“Saadat Hasan will die one day, but Manto will live on.” (Saadat Hasan Manto)

Saadat Hasan Manto (May 11, 1912- January 18, 1955) was a visionary writer who lived far ahead of the time in which he was living. After 57 years his prophetic writings are turning to be a reality. He is considered one of the greatest Urdu short story writers. He was endowed with matchless artistic skills as a storyteller. He is known for his daring truthfulness and realism in his characters. He has huge fan following all over the world. But unfortunately, he never got its due importance because of his bold themes, defiance of conservative and narrow-minded mindset and jingoistic patriotism. His work was banned under obscenity law and he was made controversial because he offended the establishment by giving voice to voiceless people. He had to face cases in courts to fight the ban on his books. His books have been translated in major languages of the world.

Different theatre groups across the globe have paid tributes to his passionate writings. In Pakistan Ajoka Theatre in connection with the 100th birth anniversary organised a four-day theatre festival to pay tribute to the legend. Plays ‘Toba Tek Singh’ and ‘Naya Qanoon’ adapted from his writings were presented before packed audiences at Alhamra Hall in Lahore.

‘Toba Tek Singh’ is a story about the exchange of lunatics between the governments of Pakistan and India after the partition. Manto depicted the agony of partition. There are many Manto’s stories, which describe horrific madness of the partition and Toba Tek Singh is one of those stories.

The play begins with eight lunatics dressed in shabby dresses and a narrator arriving on the stage. The scene depicts Lahore Mental Hospital after two or three years of partition. The performance started with some lunatics sitting and some standing aimlessly. The warders enter and break the news that lunatics were going to be exchanged between India and Pakistan. Lunatics start discussion about the aim of this exchange. “Why are we being separated from each other; what is Pakistan and where it is geographically” they questioned each other. Everyone was ignorant about the facts.

Among the inmates there was a Hindu lawyer from Lahore who had gone mad because of his unrequited love. When he came to know that Amritsar had become part of India, where his girlfriend lived, after the partition; he abused all Hindu and Muslim leaders who had conspired to divide India and making him a Pakistani and the girl an Indian. When other lunatics asked him to go to India where his beloved lived, he refused to do so fearing his legal practice would not be successful there.

When the audience had considerable details of all other lunatics; the most important character, Bishan Singh was introduced who was known as Toba Tek Singh. He looked dirty and had long hair and beard. He had been standing for the last 15 years and his legs had swollen. He was destined to be sent to India. The narrator gave a brief description about him. The audience came to know the rest of his detail after some time that he was a landowner and belonged to a reasonable family of Toba Tek Singh. He had a daughter named Rupa. After losing his mental balance he was sent to Mental Hospital in Lahore. In the beginning people from his family used to come to meet him but after the partition they had moved to India and his meetings had come to an end.

Bishan Singh was in constant search of an answer that how partition had affected his home town Toba Tek Singh, whether it was in Pakistan or in India. He asked it from everyone “where is Toba Tek Singh?”, from his inmates, the warders, and from Fazal Din, a man came to meet him some time before his departure to Wagah Border from where he would be handed over to Indian authorities.

On the day of handing over, Bishan Singh came to know at the frontier that Toba Tek Singh was in Pakistan, the same country in which he was living. He refused to go to India on the plea that his hometown was in Pakistan. Officers left him there undecided. Bishan, known as Toba Tek Singh, who had been standing for the last fifteen years, cried, “Toba Tek Sing is here,” and fell with a thud on a nameless piece of land which belonged to none of the two countries which came into existence after the partition.

Through the talks of these lunatics Manto has conveyed his message. Young lawyer’s stance that partition had changed his beloved and his own nationality; and the death of Toba Tek Singh on the ground that had no name represents a pungent satire on partition and the ambiguity of nationhood. It highlighted the agony of people who were forced to migrate and left the land of their forefathers. About partition Manto once said, “Hindustan had become free. Pakistan had become independent soon after its inception but man was still slave in both these countries -- slave of prejudice … slave of religious fanaticism … slave of barbarity and inhumanity.”

All the actors’ performance was remarkable especially that of Naseem Abbas who played the role of Bishan Singh.

Manto’s another masterpiece “Naya Qanoon” (The New Constitution) was also presented. The story is about Indian Act 1935, which was supposed to bring the Indians out of the miserable condition that they were living in. Manto wrote this story in 1938 and criticised the New Act of 1935 which brought no change for the Indians. Ustad Mangu, in the story, is representing the common people and the white man depicted the British rulers.

Ustad Mangu, the tongawala (coachman) is regarded a man of wisdom among all his other tangawalas at the adda (place where the public transport coaches used to be parked). He has never been to school but there is nothing under the sun about which he does not know. He is in the habit of listening to his passengers, which are his source of information. Mangu has great dislike for Englishmen because they are ruling against the will of Indians and the moneylenders who according to him are sucking the blood of poor.

The play begins with Ustad Mangu dressed in coloured dhoti and plain kameez coming to his friends also dressed like him except for a few who had turbans on their heads. He shared details of civil war in Spain and the role of Russian King. They all wanted some change and the end of British rule.

