Saadat Hasan Manto: a ‘goodbye tale’

By Taha Kehar

Saadat Hasan Manto entered the precincts of our adolescence through a short story. Toba Tek Singh with its detailed rendering of pre-partition uncertainty provided the window to his dynamic life. As a student of A-level Urdu Literature, we had acquired access to numerous short story writers, but Manto’s literary prowess was indeed matchless.

Our fascination with Manto conquered various horizons. We began to see his early life as a direct contradiction to his expertise as a writer. It reflected nothing but misfortune and failure. But as we progressed to understand his staggering transition to a revolutionary literary icon, our opinion of him was completely altered. The man who would otherwise have been destined to languish between the pressures of making ends meet and finding the motivation to excel was now a leading intellectual. His short story bore testimony to this.

As we read Toba Tek Singh, our understanding of Pakistan’s history was honed. There was something extraordinarily powerful about the narrative – something that instantly surpassed the skilful characterisation and the firmness of the plot. In retrospect, we believe it was the strong allegorical representation of the political scene in the Indian sub-continent. But I feel there was greater depth to our interest.

Toba Tek Singh is set in a lunatic asylum where the in-mates are acquainted with the fact that there are revolutionary changes occurring in the political sphere but are not equipped with the overall knowledge to determine what consequences this can have. It is, in a sense, a ‘goodbye tale’ that stresses on the tyrannical nature of dividing a people.

The tone of the narrative was fresh and the concept was basically surreal. It made us question dogma of national interest we had been raised to cherish and provided an avenue for us to ponder over what the side-effects could have been. The experience was informative, engaging, passionate and at times quite devastating. But by the end of it, we felt triumphant at even minutely understanding the psychological impact of partition and parted with the story in the hope of improving a society that was founded upon a shocking wave of separation.

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