmir is all yours. But I’m sure you cannot do that, despite being a Kashmiri, because you have no time.”
At this point, Hameed stops to assert how Manto greatly yearned to visit his roots in the valley.
“Call me back to India,” he tells Nehru in his letter. “First I’ll help myself to shaljam shabdeg at your place and then take the responsibility for Kashmir affairs. The Bakhshis and the rest of them deserve to be sacked right away. Cheats of the first order! For no reason, you’ve given them such high status. Is that because this suits you? But why at all! I know you are a politician, which I am not. But that does not mean I don’t understand anything.”
Much of Manto’s native pride comes from his conscious Kashmiri identity, scholar Khan says. “Being beautiful, he noted in his writings, was the second meaning of being Kashmiri.”
The writer chose the same Koshur identity when marrying in a Kashmiri family settled in Africa. His spouse, Safia, was the daughter of a police inspector whose family eventually settled in Lahore.
“When he made a move from Amritsar to Bombay at the fag-end of 1936,” Khan says, “it was mostly driven by his obsession for cinema which even obscured his journalistic passion.”
But in the razzle dazzle of Bombay, Manto drifted in a new direction. He drank and danced with his Bollywood and progressive writer friends. Most of these contacts, however, left him embittered when partition riots began in Bombay.
“The Hindus who murdered one hundred thousand Muslims may rejoice at the death of Islam when actually Islam has not been affected in the least bit,” Manto writes in A Tale of 1947. “Those who think religion can be hunted down with guns are stupid. Religion, faith, belief, devotion are matters of the spirit, not of the body. Knives, daggers, and bullets cannot destroy religion.”
He eventually left his beloved Bombay in January 1948 as one of the greatest Urdu short story writers of the 20th century to become an outcast upon his arrival in Pakistan.
Greatly distressed by the socio-political state of affairs, he wielded his pen akin to that of D.H. Lawrence: touching the taboo topics, the underbelly of the society.
With stories like Thanda Ghost and Khol Do, he was accused of spreading obscenity. But Manto being Manto kept questioning the jingoistic jingles in the new country, thus raking up controversies.
As cases piled up against him, his progressive writer friends dismissed him as “anti-progressive” and distanced themselves from him. Among them was his dear friend Ismat Chugtai as well.
In Lahore’s iconic Pak Tea House, he would still share table with the literary icons like Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ahmad Rahi.
“Despite denounced as a drunkard and gambler,” Zargar says,“he was being widely admired as a chronicler of commoners torn asunder by the Radcliffe line. He carried people’s anger as a social critic and a walking witness to history.”
“Whether he was writing about prostitutes, pimps or prisoners, Manto wanted to impress upon his readers that these disreputable people were also human, much more so than those who cloaked their failings in a thick veil of hypocrisy,” writes Ayesha Jalal in The Pity of Partition — Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide. “Manto was fiercely individualistic and self-confident. If these traits can be credited to the indulgence of a doting mother and sister, the steely discipline of an authoritarian father served as a catalyst for his rebellious nature.”
However, the censorship Manto faced during his lifetime exists even today, so do the characters like Bishan Singh of his famed short story, Toba Tek Singh.
In north Kashmir’s Uri town, for instance, Mohammad Ashraf Lone, 92, saw Toba Tek Singh unfolding after tribal raiders and the Indian army locked horns on the competing war-turf of Kashmir in 1947. “Amid political circus played around Partition, many people were acting as lunatics of Toba Tek Singh who were one day told to vacate and move across the line. After failing to grasp a place on either side of the dividing line, they behaved like Singh who was unable to figure out how the village Toba Tek Singh could be included in Pakistan or India.”
In that Partition story, Manto writes about no-man’s land as the place to die at, because no country owns it. “Even these areas are now being sealed with electric fences on these frontiers here,” Ashraf says.
Inside his Khanqah-e-Moula residence, Hameed clears his throat as he reaches the last part of Manto’s letter to Nehru: “You are a litterateur in English. Over here, I write short stories in Urdu, a language that is being wiped out in your country. Panditji, I often read your statements, which suggests you love Urdu. I heard one of your speeches on radio at the time the country was divided. Everyone admired your English. But when you broke into Urdu, it seemed as though some rabid Hindu Mahasabha member had translated your English speech, which was obviously not to your liking. You were fumbling at every sentence. I cannot imagine how you agreed to read it aloud. It was the time when Radcliffe had turned India into two slices of a single loaf of bread. You’re toasting it from that side, and we, from this side. But the flames in our braziers are being ignited from outside…”
While helping himself to another cappuccino, Amin carries on with Manto’s intense post-partition writings surrounding Kashmir.
Manto wrote an emotional tribute to the legendary Kashmiri poet, Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor, in Urdu magazine Nusrat. The piece was written in 1952, the year Mehjoor passed away.
“I’m ashamed of the fact that my ancestors migrated from Kashmir,” Manto writes.“To suffer the torments and oppression is a virtue while migration is an escape. Mehjoor sustained all the oppression. He suffered the biggest oppression, the mental torture but he didn’t waver and remain steadfast. The idea of migration didn’t cross his mind. He stayed where he was.”
Manto writes how Indian and Pakistani leaders like Nehru and Khwaja Nazimudin could end the dispute using their common Kashmir lineage. “You could not expel Gogej and Bat’te (turnip and rice) from your cuisine, then why do you fight?”
Manto’s art of invoking culinary components reflects amply in his letter to Nehru. “Punditji,”Hameed reads the concluding part of the letter, “this is the season for babbogoshas. I’ve eaten lots of goshas, but I long to eat babbogoshas. What injustice that you’ve given Bakshi all the rights over them!
You may smell the scent of burnt meat in this letter of mine. You see there was a poet in our Kashmir, Ghani by name, who was known as Ghani Kashmiri. A poet from Iran came to visit him. The doors of his house were open. He used to say, ‘What’s there in my house that I should keep the doors locked’? Well, I keep the doors closed when I’m inside the house because I am its only asset.’ The poet from Iran left his poetry notebook in the vacant house. One couplet in that notebook was incomplete. He had composed the second line but could not do the first one. The second verse ran thus: the smell of kebab is wafting from your clothes. When the Iranian poet returned, he saw the first verse written in his notebook – has the hand of a blighted soul touched your robe? Panditji, I am also a blighted soul. I’ve taken issue with you because I am dedicating this book to you.”
Barely a year after this letter, Manto died of liver cirrhosis as a result of overdrinking. He was barely 43 at the time of his death.
“In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful, here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried also the secrets of the art of storytelling,” reads Manto’s self-scripted epitaph. “Weighed down by the earth, he wonders still: who is the greater writer, God or he?”
At Teetwal, Rasheed walks back from his emotional frontier meeting. The retired teacher fervently talks about Manto’s stories that treat Partition as a continuous process.
“75 years later as both India and Pakistan celebrate the partition as their independence day, Manto’s stories remind us that humanity has been violated,” says Rasheed as he passes through a security checkpoint.