Toba Tek Singh is a district in the Punjab province of Pakistan. You may not know the geography trivia, but you have heard about a certain Bishan Singh and his obsession with his ancestral village. Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who was born in Ludhiana and who migrated to Lahore after the Partition, published the story Toba Tek Singh in 1995, and such is the power of his biting satire that it remains relevant until today.
You may not know your Urdu, but we have read the story, in Hindi, or in English or in other regional writings. Or, you may have seen it in one of the numerous stage productions. Toba Tek Singh was among the plays selected at this year’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav, organised by the National School of Drama, Delhi. Meanwhile, one of the most popular stage adaptations of Manto remains Manto, Ismat Hazir Hain based on five of his stories, put together by actors Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah and Heeba Shah. His story Kali Salwar became a Hindi film in 2002.
Or, if you are a radio buff, chances are you have heard the story in Radio Mirchi, in a programme called ‘Ek Purani Kahani with RJ Sayema’.
And why not? For most part of his life, the legendary writer worked in All India Radio, Bombay, and wrote five series of radio plays. In the interim period, he also worked in the film industry.
This is the legacy of Manto. More than 65 years have passed since he wrote his stories. Yet, the truths of his vision of individuals at odds with society still ring true, perhaps more today than ever.
Admirers argue that the great writer remains underappreciated. This is true to a certain extent, yet, compared to other writers of the Partition, say, for example, Quratulain Haider (whose Aag Ka Darya remains a landmark creation), Manto has been successful to remain relevant. The reason is his modernity. Writers like Wilde Chekhov and Gorky may have inspired him, but in his stories, we see the traces of Western modernism, especially in his later works, which came to play as an immediate aftershock of WWII. This resulted in forgoing to grand themes and adopting a critical gaze inside. Thus, Manto’s best stories are those which feature characters from the margins, the denizens of Mumbai chawls, prostitutes, lunatics, daily wageworkers, and other people caught in the crosshairs of the politics of class, caste and religion. He was infamously but unsuccessfully tried for obscenity six times, which only proves the claim to his modernity, and put him in the same league with DH Lawrence.
Here lies the appeal of Manto. As history completes a circle and we find ourselves in a similar position Manto delineates in his stories, we find solace in his voice of reason, his biting satire, and his matter-of-fact directness. He once wrote, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth.”
Manto in FM
To carry on this legacy, the Delhi station of Radio Mirchi, a private FM radio station, recently aired a series of Manto’s stories, in a programme titled ‘Ek Purani Kahani with RJ Sayema’. The programme aired such classic stories as Thanda Gosht, Aulaad, Do Quamein, Baarish, Aankhein, and Khol Do, Kali Shalwar, Bu, Tithwal Ka Kutta, among others, where Sayema, the radio jockey, reads out one story during one session. This is not difficult; Manto’s short stories are usually short and the reading time usually does not go beyond half an hour.
The programme is still on air. RJ Sayema reads a new story each week, on Friday at 11 pm. The recording is then repeated on Saturday and on Monday. The recordings are also available on the Radio Mirchi website.
This is not all. To highlight Manto’s relevance, on her official Facebook page, RJ Sayema also urged the listeners/readers to list at least three bitter truths about society which existed then and which continues to exist today.
This comes with a reward too – the Manto Dastavez, a set of five beautiful books by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Rajkamal Prakashan.
The programme is an initiative by RJ Sayema, and clearly, it is a rare lineup in a FM radio station, which mostly relies on popular music from Bollywood to attract young listeners.
Manto in Hindi
Saadat Hasan Manto wrote in Urdu. Now his works are in public domain, as it has been more than 60 years since he passed on. Thus, any publisher can issue his works. The works published by Rajkamal is a Hindi translation of the original Urdu. The publisher has the translation rights. The Manto Dastavez have been edited by Balraj Menra and Sharad Dutt. Translation here mostly means conversation of the Urdu original into Devanagari script.
While critics agree that a definitive edition of Manto’s work is not available yet, as far as Hindi is concerned, the complete works of Manto published by Rajkamal Prakashan is, by and large, reliable, though not whole accurate. (from Black Margin: Stories, edited by Muhammad Umar Memon, Katha/OUP, 2001.)
Manto’s stories in Hindi are also available from Rajpal & Sons, namely, Toba Tek Singh Aur Anya Kahaniyaan issued in 2014.
There have been numerous translations of Manto in English. By far the most popular one is by Aatish Taseer, Manto: Selected Stories, published by Random House India. Other translations include Bombay Stories, by Maat Reeck and Aftab Ahmed, Random House India; Bitter Fruit, Penguin India; Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition, Penguin India, among other. The most recent translation is My Name Is Radha: The Essential Manto, by Muhammad Umar Memon, Penguin India.
M is for Manto
Saadat Hasan Manto (11 May 1912-18 January 1955), who migrated from Bombay to Lahore during the Partition, wrote 22 collections of short stories, one novel, five series of radio plays, three collections of essays, and two collections of personal sketches.
At 21, he met the scholar Abdul Bari Alig, who encouraged him to find his true talents and read Russian and French authors. He then translated Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man to Urdu and soon after joined the editorial staff of Masawat, a daily published from Ludhiana.
He joined Aligarh Muslim University in February 1934. He got in touch with the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association (IPWA), and soon took up writing stories.
In 1941, he started writing for the Urdu Service of All India Radio. In the next eighteen months, he published four collections of radio plays, Aao, Manto Ke Drame, Janaze and Teen Auraten.
He published his short story collection Dhuan, then Manto Ke Afsane and his first collection of topical essays, Manto ke Mazamin, and Afsane aur Dramey.
Like most Urdu writers of his generation, he joined the Bombay film industry 1942 and wrote screenplays of films like Aatth Din, Chal Chal Re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib.
He stayed in Mumbai until moving to Pakistan in January 1948.
For a detailed look at Manto’s life refer to Manto Nama: The Life of Saadat Hasan Manto by Jagdish Chander Wadhawan, Roli Books, 1998.
(A version of the story first appeared in PrintWeek India.)