Kashmir’s Manto

A literary genius, Saadat Hasan Manto was born to a trader family that had migrated to Punjab during Sikh rule. Even though the greatest short story writer never visited Kashmir, the fact is that he never gave up his Kashmir identity, writes MJ Aslam

Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto, Urdu’s greatest short-story writer, was born on May 11, 1912, at Paproudi village of Sambrala (Ludhiana) in British Punjab [now in India). His surname Manto in the Kashmiri language is his Kram, the caste.

In Kashmir, a huge set of castes are linked to the people’s professions. Manto is abbreviated to Manwata or Manwati or simple Mann or Manout, which was a scale of weighing grains in the monarchical days of Kashmir. Equal to 2-2/1 Seer, Mann was the basic weight being used to weigh Shali (paddy) and maize. This gave the caste of Manwatas or Manot (later modified to Manto) to the people who were associated with the weighing of the Kashmir produce for the rulers. Manot for most of the time was a stone. Iron weights were introduced for the first time towards the end of the Sikh Rule in Kashmir. In Kashmir, Muslims, as well as Hindus, shared Manto caste.

Saadat Manto was proud of his Kashmiri background, which is clear in the letters that he addressed to Jawaharlal Nehru and Uncle Sam. Whatever the truth of these stories, it is a fact that the great grand ancestor of Saadat Hasan Manto was a Kashmiri Hindu who embraced Islam.

The Family

Manto’s ancestors had migrated to Punjab as pashmina shawl merchants but later the family switched over to the legal profession. His father, Molvi Ghulam Hassan Manto, was a Sessions Judge. Saadat Hasan Manto “claimed allegiance not only to his native Punjab but also to his ancestors’ home in Kashmir. While raised speaking Punjabi, he was also proud of the remnants of Kashmiri culture that his family maintained – food customs, as well as intermarriage with families of Kashmiri origin [in Punjab] – and throughout his life, he assigned special importance to people having Kashmiri roots.

Saadat Hasan Manto with his three daughters in their childhood

In a tongue-in-cheek letter addressed to Pandit Nehru, Manto went so far as to suggest that being beautiful was the second meaning of [his] being Kashmiri. His father, a lawyer, lived in a lane of lawyers named Kocha Vakilan and he was a strict disciplinarian and practising Muslim who took pride in wearing Kashmiri-style-pagdhi (turban) and he did not like the “wayward” activities of his son. His father wrote about Islamic values. His mother, Sardar Begum, was a Pathan lady who, like her husband, was a practising Muslim.

Manto and Hashr

Manto has drawn a sketch of his strict father in an essay on Agha Hashr Kashmiri. At Amritsar, he and some boys had formed a club and one day they were playing a drama of Agha Hashr Kashmiri, when his father rushed into the room and smashed the harmonium, warning that he would not tolerate this worthless hobby. Manto, however, has not mentioned much about his father. He had two brief encounters with theatrical playwright, dramatist, poet and actor, Hashr Kashmiri (originally Aga Mohammad Jalal Shah son of Aga Mohammad Gani Shah), who also had Kashmiri roots.

It was Hashr’s play Yahudi Ki Ladki (1931), which was developed into a super-hit Bollywood movie of 1958, Yahudi, featuring Dilip Kumar, Shurab Modi and Meena Kumari. Manto had heard a lot about Hashr Kashmiri and wished to meet him. One day, while Aga was in Amritsar, Manto was taken by his friend Hari Singh to visit him at Pandit Mohsin’s residence where he was putting up. When Hashr Kashmiri was told by Hari Singh that his friend, Saadat Hasan Manto, was keen to meet him, Hashr Kashmiri rolled his eyes towards Manto and asked: “what is your relation with Lord Minto?’. Seemingly a joke, since Lord Minto, Viceroy of India, had nothing doing with Saadat Hasan Manto. But, Manto has said that he did not know the reply. So, Hari Singh interrupted and said: “Aga sahab, he is Manto and not Minto”. Then, Aga Hashr turned to Pandit Mohsin (a Kashmiri Pandit) for the history of the genealogy of Kashmiri Brahmans/Pandits but Pandit avoided answer and a discussion about it.

