Why I Write – Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto – A Review

Why I write – Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto
Edited and translated by Aakar Patel


I’ve been putting off this review for quite a while now. Not because the book was a tough one to read but because it wasn’t my kind and I am not sure how to review it.

One: This is a translation – which I’m not fond of. Language I feel, is a part of the story and that is often lost in translation.Or so I thought.

And two This was titled ‘Essays by Sadat Hasan Manto’.. essays? For me E.S.S.A.Y. spells B.O.R.I.N.G. Consider it a hangover from school.

This book served to dispel both those myths. I do continue to suspect though, that it would have read much better in the original Urdu. But then that might be because even if I do not know the language too well I remain partial to it.

The Book..

… is a collection of articles by Manto that appeared in various publications over a number of years. They have been edited and translated by Aakar Patel. I have no way of knowing how much of the original has been retained but Manto’s thoughts certainly shine through.

The amazing thing about this book is that he wrote these articles (I prefer to call them that rather than essays) over six decades ago and yet they are more relevant than ever. It makes one think that either Manto had precognitive powers or that things really haven’t changed over the years or perhaps we did make progress only to regress again.

Manto picks varied topics from something like surviving in the Indian film industry (he wrote scripts for Bollywood, none of which were very successful) bumming cigarettes from friends and eve teasing to politics, politicians and partition riots. He wrote of his struggles with poverty and his inability to support his family as also of his brush with the law – he was tried a number of times for obscenity. Not once does he sound desperate or depressed. He writes with humour and a sharp satirical voice.

The ones I loved

One of my favourites was Hindi or Urdu  where he sets up a dialogue between a Munshi Narayan Prasad and a Mirza Mohammad Iqbal each making a case for their language. The futility of the argument shines through in the dialogue. He adds: Languages are not created, they make themselves and no human effort can destroy one already made. He reduces issues like Arms Control to a hilariously simplistic level in his piece How Arms Control works. Another one I liked was What Bollywood must do. It  is amazingly applicable today. Sample this India needs entertaining movies that also educate, exercise the mind and introduces us to new ideas and new thinking.

I saved up my favourite one for the last – God is Gracious in Pakistan – a brilliant piece of satire where he professes relief that artists, poets, painters, musicians and even scientists had all been done away with for, Creation, as he says is the preserve of Allah. He is incisive in this derision of the Government that blocks out creativity.

How we need writers like him.


I wracked my brains thinking where I had heard of Manto before till it came to me that actor Naseeruddin Shah did a reading of his famous short story Toba Tek Singh – another masterful satire. Here’s a link if you want to listen to it.

15 Replies to “Why I Write – Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto – A Review”

  1. This book has been on my shelf for a while now, but been putting it off for the reason that essays to me feel boring. But your review makes me think it’s not going to be. I will read this soon. 🙂 I agree that some part of any translated book is lost in translation. I’ve felt the difference reading original in Malayalam and then a translated version. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read some of Manto’s partition related stories, many years ago. He was brilliant in those, I thought at the time. Similar to Bhishm Sahni. But personally I have more respect for his contemporary Ismat Chughtai who refused to move to Pakistan after partition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right of course. I’d admire a person like Ismat Chughtai way more. Yet I like Manto’s writings. He had no love lost for Pakistan and it makes me wonder what compulsions made him leave his beloved city Bombay. Some kind of fear, perhaps for himself or his family. The partition was perhaps the saddest thing to happen in the way it tore people away from all that was familiar. It forced them to make a difficult choice.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Not my kind of book, but your review is making me change my initial impression. A translated book is one of my book reading challenge prompt, so I may pick this up. Thanks for sharing, Tulika!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly Shilpa. Wasn’t my kind too. I picked it up from the library as an in-between books kind of a read. Since each article is just a few pages long I read it in bits. It’s not the kind of book you would devour in a single sitting – like a romance or a thriller. I discovered this had its own charms. Do watch the video for a feel of what Manto is capable of.


  4. Dear Tulika, that was an unknown author and book for me… I often like to read essays or poetry – small pieces of art… This one I was intrigued by. Not a book a would normally choose, and maybe that’s why I should read it?:-) Thanks – enjoyed that read.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Definitely not a book or author I’ve heard about either. I’m not very adventurous when it comes to books. But your review makes me want to try this book.


  6. I am also reading a book of short stories called ‘Selected short stories’ translated by Aatish Taseer. Even though its a translation, the short stories are excellent. The language is excellent. They are really an education in writing short stories. Its only sad that our education did not even touch upon this great writer Manto. I came to know about him only recently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right. There are so many great writers, specially in vernacular languages who we’ve not read at all. And that’s such a pity.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What terrible bits of translation. Mr. Patel is often times utterly clueless and at other times with an agenda to make Manto fit to his vision of him. Consider the piece originally called “main afsana kyoonkar likhta hoon” i.e. closer to ‘how i write a short story.’ Patel sahab translates it to “Why I write.” i will give him that kyoonkar can at times mean why as well, but the piece is more about how he writes. Also Short story is gone from the the title. He basically rewrites Manto into his own limited anti-Pakistan agenda; he misses so much of manto’s sarcasm and the depth to the piece. Manto mentions he has to write because he has already been paid in the original piece. This bit is purged in the translation. Banjh woman (someone who cannot conceive children) is translated as a spent woman.Profanity like ‘shit’ is used pointlessly when it was not there in the original. So much else is wrong with the translation. Really cannot recommend the book.


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