Critical Reading: the Murder of Manto


When Mangoo kochwaan stopped to pick up an Englishman standing next to an electric pole in Saadat Hasan Manto’s story ‘Naya Qanoon’, he was already angry.

“Kahan jaana maangta hai?” he asked sharply.

“Heera mandi,” the Englishman responded.

“That’ll be five rupees,” Mangoo shot back, his moustache bristling.


The reader knows that Mangoo was in the mood for a fight against the imperial oppressor, but who could’ve guessed that the Englishman’s proposed destination would have other moustaches bristling until several decades later, and for entirely different reasons?

In 1993 and 1994, the Sindh Textbook Board carried out some revisions in the Urdu syllabus for Classes 11 and 12. Apart from knocking Premchand (the father of contemporary Urdu fiction) off the reading list, it was decided that Manto’s ‘Naya Qanoon’ would be included, but in an edited form. In the textbook version, when Mangoo demanded to know where the client was going, the Englishman responded only with, “Mandi.” His character thus became more presentable, if a little obscure: he could now equally be going looking for prostitutes, goats or turnips, and that was presumably how the Board was going to ensure that the next generation knew its literature but kept its moral bearings straight.

It was this passage that came to the attention of Ajmal Kamal, Editor of the Karachi-based Urdu literary journal ‘Aaj’, some years ago.  Upon investigation, he discovered that this was the smallest revision wrought on the story by the Textbook Board: apart from deleting the word ‘heera’, entire passages had been removed for carrying objectionable material. A revisit of the deleted passages threw up interesting clues as to the politics of the censors. Any reference to communism or ‘the Russian king’ was missing from the printed story; call it a Cold War hangover in a country aligned with the USA. Portions that mentioned Hindu-Muslim riots had been struck off as they placed equal blame on both sides for mob violence (and also because they mentioned that Hindus and Muslims were destined to fight forever due to a saint’s curse, not because – as the Two Nation Theory said – they were practically different species). Even a paragraph on the relationship between Mangoo and his Hindu wife was gone, although there was no telling whether Mangoo himself was Muslim or Hindu.

Kamal published the detailed findings of his content analysis in the Annual of Urdu Studies in 1995 (read the whole paper here Last Thursday evening, the topic came alive again as part of a critical reading session he conducted in partnership with T2F (previously The Second Floor), currently Karachi’s most active venue for cultural and literary dialogue. And a dialogue is exactly what Kamal and T2F got. Every person in the compact audience had an opinion and a unique perspective on issues of censorship, education, nationalism and identity; not one person was afraid to voice their views. The result was a rich and layered discussion that added substantially to the speaker’s initial analysis (later, he described the debate as “exciting”).

As one of the audience members pointed out, the extensive revisions to the story begged the question why Manto had to be included in the textbook at all. For someone who had formally been tried in a court of law for promoting obscenity through his work (if you’ve been thinking that censorship and clampdowns on freedom of expression in Pakistan were General Zia-ul-Haq’s domain, think again) he made an unlikely candidate for required reading in government schools. If anything, Manto’s ideas were the exact opposite of what the State might have wanted to promote:  he was “neither a moralist nor an ideologue, neither a sermoniser nor a nationalist” (ref. here).

The obvious answer to this would be that Manto’s canonical status amongst Urdu writers was difficult to block out. As another audience member said, Manto was one of the foremost post-colonial writers whose stories held appeal for readers anywhere in the country due to their simplicity and their choice of subject. It made sense for the State to appropriate him, as it were, and show him to be a part of the nationalist project rather than as an inconveniently popular voice of dissent. He was not the first writer to be put through this “posthumous circumcision”, Ajmal Kamal quipped, but given his preference of character-types and plots he was certainly one of the more complicated writers to drag into the fold. And that was where the choice of story became interesting. It occurred to me that from a censor’s point of view, ‘Naya Qanoon’ was the ideal Manto story to pick up. Unlike his other famous stories, which had morally problematic protagonists or references littered throughout, this piece was easily editable. Once the offending passages had been removed, there still remained a coherent narrative with a relatable, respectable hero who voiced choice opinions against the colonial establishment, albeit in a crude way and with very little credible information at hand (as Kamal said, if Mangoo kochwaan had been born today, he would’ve been a TV anchor). Take this paragraph, for instance:

Ustaad Mangoo hated the English; he said because they reigned over his Hindustan and perpetrated every cruelty imaginable. But the biggest reason for his hatred was that the goras from the Cantonment gave him a lot of grief. They would treat him like a lowly cur. Apart from this, he also disliked their colour. Whenever he would see the mottled pink and white complexion of a white man, he would start feeling inexplicably nauseous. He used to say that their red, wrinkled faces reminded him of a flaking corpse.

(Translation is my own; apologies to Manto Sahib if he’s turning in his grave at this moment.)


Mangoo kochwaan, for all his righteous anger, was a racist! Yet the censors did not see fit to remove this passage from the textbook because it suited the picture of the colonial oppressor that students were supposed to internalise. This also raised interesting questions about how concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were projected by the Sindh Textbook Board censors. One audience member at T2F said that some of the material that had been struck off (for example, the reference to heera mandi or Mangoo’s conversation with his pregnant wife) would have been seen as offensive to middle class sensibilities, particularly when this was supposed to be read in an instructional environment. Not only would the average teacher have been uncomfortable with discussing these things, there would also have been concern about a backlash from parents. This was a valid point. Given that schooling was supposed to have a civilizing effect on the young, it could have been considered inappropriate – even irrational – to reproduce Manto’s work whole scale when he took a distinctly unclean, uncivilized approach to literature. Ajmal Kamal agreed with this, adding that Manto practically had to invent the requisite language to approach the topics he wrote about. Urdu literature actually had very little room for his brand of writing.

One of the women present at the session argued in favour of moderate censorship, citing examples of distorted history in American textbooks in order to create an acceptable narrative at a national level. This led to an animated discussion on how history should be presented in textbooks and curricula, and how such concerns were born out of a deep sense of insecurity in the nationalist camp. The consensus was, however, that such restrictions could not be applied to literature with a clear conscience. If nothing else, a gentleman sitting in the front row said passionately, what had happened with ‘Naya Qanoon’ was straightforward copyright infringement and the matter ought to be taken to the courts.

This need to protect literature from being cropped and pruned at will by the self-appointed gardeners of our youth’s intellectual Eden becomes all the greater when applied to Manto’s writing. This is not light, superficial fiction. As one source puts it most beautifully:

“The best of his partition stories surprise one by bringing together, in darkly illuminating moments of existential understanding, terrible violence and the beauty of the human yearning for sex, children, home and community which refuses to yield its instinctual energy to the death-traps religious fanaticism and extremist politics lay for us. […]his stories […] are constructed out of a complex variety of strong voices — voices of protest and anguish, mockery and nostalgia, mourning and longing — voices which clash against each other and jostle for a hearing.” *

Saadat Hasan Manto, in his short life, wrote with an almost animal urgency about the horror of the world as he saw it. His prose was so steeped in social insight and so intelligently crafted that no passage could really be called spare or dispensable, except perhaps by those who did not want to understand him. To mutilate his work thus was, in fact, criminal. Stripped of some of its most potent passages, only a shell of ‘Naya Qanoon’ remained in the books  – one that was capable of communicating very little of what the author intended. In a way, Manto actually never made it to the Urdu syllabus at all.


* Quoted from lecture at Central Institute of Indian Languages, reference as above.

A video recording of the event will be available soon via T2F.