Did Saadat Hasan Mantoo and Ismat Chughtai Fell For Each Other?

A decade ahead of the partition of the subcontinent, two major voices emerged in Urdu literature – Saadat Hasan Mantoo (1912 -1955) and Ismat Chughtai (August 1915 –October 1991). They approached life from almost the same angle and created literature that, in both cases, took them to the court. At one point in time, Ismat was termed as Lady Mantoo and a lot many people wanted them to marry each other – they both were married. In this piece, based on a series of tweets, Hamd Nawaz, offers crisp details of the relationship between the two great writers, who eventually lived on either side of the divide, had evolved with

A book on the short stories that two great Urdu writers Saadat Hasan Mantoo and Ismat Chughtai have penned.

= It was pre-partition time when amongst the fervour of the independence movement, a piece of strange news started appearing in papers. A writer was being charged for something obscene he wrote. Everyone was curious. A lot was said.

The articles named somebody called Manto. But people soon forgot. Time flew. The news reappeared one day. But now, for a different name. In fact, for a gender so unexpected that it was another shock on its own – a woman. A female Manto? A pseudo name? The curiosity resurfaced.

Amongst speculations, a woman who had written a short story depicting the unthinkable; was being brought to court. The press which covered Manto with spices covered her too. Soon, the entire country could draw a parallel: “A match made in heaven, or as they’d call it – in hell.”

And hence the public set foot to make the two meet. “They’re the same!” People would comment and write letters to both. One such letter was written to Manto from Hyderabad “Bohat Afsos ki baat hai keh Manto ny abhi tak Ismat sy Shadi nhi ki, bohat nalaiqi shumar hogi yeh to.”

Saadat Hasan Manto with his wife Safia

But these two had barely met. So amidst the gossip and all, Ismat went to meet Manto with her husband for the first time. She recalls that when she entered his home, Manto Said “Aray, I thought you’d be sort of dark, skinny and sick looking” to which an irritated Ismat replied: “And I thought you would be a loud-mouthed overbearing Punjabi”.

Starting from here and going through for hours of debates, quarrels, witty attacks and sarcasm served in plates, these two struck a friendship so unconventional that it baffled people, just like their words.

Soon, the two started sharing their works with each other for critical appraisal. Ismat writes “Conversation turned into an argument that, in turn, took the form of a dispute and then based on our newfound association, we were soon using formal literary language to describe each other as half-witted, foolish and irrational.”

The two kept writing, saying the bitter bad truths, getting punished for it. Through financial suffering and mental illness, both grew. Both were married to different people and great friends of each other’s spouses.

“I can’t say that I fell in love with Ismat, but my wife certainly did” Manto once said. He would confine the same way in Shahid Lateef, Ismat’s husband and a famous Bollywood director. This unparalleled bond aged better than any other out there. Manto once wrote about it: “It is certain, though, that if Manto and Ismat had gotten married, it would have had the effect of an atomic bomb on the history of contemporary fiction. Short stories would have become a thing of the past and tales would have been reduced to riddles. The milk of diction would have dried into some rare powder or burnt to ashes. Maybe, their signatures on the marriage contract would have been their last compositions.”

But her idol was such in his mind that he also wrote “The wretch turned out to be a total woman, after all!”

And Ismat? Remarking on her love with luck, she said “So many Shoukats, Mahmoods, Abbases and Yunuses have been shuffled around in this world of love like cards in a deck. Who can predict Jack among them? They have all been entangled in my mind like the yarn in a mess. I cannot conclude which corner to pull from, so a string comes out, unfurling, and I fly away from it all, like a kite.”

And what else could come out of two pens too brutal for themselves? They both suffered and died separate deaths but left behind for us, a fact too harsh.

Hamd Nawaz

That love, as fires and thunders, is meant to die. And to amount it the value of all life, of all suffering, is too foolish. It’s only when you go beyond the cravings of possession that you get to see it for what it is – a lovely joke, and in this case; an aching one!

The author @_myocardium_ is a young medical doctor who believes she should have been in the arts disciple instead. Living across the Redcliff divide, this brief write-up is based on a series of bits of information about the two great intellectuals of their era that she put on Twitter.)

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