The next day Mangu’s passenger was a British, who was drunk. He abused and humiliated Mangu for not dropping him at dancing girls’ bazaar. Mangu came back to his friends fuming about the British and their rule in India. By this, the real situation was presented. Humiliation of Mangu showed that the British treated Indians like slaves.

In the next scene, Mangu had two passengers from District Court who were discussing the new constitution which would be enforced on 1st April and apart from many other changes it (the new constitution) would give limited freedom to the Indians. This news made Mangu’s spirit high. He came back to his adda to break the great news to his friends. Initially, he found no one present there. Then Nathu, another tongawala came. Mangu asked him to bring a glass of lasi which he drank with satisfaction. His other friends also came and he told them the news of new constitution which would give them freedom from the British and moneylenders. Mangu mentioned 'Red Shirt Movement in Peshawar as the initiative of that great change.

In next few scenes, Mangu could be seen with different passengers. He listened to them discussing different aspect of the new constitution. Two barristers sitting on his tonga discussed that the new Act would bring no major change. The other day Mangu one of his passengers was a moneylender who was worried about the new Act. “The new Act will destroy us, tomorrow I will ask about it from the lawyer,” he said. Similarly, the next day two students were his passengers. They were optimist that the under new constitution if their Mr. A would be elected then they would definitely get some job after graduation. Even though Mangu had mixed details about the new Act yet he was very optimist about the constitution. He believed that their fate would change on 1st April. In that happiness he had even bought a new colourful plume of his horse for 14 annas (small unit of a Rupee).

Finally, March 31st passed and the day came for which Mangu had waited anxiously. He went to the Mall Road early in the morning. Riding his tonga he felt the chilly weather as usual and saw nothing new. “Everything is old; nothing has changed. May be it is still too early,” Mangu said to himself. He reached Government College and its tower clock struck 9. Mangu said to himself, “Court time has started. Now I can see some change,” He rode his tanga slowly towards Cantt in search of change. There he stopped his tonga.

A white man appeared. He wanted to go somewhere. Initially, Mangu showed disinterest in taking him anywhere. Then he said to himself “It is not wise. It is an opportunity to earn the money which I have spent on the new plume.” He recognised that it was same person who wanted to go to dancing girls’ bazaar and had abused him. Mangu demanded five rupees fare. “Are you crazy, the bloody tongawala,” said the Brit replied. Mangu lost his temper and started beating him while yelling, “It is the new constitution and we are free now.”

Finally, two soldiers appeared on stage and said that there was no new law. They put Mangu in jail who was still shouting about the new constitution. The performance of actors was mesmerising.

The adaptation of the story gave awareness about political, economic and social conditions of that time. It depicted the political atmosphere of the society by showing strong desire for freedom. People were fed up of being ruled and treated badly.

The description of moneylenders pointed towards the economic condition of the Indian which was unstable. Poor people were badly entrapped in the net of interest and were being exploited by moneylenders who were afraid of the new Act and losing all their interest.

 ‘1st April’, the date which Mangu waited anxiously is also known as ‘April Fool’s day’, which meant that Indians were being made fool with the Indian Act 1935. It was just to cool down the agitation for freedom in India. The portrayal of white man’s behaviour was objectionable. They were morally corrupt and ethically downgraded who used to drink and visit brothel houses. Yet they were proud and considered themselves superior to Indians.

Besides these adaptations, every day there were dramatised readings of Manto’s other works. His short story “Akhari Salute”, which was read by Naeem Tahir, highlighted gruesome facts of life. Sawerey Jo Kal Ankh Mairee Khuli, Dekh Kabira Roya and Pardey ki Batain were the other works which were read by Naveed Shahzad, Naseem Abbas and Furqan Majeed. Every story had layers of meanings and showed the deep observation of Manto.

Living legend Intezar Hussain speaking on the occasion appreciated the adaptations. “Stories have been presented in such skilful manners that all their aspects become obvious to the audiences. The new generation of story writers which emerged in that era, like Ismat Chughtai, Baidyanath, had their own colours in writings. But pure and realistic description of facts was only in Manto’s writings. I was newcomer in writing short stories at that time and Manto was a torch bearer for me,” he said while paying tributes to Manto.

“There were few known tongas at that time; one was of Charagh Hasan Hasrat. Everyone knew about destination would be a coffee shop because he had to take coffee. Similarly, there was a tonga of Manto Sahib and it had no destination. He used to roam the whole city on it.

“Manto Sahib would often ask his tongawala ‘do you know who I am’ and if his response was yes then it was okay. But if any tongawala showed ignorance then he would be given a briefing,” Intezar Hussain said.

Naeem Tahir shared his memories said that he was a great fan of Manto and used to read every piece of his writing even though he was a science student. “I was able to see him twice. I saw him for the first time when he came to Government College and read his short story there,” he stated.

Manto was a great writer. Manto is a living history, a cultural reference for the Indian sub-continent. What Chekhov is to Russian literature or what Maupassant is to French literature, Manto is to Pakistani/Indian literature.