May 30, 2023


Connecting Asian writers with global readers

Essay: Manto, Partition, and the Present by Gurman Kaur

14 min read

In this essay, Gurman Kaur explores Manto’s writings and how her engagement with literature and history helps her understand the socio-political reality better.

In my first months being Delhi I started reading Manto. I bought a collection of his short stories from a heritage book store in Khan Market, where I spotted a blogger I admired.  When I was stuck within the four walls of my room at home, seeing my college days as they dwindled by, he made me romanticize Delhi. I didn’t approach him to give a compliment on his blog as I was too shy to make a stranger feel special. But his presence made me ask the bookkeeper for Manto’s short story collection. 

While I was scanning through the titles of books at the shop, my friend went on her first date with a man she met on a dating app. In my first minuscule solo travel, I saw the heights of my ignorance and the weakness of my curiosity for having read only a few titles. There was so much I was yet to read. So much that I didn’t know and would never know.

I went back to the Metro station where my friend joined me and of course, before I could tell her what I bought, she talked about how sweet and amazing the guy was. He was a Kashmiri Pandit whose parents migrated to Delhi under not-so-pleasant and wilful conditions. “There is one thing… He hates Muslims… But I think it is valid for him.” I couldn’t dissuade her from seeing this guy again. Who was I to judge anyone’s suffering and the time they need to forgive and let go? When it comes to my friend, she already has a good bunch of people to tell her what to do and what not to do. I wanted her to follow her instincts, and make her own decisions and mistakes. To see and understand for herself, examine what is best for herself. 

In Manto’s story Frozen, gendered ethnic violence marred its perpetrator and hampered his intimacy at home. Even though people I am surrounded with don’t engage in direct violence, cultural dehumanization in their language is starker when they are at ease with you. Narratives of cultural differences and enmity build their worldview. For instance, my father once told me about partition violence and how the police propelled it. How Muslims with the help of policemen of their religion ransacked one village. In his recounting, religion ceased to be what it is, a set of core beliefs and values but became a tribe identity, a justification for all violence and hatred. It matters to me as it should to any woman because the question of Muslim-Hindu is not outside of domesticity. If one can not accept and understand man-made differences between religion and caste, how can one understand the complexity of differences between him and a woman? Once dehumanization becomes rampant, it leaves no relation, not even with oneself.  

My friend later recounted to me how possessive, restrictive, and jealous her new Kashmiri boyfriend was toward her. “I am wrong, he is already hurt so much and I am hurting him more with my stupidity.” From what she told me I was guaranteed her boyfriend was neurotic. Communal violence directly or indirectly does seep into intimate human relationships. He attacked her weakest points, wanted to eliminate every male friend from his life, and shamed her for clubbing, for wasting her father’s money and her privilege. I could see through his manipulation but she could not. “I am very impulsive, it is good I have someone to control me and keep me grounded.” You don’t need anyone to control you and you must control yourself, I told her. She nodded yet didn’t do anything. How easily he used his family’s past traumas to justify his sick behaviour. “She has hurt me immensely though she knows very well what my circumstances are.” He promised that he would hurt her in return so that he saved other men from my friend. He went on the internet and found her father’s phone numbers and black-mailed to call her dad and tell him everything. Yet for my friend, all of it remained justified and was forgiven.

From her boyfriend, I learned one thing— the urgent need to curb divided sympathies, the need for an open mind that doesn’t seek revenge but understanding and forgiveness; how state-generated meanings are not outwardly but provide meaning to people to process their traumas and past experiences. Current dominant narratives do not help to heal trauma and wounds of the past but aggravate them by positing revenge as a solution to all experiences of violence and uprootedness. Such experiences are the legacy of partition—communal jingoism, uprootedness, the feeling of separatism, black-and-white thinking with no shades of grey, and moral superiority owing to a collective sense of victimhood that fuelled resentment and hatred. Currently, they are as strong as the emerging opposition to them, and perhaps that’s why Manto is now relevant more than ever. 


While in Bombay Manto wrote about film studios, women who wanted to become actresses, and prostitutes who were exploited by men, who struggled to provide for themselves and their children. They were looked down upon by society and still hoped for great love and joy. He called prostitutes traders like any other in the market. If there is demand for anything, there would certainly be a supply for it, he wrote. Prostitutes who are often looked down upon with disdain and exist on the margins have stories to tell. Their experiences are so different and tragic that a common person can’t hear them without pity or shallow sympathy. But in Manto’s stories, I have encountered complex psyches and personalities of prostitutes. They were not mere victims of their circumstances or helpless at the hands of the oppression of a patriarchal society. They had hopes, dreams, and worldviews, they fought back and even challenged the society that reduced them to a lesser human. Every story with a woman as a prostitute explores them as different human beings instead of painting them all with the same colours. 