Manto met Hashr second time in a chance meeting at Lahore when he was shooting his play, Rustum o Suhrab. Manto has mentioned that he did not intend to meet him at that time but one-day Hashr Kashmiri happened to be in a Lahore bookstall when Manto and his friend, Abdul Bari Alig, spotted him. Aga was going through the pages of Sarghujasti e Aseer (A Prisoner’s Story). Manto’s friend told Hashar that the book was a translation of The Last Days of Condemned by renowned French poet and playwright, Victor Hugo, and was rendered into Urdu by Manto, Hashr appreciated the effort and bought the book.

The Rise of Genius

Manto was poor at his Amritsar school and he failed twice in the Matriculation examination like Rabindranath Tagore. However, he was a literary genius. He started his career as a translator of Russian and French short stories from their English versions to Urdu. He translated the works of world-famous Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde and many others. He was deeply influenced by Marxist ideology at Aligarh Muslim University where he pursued his graduation and came in touch with radical Leftist ideologues and activists. Urdu poet and lyricist Ali Sardar Jafri was one of them. In a long essay, he admired the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and explained its causes. He was informally associated with the Progressive Writers Association first at Aligarh and later at Bombay, though he was far more outspoken and critical of social and economic discrepancies and injustices than most of his contemporaries.

Saadat Hasan Manto with his wife Safia

In 1934, at 21 years of age, he found a famous communist literary mentor, Abdul Bari Alig, editor of Masawaat (Equality), an Urdu newspaper published in Amritsar. In Manto, Bari found a hidden genius and encouraged him to translate literary works of Russian socialist writers and then pen down his own short stories. Manto recorded later that if he had not met Bari, he would have become a criminal and not a writer.

At Aligarh, he was wrongly diagnosed with tuberculosis. This sent him to visit the hilly station of Batote in May 1936 for managing his health. From there, he visited Kud and Kishtawar but never Kashmir. In His August 27, 1954 letter to Nehru, he mentioned that he did not cross over the Banihal. He returned home after spending three months at Batote.

The Career

During his career, Manto was accused of spreading obscenity through his short stories like Thanda Ghost (Cold Flesh) and Khoul Dou (Open it). Six cases were filed against him, three each before and after the partition. However, he was never convicted. The Journal Sang e Meel from Peshawar in May 1949, referring to the English newspaper Dawn wrote that Pakistan should take action against progressive writers for pornography. It was a direct reference to Manto’s short stories that were deemed sensual. But his answer to the charges was that he was a social reformist writer and nothing else. He has been described as a “low-life” fiction writer whose themes revolved around “bad guys” only, the characters chosen from the lowest strata of the society like pimps and prostitutes.

This was the reason why the government had to enforce censorship on his stories sometimes. Though he was close to many progressive writers like Ismat Chugtai, Krishen Chander, and Rajinder Singh Bedi , many of them often distanced themselves from his writings for what seemed to be his anarchist and agnostic content. For his views, Manto was also thought to be an anti-progressive writer. Independent and individualist, Manto’s writings transcended the aims of progressive writers.


On April 26, 1939, Manto was married to Safia, a respectable middle-class family of Lahore having Kashmiri roots. Her parents had lived in East Africa but after the killing of her father, Qamar ud Din, a Public prosecutor, in Zanzibar, her mother had shifted to Lahore. The marriage was arranged by his sister and mother and without seeing the girl he had agreed to the marriage proposal of 1938 with Safia and described the commonalities between him and Safia in a letter to his friend, Aga Naseem Qasimi, in these words:

“Her father is dead. My father is also not alive. She wears glasses; I wear glasses. She was born on 11 May and I too was born on 11 May. Her mother wears glasses. My mother wears glasses as well. The first letter in her name is “S.” The first letter in my name is also “S.” We have all these things in common. The rest I am as yet unaware of. Previously she did not observe purdah, but ever since I have acquired a right over her she has been observing purdah (only from me)”.

