14 May, 2016

So little is known and even less written about the women who have unflinchingly supported their celebrated men. It is true that Safia Deen would not have been known had she not married Saadat Hasan Manto and become Safia Manto.

But, let it be known that Manto may not have been a hero had it not been for Safia, who stood by him, through the best and worst of times — the best were few and the worst, many.

Also read: Decoding Mrs Manto - She understood him like no one else, says Sania Saeed

Both Manto and Safia were born on May 11 (the husband in 1912, the wife in 1916), wore black-rimmed glasses, had Kashmiri origins and had first names that started with an S. But the similarities probably ended there.

He was a man of fine taste – be it silver capped Sheaffer pens or gold embroidered juttis. He wanted nothing but the best, whereas Safia was simple to a fault, needing less and less through their hardships. He was a provocateur and left no opportunity to be noticed, while she was self-evasive and shy.

What began as an arranged marriage in 1936, about which Manto writes a whole essay, titled, Meri Shaadi (My Wedding), soon turned into great fondness and camaraderie.

Their best days were spent in Bombay, a city they returned to, after Manto worked in Delhi at the All India Radio. It is there that they lost their first child, Arif. It devastated them, but also brought them closer. They then went on to have three daughters.

Manto once wrote, “I may be a writer of obscene stories, a clown, but I am also a husband and a father.”

He often wrote in the middle of chaos — children playing all around him and taking part in conversations with friends and family.

Once, he told everyone in Bombay that the Lahore policemen were issued ice-packed uniforms to battle the summer heat. He spread a rumour in Amritsar that the Americans had bought the Taj Mahal and were planning to shift it brick by brick. While others easily bought into his stories, Safia knew her husband’s ability to spin them.

Unlike many writers and artists who have had muses galore and history has forgiven them for their transgressions, Manto was a family man. This was quite uncharacteristic for a writer who defied norms, challenged social morality and poked a finger in the eye of the establishment.

This contradiction was rather unique. He had deeply wished that Saadat Hasan would always be loved and Manto would be forgiven. But as his nephew Hamid Jalal said, “Manto usually led Sadat Hasan by the nose.”

Also read: Nandita Das on why Manto was the greatest flagbearer of freedom of expression

Manto was a modern man and it was clearly reflected in his relationship with Safia. He would iron her saris, cook at a time when men didn’t enter the kitchen, braid her hair when she was unwell and would feed their daughters.

He also read out all his stories to Safia and took her to all the mushairas and public readings. He insisted on being called by his first name, an absolute blasphemy at the time. His mother disapproved of this, so Safia decided to address him as Sa’saab (a short for Saadat Sahab).

Why Manto decided to move to Lahore after Partition is still a mystery and while many have made their conjectures, as have I in my film, there are no two ways about the fact that those were their hardest days.

Probably more so for Safia, who silently suffered, both her pain and his. Manto’s mind and body were ravaged by cheap alcohol, as the pain of Partition seeped into him and the loss of his beloved Bombay became a reality.

Repeated court cases relating to the alleged obscenity in his stories sent him spiralling downwards, leaving little hope for Safia. Manto would tell her, “I am writing enough so you will never starve." Little did they know that it was his writings that would make them starve.

Thankfully, towards the end, the silent sufferer began to defy him but it was all too late. Their daughters, who were 5, 7 and 9 when Manto died, have faint memories of their childhood. They strangely think of it as being a happy one, where their mother and other family members never let them feel the hardship.

They fondly remember their father as the one who recited nonsense verse, made little figurines out of cigarette packet foil, cut guavas and peeled pomegranates and put them on his stomach so they could ride their horse.

Safia was often his first reader and what she thought mattered to him. He once published a short story Hameed aur Hameeda in her name. He has always acknowledged her role in his life so one wonders why he wrote so little about her.

I am fortunate to have gotten many precious nuggets from his family that I could never find in any book. One that stood out to me was that this explosive, outspoken man never raised his voice at Safia and was quick to say sorry as many times as needed.

There will always be many mysteries about the man. But the more I research, the more I discover, I feel, slowly, some of them are beginning to unravel. The film I am working on intends to give you a glimpse into that – Manto and his world.

The writer with the daughters of Safia and Saadat Hasan Manto.
The writer with the daughters of Safia and Saadat Hasan Manto.

