Margaret Bourke-White/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Sikhs migrating to Indian Punjab after the partition of India and Pakistan, 1947


Out of the twentieth century’s great calamities have come some of our most memorable satires: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk from World War I and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from World War II. Their equivalent in the Indian subcontinent is a short story titled “Toba Tek Singh” by the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. At first sight the comparison looks absurd; Hašek and Heller created entire worlds in long and densely peopled novels (Hašek conceived Švejk in six volumes, though he completed only three). Manto’s story stretches to only nine pages. But his intention was the same—to expose the effects of a great calamity on those trapped inside it—and for sixty years his story has been widely read in India and Pakistan as a resounding parable of the partition that accompanied India’s liberation from the British Empire.

India was divided by the withdrawing British in 1947, when a headcount of the population by their religious identity roughly decided which territory would fall to the new state of Pakistan. The estimates of the dead in the convulsion that followed vary from one to two million. Somewhere around 14 million people felt they had no choice but to migrate, Muslims to the new state and Hindus and Sikhs going the other way. In Bengal, a part of which became East Pakistan, fewer people left and the violence was relatively low.

It was the division of the southern region of Punjab that traumatized both countries with its bloodiness as columns of refugees moved east and west. Manto was a Punjabi. He wrote:

Now before our eyes lie dried tracks of blood, cut up human parts, charred faces, mangled necks, terrified people, looted houses, burned fields, mountains of rubble, and overflowing hospitals. We are free. Hindustan [India] is free. Pakistan is free, and we are walking the desolate streets naked without any possessions in utter distress.

Beyond the physical savagery, and stretching far into the future, lay confusing feelings of displacement—where are we and how did we get here?—that Manto knew firsthand as a Muslim who had chosen to leave India for Pakistan. Many Muslims did not: of the 100 million in undivided India, 40 million remained in the truncated Indian state. The other 60 million became citizens of Pakistan, which was united by religion and divided by everything else—by language, climate, diet, and the thousand miles of Indian territory that separated East and West Pakistan. The situation made it plain, in the words of Ayesha Jalal in The Pity of Partition, “that if Indian Muslims had a common faith and a shared religiously informed cultural identity, they were not a geographically distinct or homogeneous community with a coherent or united political worldview.”

Where better to situate a story of the human dislocation thrown up by these events than a lunatic asylum? Manto lays out his story’s proposition in its opening sentence: “A couple of years after the partition of the country, it occurred to the respective governments of India and Pakistan that inmates of lunatic asylums, like prisoners, should also be exchanged.”1 When news of the decision reaches the asylum in Lahore, which is in western Punjab and therefore now in Pakistan, a hubbub of speculation breaks out. Where is this India to which some of them must be moved—weren’t they already in it?

As to where Pakistan was located, the inmates knew nothing. That was why both the mad and the partially mad were unable to decide whether they were now in India or in Pakistan. If they were in India, where on earth was Pakistan? And if they were in Pakistan, then how come that until only the other day it was India?

One inmate climbs a tree and proclaims that he wants to live high in its branches rather in either country. Another runs naked into the garden. A pair of Anglo-Indians (that is, Eurasians) are alarmed to realize that the British have quit—what worries them now is if they’ll still get a proper English breakfast every day, or will it be replaced by “bloody Indian chappatti”?

The situation is rich in comic promise, but the story never exploits it. It turns its attention instead toward a sad, elderly Sikh who’s been in the asylum for so long that only the older attendants can remember that he used to be a prosperous landlord in a place called Toba Tek Singh (a real but obscure district in Pakistani Punjab), which is the name the asylum knows him by. He speaks in gibberish and his legs have swollen enormously; he stands for hours and hours “in a kind of limbo.”