Between Mumbai and Lahore

Manto had two long associations with Bombay, first from 1936 to1941 and then from 1942 to 1948 when he migrated to Pakistan. Between 1941 and 1942, he worked with All India Radio at Delhi for some months where he wrote four plays and came in contact with several famous Urdu writers. It was, however, Krishan Chander who had introduced him to All India Radio Delhi. He was associated with The Painter and The Caravan, two famous film magazines of Bombay at that time.  He wrote screenplays for five films as well. In Bombay, he acted in some films and wrote the screenplay for some movies. Ashok Kumar and Shyam were his two closest friends in Bollywood. Safia and Ashok Kumar’s wife often shopped together.

The epitaph on Saadat Hasan Manto’s grave. The one he had himself written was not used.

Manto was a drunkard and at Holi festivals sometimes he drank and danced with his Bollywood and progressive writer friends, enjoying the festival of colours. Then, fierce communal riots broke out in Bombay following the partition.  His wife, Safiya with children had gone to Lahore to visit their relatives. His close friend and film actor, Shyam, feared for his life. Shyam persuaded him to leave India which Manto did not want. In January 1948, he left India.

However, Manto never accommodated himself fully in Pakistan for the new country was “very reactionary, over-sentimental” and he fell to alcoholism. Earlier, after dropping out of school, he had resorted to gambling. In Lahore, he met famous progressive literary figures like Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ahmad Rahi. The writers and artists would sit and discuss passionate political and social issues at Pak Tea House, Lahore.

Manto was accused of being rude towards others. Syed Ahmad Shah Bukhari, who would write in the name of Pitras Bukhari, was an Urdu satirist Urdu and broadcaster. During World War – II, he was station director at All India Radio Delhi, and post-partition, he was a Pak diplomat at the UN. Contemporary of Sir Mohammad Iqbal and elder to Manto, Pitras too had Kashmiri origin. His ancestors had migrated from Kashmir and lived in Peshawar and Punjab. Pitras loved Manto but disliked his alcoholism. One day, he said in an angry tone, “Look Manto, I think you are equal to my son. Better for you to give up bad practices”. Manto retorted with a boast in his head, “but I don’t believe you as my father”. It left Pitras speechless.

MJ Aslam

Manto at times was very funny. Like an imaginative satirist, he would say that the English counting of numbers had started from his surname: “One Two” had originated from “Man To”, and then continued three. Manto’s 1954 letter to Nehru shows that he was dissatisfied with Nehru’s policies in Kashmir. He wrote that though both had the same genus of Kashmiri, yet both differed in many ways. In a comical satire, he wrote, while he was Manto, very small, weighing only 2-1/2 Seers or Manot, how could he stop Nahr from flowing in Kashmir. Nahr in Kashmiri means stream which was the genesis of Nehru’s surname as his Kashmiri ancestors lived on streamside in medieval Kashmir.  Besides being critical of the Radcliffe divide, Manto had a satirical remark about Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad saying, he has been given “all rights over Babagoshas” and Gushtabas and not sending Manto few as gift. Bakhshi was known for sending Gushtabas to Nehru as gift and also treating foreign visiting dignitaries with the delicacy of Gushtabas.

Eventually, Manto became a pathetic addict to alcohol. In his letters to his friends, he admitted his helplessness to remain away from wine as he believed that it gave him the energy to find the characters for his writings. It caused him multiple health issues of organ failure, which resulted in his death on January 18, 1955, at Lakshmi Mansions, Beadon Road, Lahore. He lies buried in Mian Sahib Ka Qabristan, Lahore Punjab.

(A former banker, MJ Aslam is an author. His latest 3-volume book, Kashmir: From Ancient to Present, A socio-cultural and Political History was published by Gulshan Publishers Srinagar. Ideas are personal).

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