The underdog and the odd one out

Remembering Saadat Hasan Manto, one of the greatest Urdu writers of the 20th century, on his birth centenary.

Prophet, outcast or pervert? How should one categorise the great Pakistani Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, whose 100th birth anniversary fell in May? If one were to take the opinion of the common reader and the common man, from whom some of Manto’s most memorable characters were drawn, the first designation would be correct; if the advice of the official custodians of morality, religion and literature were to be sought, it would be the latter two. Yet it is this group who continue to keep Manto’s memory alive, a hundred years on.

So who was this man, who, like that great Soviet writer Maxim Gorky (whose work Manto greatly admired and would later translate into Urdu) started his life almost like a tramp, could not pass the matriculation examination, which would have been his ticket into educated, cultured bourgeois society, despite attempting it twice, yet rose to become one of the greatest Urdu writers of the 20th century amid much personal tribulation and anguish and decided to drink his life away in a hurry at the age of 42? He was born into a respectable middle-class Kashmiri family of Ludhiana in 1912 and was the only son from his father’s second wife (his father’s first wife bore him three sons and seven daughters). Being the underdog and odd one out in his own family probably had something to do with Manto’s later affinity with the underdog in his literary work.

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