When a Muslim friend comes from his district to tell him that his family has migrated to India and that he too will soon be moving there, Toba Tek Singh the person wonders if Toba Tek Singh the place is in India or Pakistan. “In India…no, in Pakistan,” says the friend. The inmates are then bussed to the border. Trouble breaks out: most of them don’t want to leave, and Toba Tek Singh is particularly stubborn when his guards try to push him over the boundary. He stands throughout the night “in no-man’s-land on his swollen legs like a colossus” until just before sunrise he screams and falls to the ground. The barbed-wire frontiers of India and Pakistan rise on either side. “In between, on a bit of earth, which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”

When Manto wrote this story in 1954, Pakistan was only seven years old as a country. A quarter of a century before, it didn’t even exist as an idea; the poet Muhammad Iqbal first publicly advocated a separate state for India’s Muslims in 1930, and in 1933 a Cambridge student, Choudhry Rahmat Ali, gave the projected state a name. If Manto was suggesting, however obliquely, that partition was a crazy scheme, was he also implying that Pakistan should never have been born?

That would have been a daring act for a writer in a country (and one, after all, that he’d adopted as a homeland) that from the beginning was nervous about its identity. But Manto had always been mischievous and often at odds with the people around him, and he was now an alcoholic with less than a year left to live. His drinking had, in fact, inspired the location of his last great story in Lahore’s asylum, where he had spent spells in an anti-alcoholic ward as both a voluntary and an involuntary patient, when his family forced him there against his will.

He died in 1955, aged only forty-two. He had been a prolific writer of plays, essays, and films as well as stories—all of them in Urdu, the traditional language of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent (differentiated from Hindi more in its written than spoken form, by its use of Arabic rather than Devanagari script) and adopted by Pakistan as its national language above regional languages such as Punjabi and Bengali. According to Jalal’s biographical study, no Urdu writer had been mourned so much since the death of the poet, philosopher, and proto-nationalist Iqbal in 1938 and perhaps no Urdu writer has equaled his popularity since.

He was never one to underestimate his own talent. In 1954, obliging a stenographer with his autograph, he wrote next to his signature:

Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and mysteries of short story writing…. Under tons of earth he lies, wondering who of the two is the greater short story writer: God or he.

This may have been no more than the incessant playfulness of a writer who liked to taunt the devout of his young country with satirical pieces featuring see-through burqas and detachable beards. But other evidence points to what Jalal calls his “extraordinary self-esteem”: an egoism and touchiness that made enemies of friends and colleagues—and, as his family knew to their cost, grew especially intolerable when he drank.

Nonetheless, to an Urdu readership his imaginary epitaph doesn’t seem completely deranged in its vanity. His stories have never gone out of fashion or print (though governments in Pakistan have sometimes tried to suppress them) and, sixty years after his death, they remain a means of remembering the society that vanished with partition as well as evoking the cruelty of partition itself. Today the secular state is dying everywhere in South Asia. Manto’s ignorance of politics was willful at a time when political decisions were reshaping every aspect of his life—he considered “politicians and pharmacists to be one and the same”—and the idea of secularism, of the separation of religion from the state, seems to have meant very little to him.

On the other hand, he detested the hypocrisy of the faithful and their oppression of individual liberty and, perhaps above all, the belief that religion supplied an individual’s prime identity. “Don’t say that a hundred thousand Hindus and a hundred thousand Muslims have been massacred,” says the protagonist in his story “Sahai.” “Say that two hundred thousand human beings have perished.” As a humanist if not a secularist, Manto appeals to a liberal audience in South Asia for reasons that go beyond the literary. Outside his homelands, however, he has remained a neglected writer, needing a livelier English translation or a remarkably good biography to kindle Western interest. While one of the two books under review suggests that he may have found the first, the other indicates that the second has still to be written.



Manto was born in 1912 into a Kashmiri trading family, specializing in pashmina shawls, who had migrated to Punjab in the nineteenth century. The family were well-to-do: his father, a judge, had a house in a lawyers’ colony in the town of Amritsar, and three of Manto’s half-brothers—his father’s children by his first wife—were expensively educated in England. The children from his second marriage fared less well. They and their mother were made to live in a separate house because their ancestry made them socially inferior, a contemptuous arrangement that humiliated the second Mrs. Manto and alienated her son from his father. Transgression became an early feature of the writer’s behavior. He did poorly at school, embraced the near-revolutionary fervor of Amritsar as an anti-British city (infamously, British troops shot dead several hundred protesters there in 1919), and by his early adulthood became known locally as prankster, a gambler, and a drinker of cheap local spirits.

