It is a pungent truth that the tremendous burden of the Partition was borne entirely by the unnamed men, women and children of the subcontinent. As they boarded overcrowded trains, watched relatives being slaughtered, fled from burning homes, and struggled to rebuild their lives with nothing but loss, they were pushed into oblivion by History. Fortunately, a handful of artists have documented the more mundane and animalistic side of human grief. Saadat Hasan Manto, who wondered in a self-written epitaph that who amongst God and himself was the better short-story writer, is a sparkling mind renowned for his audacious portrayal of trauma, displacement, sexuality and sorrow.
While Manto is our most precious looking-glass into the widespread torment set free by the Partition, to generalise his works as revolving around a single element is a reductionist approach to his art. What must be celebrated is his powerful eye for human nature in its most unpolished manifestations. Plunging into the twisted corridors of the human psyche which till date remains the most ostracized victim of decolonization, Manto explores complex relationships, pathos, liberation, domination, murder, the struggle for survival and a romantic search for residual goodness.
In 1934, Manto moved to Mumbai where he wrote scripts for Hindi cinema. And set in the bustling, gossip-loving milieu of film sets is My Name is Radha. The story follows three individuals: a famous actor called Raj Kishore known for his moral righteousness, Radha who is playing the vamp in his film and an observant narrator. Although Raj Kishore is adulated for his chivalry, Radha sees through his conceited frontier and recognizes a vain, controlling sadist. Through a journey riddled with sexual tension and redemption, Manto makes profound observations on voyeurism in filmmaking, the vilification of women and the all-encompassing subjugation threatening gendered minorities.
When Radha stops Raj Kishore from addressing her as Sister, everyone feels entitled to abuse her for this supposed display of arrogance and audacity. Even the owner of the tea stall calls her filthy names while admiring Raj Kishore’s gallantry. Finally, after they indulge in a violent sexual encounter, Radha is disgusted and seeks solace in the narrator. While consoling her, he mistakenly calls her Neelam (the screen-name she uses as she feels that Radha is too pure for the talkies). She interrupts him saying, “My name is Radha.” Her parting words tell us that she will always be a misfit. Simultaneously, it reinstates her virtue, bright intellect and inner strength.
My Name is Radha bears striking resemblance to Alankrita Shrivastava’s Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare. Both are stories of women who don’t confer to standards. In the film, Kitty works as a companion on a romance app and Dolly routinely fudges office accounts to pay off loans.
However, underlying Radha, Dolly and Kitty’s questionable decisions are resolute individuals fighting for survival. They assume multiple identities, are prone to imperfections and errors but remain true to themselves. When Dolly chides Kitty for the nature of her job, the latter says that she is proud of making an honest living. It resonates deeply with one of Manto’s most famous sayings, “To those men who say that women from good families must come into the world of cinema, I have this question: What is it that you mean by “good?” A woman, who honestly puts her wares on display, and sells them without an intention to cheat, is such a woman not virtuous?”
Manto’s women are complicated people who delicately toe the line of imposed morality. But his strength lies in upholding their innate goodness and honest intentions. They are self-assured, well-meaning and flawed. Consider A Woman’s Life, a poignant tale of asserting of one’s identity. Saugandhi, a kind-hearted prostitute, is slighted by a rich merchant who mocks her appearance. Humiliated, she questions her worth. Reflecting upon her life, she realises that even her lover is a selfish, avaricious man. When he arrives asking for money, Saugandhi smashes his photograph and throws him out. Here, Manto doesn’t wish to discuss the poverty-stricken condition of marginalised women. Saugandhi’s story is about achieving dignity in despair.
A similar spirit is seen in Mozel, about a brazen Jewish girl and her relationship with Tarlochan Singh, a devout Sikh. Despite her digs at his religion and multiple affairs, Tarlochan indulges Mozel and even shaves his hair and beard to please her. But after Mozel leaves, he falls in love with Kirpal. When rioters’ attack her neighbourhood, it is Mozel who convinces Tarlochan to overcome his fear and they set out to rescue her. Sadly, she is killed while attempting to save Kirpal. When Tarlochan rushes to cover her naked body with his turban, Mozel refuses. She is defiant even in death, rejecting both sympathy and the so-called sense of shame. These stories highlight the existentialist efforts at self-assertion by women across class, caste and religion.
Frequently, Manto takes us into the dingy world of riots, mobs and refugee camps. The Assignment is a haunting account of the transactional nature of death. Sughra, a young girl is trapped in her house with her brother and bed-ridden father, Mian Abdul Hai. As the riots gain momentum, her neighbours relocate to Muslim-majority localities. One evening, a Sikh man whose father was greatly indebted to Mian Abdul Hai for saving him from legal trouble, visits them with sweets. As he returns, turbaned men carrying explosives corner him in the streets. They ask if he has fulfilled his assignment and if they were free to proceed with theirs. The man replies, “If you like” and walks away. Sweets, a symbol of warmth and hope, becomes a cold harbinger of doom.
A gruesome picture of brutality is found in The Return. Sirajuddin wakes up in a migrant camp, unable to find his daughter Sakina. He desperately searches for her, pleading to the officials and running from one site to another. Days later, she is brought to the camp infirmary on a stretcher. Cruelly assaulted, her only reaction is to loosen the strings of her salwar and pull down the garment. Sirajuddin is overjoyed at the sight of his daughter but the vicious violation she has endured makes the reader squirm. Such narratives strongly compete with the more diluted, mathematical version of the Partition recorded in official archives. Unnerving and nauseating, they create a space for public mourning.
Above all, Manto is our guide through a labyrinthine society. He unearths realities of existence, identity, sexuality and suffering. Such themes counter the purist notion that postulates how he is solely interested in Partition and prostitutes. Breaking through such cursory reading of his texts, we understand that Manto is concerned with people; complex, careless, cruel, compassionate and capricious as they are. He is a storyteller and commentator in equal measure and boiling down his corpus to its overtly visible themes is akin to reading with blinkers.