My Name is Radha‘ explores the struggles of a woman who wants to be an actress, who gets lured by exploitative men, becomes a centre of unjust rumours and gossip, and tries to leave her unpleasant past behind but is unable to do so. ‘Scorned’ explores the depth of the psyche of a prostitute who feels her world is shattered when she is rejected by Seth. Her profession situates her worth in her body and her ability to charm men. But when someone scorns her, something that had never happened before, she experiences her long-repressed emotions surging up and creating havoc. Manto beautifully describes this experience with a multilayered description of an ongoing storm, heavy rain, an empty road with street lights; an unsafe place at the time of night where she wants to be alone as if only isolation is safe for her to feel her pain. Other stories of his, like Janki, Shrada, and Black Salwar are also centred around prostitutes, their emotions, and how they fell for men they can’t have. 

Though ostracised by progressive writers like Faiz who even refused to call Manto’s writings literature, Manto was well aware of himself as a writer who has mastered the art of storytelling. For Manto, writing stories was a way of surviving both mentally and financially. He wasn’t as famous as other writers of his time, not as famous and academically and culturally valuable for his writings as he is now. My mother has never read about Manto, though she has read Amrita Pritam a few times. She is interested in stories but only those she could tell me at night in bed. I don’t think she will ever agree with Manto’s description of Partition. She likes to talk about good things, especially how my grandmother’s family, who died before I was born, saved a Muslim family from being slaughtered. 

“My uncle married another woman without telling anyone. She was a Muslim and when he brought her home everyone was excited to see her face since her hands were so fair. Muslim women were known for their beauty. Once the veil lifted, women and girls were filled with laughter. The bride was their roasted chickpeas seller.” 

“Nobody objected to their marriage, since she was a Muslim and a lower caste. What about his first wife?” 

“It was a different time, nobody cared so much.” She was right, it was before Partition. She didn’t say anything about her uncle’s first wife. “Everybody liked roasted chickpea seller’s daughter, even though she knew nothing except roasting chickpeas.” 

My mother recounted to me not once but several times, how women, in order to prevent rape from men of the other side, jumped in the well. My mother called them martyrs, for they upheld the honour of the family and in dire circumstances, the same is expected from me as well. But what she had said had an entirely different meaning for me. It simply meant, ‘to kill oneself is much better than to be raped’. Stigma is more dangerous than rape and rape is more dangerous than death.

“Bibi got sad when she talked about Partition. It was a lot of blood, she said.” My mother never told me what kind of ailment my grandmother had, but I know she refused to take medicine. Perhaps my grandmother wanted death to come and saw no point in stopping it. Or she might have hated English medicine as it was understandable for her to hate anything English— Guns and Partition. Why did she choose death over cure? It shouldn’t surprise me when we are continuously using the rhetoric of violence instead of healing wounds of the past.


There is money in Punjab due to the green revolution, but there is also violence because of increasing inequality. Old family relations are breaking down. Materialist individualism is seething while identity remains seeped in feudal notions of caste and class. Manto would have said what he had already said, religion has come out of hearts onto the heads. But it is not only on heads anymore. It is on the loudspeakers now— temple, mosque, gurudwara, all crank up the volume, so loud that diction is hardly audible let alone grasping the meaning of words. Agricultural-based communities are extremely patriarchal, property belongs to only sons. Even if the daughter, instead of begging, asserts her right over property income, she is looked down upon as a ‘witch’. Misogyny is so rampant, women are either silenced or speak the language of that silence. And no one can hear whispers behind the loudness of speakers. 

Manto would have laughed it all away like my mother had learned to do it with her traumas, though at night she would tell me how cruel my grandmother was to her, and why her brother drank himself to death. She would tell me about her miscarriages and her constant day and night prayers for a son so that I stop blaming her for all the faults I find in my brother. I know she sees the reflection of her brother in her son, and sadly I see that too. Silences in men are stronger because masculinity can’t let them say it all. 

Behind the normalisation of cultural violence are the sublime violence of poverty, environmental degradation, historical amnesia, and ethnic identity that keeps getting aggressive as it is based on a shared sense of injustice, difference, and history of violence. I once went to Bangla Sahib with my friends. We sat down to listen to Gurubani. Instead, there was the story of Sikh gurus fighting against the injustices of the Mughals. The narrative was emotionally charged with descriptions smeared with blood and violence. That’s what you need to unite people, it struck me instantly and clearly. A story of indistinguishable and shared blood, because differences cemented by blood are stronger than any other. But I also wondered why it doesn’t say anything about the 1984 Sikh riots, why one is political propaganda for Khalistan, while the other is an old unforgettable story of pain and loss, indispensable to Sikh History. This story of the Mughals being cruel and oppressive doesn’t ask why the Mughals were the way they were and doesn’t try to understand the supposed evil. It was not because they were Muslims but because they were a central state power, against which Punjab continues to tussle. It made me realise silences are and will always be more dangerous than loudspeakers. 