The Hollywood talkies that India had started to import had a spellbinding effect on him—he had pictures of Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich on his bedroom wall—and thanks to a friend and mentor who worked on the copy desk of a local paper, he eventually found paid work writing film reviews and translating stories by French and Russian writers from their English versions into Urdu. He published the first story of his own when he was twenty-two and two years later moved nine hundred miles south to Bombay (now Mumbai2) to edit a film weekly called Musawwir (The Painter). A Bombay studio had produced India’s first talkie only five years before, and the city had by now replaced Calcutta as the most Westernized in India, in some ways as open to twentieth-century American influence as Calcutta had been to the impact of Victorian Britain.

As Matt Reeck writes in his informative translator’s note to Bombay Stories, the city gave Manto the best and most enjoyable years of his life. It was a metropolis in an almost American sense, with an eclectic population drawn from all religions and all parts of the world—Arab pearl fishers and British businessmen, Jews as well as Parsis, Christians as well as Hindus and Sikhs. To the rest of India, it offered economic opportunity—the census figures for 1921 showed that 84 percent of its workforce had been born elsewhere, uprooted from their poor rural livelihoods by the pull of the city’s docks, trading companies, and cotton mills. Most of them were men and many of these men lived in the overcrowd tenements—the Bombay word is chawls—that the factory owners had built next to their mills. Two or three (or more) of them would take advantage of the shift patterns and share a small room, so that as one man rose from his sleeping mat to start work another came home to lie down on it. In 1931, three quarters of Bombay’s population were packed into one-room homes that lacked running water, and it was in this environment, Reeck writes, that “two of the typical characters of Bombay, the gangster and the prostitute, came about.”

Manto’s stay in Bombay lasted from 1936 to 1948 (including an eighteen-month interlude in Delhi), and almost every one of his stories inspired by that time features one or the other. Gangsters, in the form of the local enforcer or dada, laid down the law in slum districts that the police didn’t dare enter, while prostitutes catered to a population in which men outnumbered women by almost two to one. The 1921 census estimated their number at between 30,000 and 40,000 (there are said to be 450,000 today). In no other Indian city were drinking and sex so evident, in no other did Indians (or Indian men at any rate) so easily meet for a drink, and in no other did their religious identity matter less (which isn’t to say it didn’t matter). Manto threw himself into the city’s cosmopolitan low life. Bars, whores, pimps, gangsters, the movie crowd: together they offered characterization and narrative possibilities that writers such Guy de Maupassant and Somerset Maugham had taught him were appropriate for the short story.

In Manto’s Bombay stories, it’s the men who usually come off worse. In “Khushiya,” which opens Reeck and Ahmad’s collection, a pimp calls on one of his girls and finds her naked—and, more shockingly to the pimp, cheerfully matter-of-fact about it:

She should have been a little ashamed! She should have blushed a little!… He realized that he implicitly expected women, whores included, to take him for a man and so to dress modestly in his presence, as had been the tradition for so long.

Her behavior makes him awkward and irritated—and aroused. He goes to elaborate lengths to pick her up as a client. When she sees him she’s surprised—he’s her pimp, after all—but asks only one question: “But you got the money, right?”

Prostitutes are the realists and the men they serve are fantasists and hypocrites. Manto was prosecuted for obscenity in imperial India as well as postcolonial Pakistan, but his writing is never erotic; neither is it “progressive” in the old political sense of seeking to promote social justice. People are no better than they would be, but no worse either—they can often be kind. A lot of Johnny Walker is drunk and lipstick crudely applied. Squalor is exactly described, in all its pathetic detail: “She was lying face down on her long and broad teak bed,” he writes of prostitute who’s fallen asleep after an exhausting day in “The Insult.”

Her arms were bare up to her shoulders and spread out like a kite’s bow. Her right armpit’s shrivelled flesh was nearly blue from having been shaven over and over; it looked like a chunk of skin from a plucked hen had been grafted there.

And yet he isn’t a chilly, voyeuristic writer; in several stories he places a version of himself at or near the center of events as the first-person narrator, called simply “Manto,” who will occasionally interrupt the story’s flow to comment on it as a text. “These details are enough. I don’t want to tell you what I thought because it’s not relevant to the story,” he writes about a friend’s quarrels with a tempestuous prostitute in “Siraj.” Is he writing fiction or autobiography or some ambiguous mixture of the two? By inviting readers to ask the question, Manto makes his stories more believable: they just might be true.