This article was originally published on, and has been reproduced with permission.


muzz May 14, 2016 12:16pm
you can hate him or love him but fact is Manto was great (:
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Umar Khitab May 14, 2016 12:32pm
The gloves have come off, if the disaster movie of sarmad khoosat was not enough we have likes of Nandita Das and Sania Saeed deciphering the greatness of Mantos wife. The problem with these so called artistes is that they fail to recognize the greatness of a human life. Safia was the glue that held Sadaat the human linked to Manto the story teller. Be a human first then bring in your analysis or intepretation. Safia was probably in a way dictating stories what Manto wrote and presented to the world.
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wellwisher May 14, 2016 02:42pm
why did he go to Pakistan.He could have lived happily like Sahir, Mazrooh and many.His last night in Bombay was with Ashok Kumar, who took Manto in his car around city all night and pleaded not to leave all this.
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Satt May 14, 2016 03:10pm
@wellwisher A doctor is required where patients are.
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vngopal May 14, 2016 05:13pm
I am touched by the sentence "as the pain of partition seeped in to his heart and the loss of beloved bombay became a reality."
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Samad Chaudhry London May 14, 2016 05:43pm
In our college days around 1949 we used to enjoy Manto for his juicy stories like Thanda Gosht but hind side he was the best writer of Urdu Literature. His popularity with Naqoosh number in 50's and all his books and short stories are a must for serious readers.
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Asif Jamil May 14, 2016 07:29pm
I am also a child of the partition who remembers some horrible scenes of the time. Although I went to English schools, but learnt enough Urdu to read Manto's short stories which had a profound affect on me as a young college student. So much so that I wanted to see where he lived in Lahore. I went to his house and was very kindly invited in by his widow. I cherish that moment.
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wellwisher May 14, 2016 09:07pm
@vngopal ---Mr. Jinnah felt the same pain.He missed his bungalow at Malbar hills, in whose construction he had taken personal interest.He always thought that he would be able to visit Bombay at will after partition, but the brutality and separation of partition saddened him
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Faisal May 14, 2016 09:47pm
Manto was great poet and a writer but got less popularity Shakespeare how sad
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Calypso May 14, 2016 11:04pm
Great! The person behind a celeberity is almost always a woman.
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Meh. May 15, 2016 12:23am
The right-most (in picture) daughter looks exactly like Safia herself! For a moment I thought that was her :P
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Naseem Ahmad May 15, 2016 12:42am
@Satt beautiful
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Kala Ingrez - کالا انگریز - काला अंग्रेज - কালো ইংরাজি May 15, 2016 03:58am
As if she had a choice - the so called liberal husband of the time were apologetic and lost people not sure of which way to bend - a curse.
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Mahmood May 15, 2016 08:20am
Sad to see only four comments on Manto! That is the ignorance of the literature by the new generation.
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Sajad Malik May 15, 2016 01:50pm
He belonged to Indian occupied Kashmir...where not a single chapter is taught of him. Perhaps revealing the name, would open the curiosity of a reader to scratch the box containing Manto's un-answerable letters to Indian leaders like Nehru. Its sad, Kashmiris are denied even the identity of some of its greats
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Fahad Nadeem May 15, 2016 04:53pm
A good piece on a less discussed side one of the titans of literature. An affectionate husband and a father despite being a person of the world. Manto's genius would not have been easy to contain. Goes to tell how wonderful a person Safia would have been and should be considered no less than a silent hero for literature.
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Saima Khan May 15, 2016 05:40pm
Very Good Article Good to read about our elders , what a nice write up
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Mir May 15, 2016 11:22pm
@wellwisher If you've read his works, you'd know that one of the last things Manto heard before he left India was a threat from a Hindu friend who suggested that he may murder him in revenge for communal killings elsewhere.
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Qadoos Ahmed May 16, 2016 09:26am
Nice and good artical , about his live story
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AdHawk May 17, 2016 06:44am
By moving here Manto elevated Pakistan. Sixty years on we're still waiting for the next true liberal.
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K.A. Muhammad May 17, 2016 08:38pm
"Probably more so for Safia, who silently suffered, both her pain and his. Manto’s mind and body were ravaged by cheap alcohol, as the pain of Partition seeped into him and the loss of his beloved Bombay became a reality". "Repeated court cases relating to the alleged obscenity in his stories sent him spiralling downwards, leaving little hope for Safia. Manto would tell her, “I am writing enough so you will never starve." Little did they know that it was his writings that would make them starve". These two paras have a deep message for most of us old timers who have seen and experience ultimate fate of all such publicly acknowledged personalities of name and fame in India. Egos and emotions filled with envy, jealousy and intolerance is therefore not a new culture in here.
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AA Mirajkar May 18, 2016 12:29pm
Great job. More research work needed on this classical writer.
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Gill May 18, 2016 03:32pm
No citations of references/sources?
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anonymous May 18, 2016 08:28pm
behind every great man is an even greater woman
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