I can never forget the conversation I had with my sister when I was still in school and went to visit her at her in-law’s home. She is married into a family which is certainly more Punjabi than us. Her husband studied in a Punjabi school, and a Punjabi college, and writes and speaks in Punjabi more than we sisters do. For the first time, I heard her speaking a political language that has nothing to do with gender yet sounds more personal. “Things are changing. There is nothing here to look for. You know well about politics, right? We were promised Khalistan during independence, and now its need is stronger than anytime before.” 

The current conflicts and tensions have accepted and reiterated certain versions of the truth, that partition was inevitable, what happened during partition— the murder of lakhs of girls and the raping of thousands of girls—was done by the other side, differences are exactly what they were since eternity, enmity can never be resolved and there can be no shame about what is natural and inevitable. Manto says partition failed to do what it promised. It was meant to free us of hatred and violence, but it could only make hatred thrive. No more how politically divergent people might be in India right now, they would all agree that partition failed. Because there are still Muslims in India, says one side. Give Kashmiris their nation, give Khalistanis their nation, says another. Give Hindus their nation— Bharat. Let’s make partition efficient. But as Ayesha Jalal said, Partition was for conflict management, not conflict resolution. It has failed and will continue to fail. 


Manto wrote short stories that often got him in trouble with Pakistani authorities. His most chilling short story, Open It! was based on a true story, where a young girl is brutally raped by refugee-relief volunteers who were meant to rescue her safely to her father. The magazine that published this story got banned, while Manto was accused of sedition. A three-page short story shook the Pakistan authority— the enemy is not on the other side of the border, and the bestiality of men in his stories has no borders.

The era in which Manto wrote belonged to times when progressive writers tried to acquire hegemony over the literary world. Manto was not interested in Freedom and Progress, and he chose to question it with his satirical stories. Pakistan as a new state wanted to associate its birth with freedom, progress, and self-exceptionalism, and any sordid expression on the partition, the cruelty of disillusionment, loss, and misery was seen as either indecent or seditious. Doesn’t it have a similarity with the current backlash against art in India? India is progressing, achieving greatness at the international level, and has a history of great ideas, philosophies, and spiritualism. Any expression related to poverty, caste inequalities, growing insecurities of minorities, the fragility of democracy, growing economic inequalities, and violence against women is continued to be repressed while the hyper-masculine nature of Hindu nationalism is by-passing, and crushing its critiques. 

Reading Manto’s Black Margins is like being hit with sharp-edged realisations of what I already knew. Vague flashes of human bestiality came sparkled with pinches of dark humour to bear it with subtlety. Cameos on Partition add to the already existing variety of literary works on the Partition. They expose the stupidity, banality, and hypocrisy of those who had murdered and done unholy acts in the name of God and the community. Most of them are from the perspective of perpetrators. They shock you, and make you scoff, as they make you tour around in a museum of ignorance. That’s what Manto has set upon to do— to make people see what they had been blinded to, and how blinded they are made to become, by the dominant narratives on the nation, religion, and gender, all three with overlapping rituals and traditions, and the world gets toppled in chaos once all three becomes the site of direct violence. But what caused this chaos? Can we understand it in simple terms? Or can it happen again? 

What I know is that answers to these questions are no way near to being simple. Sugar-coated history of nations where violence and crime can only be black and white, where victims are celebrated and crimes are remembered though never understood or empathized with. Divided sympathies, tribe pride, and cultural forms of violence, all three are challenged once the histories of ethnic communities are deconstructed. When I look at my family and their version of their history, it all has to do with religious gurus, and their moments of pride to have associated themselves with them. This pride has bound the community together and saved them from the inexplicable misery of human life and the madness of their unresolved existence. The belief that the book of faith has all the answers they need has saved them from the torment of building new meanings. I don’t want to undermine the importance of community and religion. Every version has its paradox and pitfalls. My attempts are solely to understand the human condition and look at it through neglected corners. Just like Manto looked at the Margins, from prostitutes to countering religious and national narratives through his chilling straight description of the bare reality he had encountered with. 

Why have Manto’s works seen a revival in today’s generation?  He was never recognized with such esteem and importance while he was alive. He was never writing for the audience of his time; they were either too ignorant to understand his worth, too numb and traumatized to face themselves with dire human sufferings, or needed to romanticize the ideal future. They wanted something to dissociate themselves from reality, something to feel hope in, and pride for. But the current generation needs to make sense of why despite living in the best of times in human history, so much misery and sadness permeated every corner.