How faithfully Reeck and Aftab Ahmad have rendered these stories only an Urdu reader can say, but the prose is sharp and knowing—effects that we can assume Manto intended given the writers he admired. To a British or Indian-English ear, but not an American, some words hit a false note—“john” for client or customer, “pissed” meaning irritated rather than drunk—but the translators have brought an American informality and energy to the language that’s more helpful than not. At the end of “Mummy,” a story of interminable and compulsive partying, one maudlin guest after another starts to weep. “He too has a faulty eye-bladder,” says another guest in Khalid Hasan’s 2007 translation. “That bastard’s tear ducts are defective too” is the version by Reeck and Ahmad, which catches the snappy bravado of the hopeless men we find ourselves among.


In 1948 Manto sailed from Bombay to Karachi and then took the train to Lahore, where he was to live for the rest of his life. Lahore had been undivided Punjab’s capital, but partition had shorn it of its eastern hinterland. Amritsar in India lay only thirty miles from his new home, but the new international border made it almost impossible to reach. In any case, rioters had burned the family home there—one of the many events that persuaded Manto to quit Bombay for Pakistan, where he hoped to be awarded an “allotment,” the term for property vacated by fleeing non-Muslims as a compensation for a similar property abandoned by fleeing Muslims in India.

He missed Bombay from the day he left it. Three years later he wrote that he was disconsolate. The city had taken him in as “a wandering outcast thrown out by even his family.” He had met good friends and married there, his first two children had been born there, his work there had made him busy and prosperous. “I loved it, and I still do!” Lahore was provincial by comparison, but it was here, between drinking sessions and in fits of longing for a way of living that could never be reclaimed, that he wrote much of his best work.

Between 1948 and 1951, his bouts of furious industry produced seven story anthologies as well as regular essays for local journals and newspapers, including the one he edited in Lahore; at his peak, during a six-month break between hospitalizations for alcoholism in 1951, Ayesha Jalal tells us that he managed to finish a story a day and to produce a book every month. Pakistan, a new state struggling to find its identity under the increasing influence of the Muslim clergy, didn’t know what to make of him. He was prosecuted for obscenity two or three times but never with serious consequences (for him, at least; the magazines that published him had a tougher time).

Manto thought the Pakistani establishment couldn’t make up its mind; it saw him variously as a dangerous red, a reactionary, a cynic, a humorist, and a pornographer. To Jalal, sixty years later, he stands “among the all-time leading public intellectuals of South Asia, if such a category could be deemed to exist in the aftermath of 1947.”

Her book is an attempt to assess him on those grounds: not for his literary merit, but for his contribution to our understanding of a certain history, which we can gain if, in her words, we use his literary biography to expand “the historiographical apparatus deployed thus far in explaining the causes and narrating the experiences of partition.” Jalal is well qualified for the project: she is a history professor with a special interest in partition who also happens to be Manto’s great-niece, with privileged access to his private papers.

But these advantages also turn out to be drawbacks. Manto is embarrassingly overpraised and overblown: his work has “a timelessness that is awe-inspiring and eerie both at once”; his “unflinching belief in the intrinsic goodness of human nature” is “a constant challenge and reminder to people…that it is never too late to search for and speak nothing but the truth.” The writing is assertive throughout—always telling and rarely showing—and her editors have been remarkably forgiving or neglectful of clichés. Inflation gallops, bounds follow leaps, trials have tribulations, and “all” rarely comes without its “sundry” close behind. The evidence points to a book that has been too quickly put together from a series of public lectures, though this is not its main flaw.

The main flaw is that the subject of the book, in all his variety and fallibility, is obscured by her wordy argument; and that the argument is hardly worth having. We don’t have to be told that literary writing from the past can illuminate, supplement, inform, and sometimes correct the view of academic historians. Of course it does. (Imagine our view of life in the Flanders trenches without Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.)

Jalal suggests a different epitaph for her great-uncle than the one he imagined for himself: “Here lies Manto, who is still wondering whether he is the greater story-teller of the past and retriever of memories than the historian.” But why should we think that such a contest ever occurred to Manto? The hubris here belongs to the historian.