Books Reviews

Why I Write

Cover of the book Why I Write by Saadat Hasan Manto


One of the greatest raconteurs of the 20th century, Saadat Hasan Manto declares that he was forced to write when his wife routinely demanded that he put bread on the table for the family. He doesn’t attribute any genius to his skills as a writer and convinces his readers that the stories flowed even as he minded his daughters or tossed a salad. Equally, Manto treats his tryst with Bollywood with disdain and unmasks the cardboard lives of tinsel town when a horse is painted to double up for a zebra or multiple fans rotate to create a deluge. Two of Manto’s favourite and recurring themes — Women and Partition—find special mention.

For the first time ever, this unique collection of non-fiction writing from the subcontinent’s greatest writer, translated by well-known author and journalist, Aakar Patel showcases Saadat Hasan Manto’s brilliance while dealing with life’s most mundane things — graveyards, bumming cigarettes, a film crew with motley characters from mythology — and a sharp dissection of what ails the subcontinent even after six decades —Hindi or Urdu, vile politicians and the hopelessness of living under the shadow of fear.


Title: The answer to the book’s name ‘Why I write’ is in the following paragraphs:

  • “Truth be told, I promise you I’ve no clue how is it that I write. When I’m at a loss for ideas, my wife, who manages our finances, says sternly: ‘Please stop thinking and begin writing.’ And so I pick up the pen and start scratching out a few lines. My mind is still empty — but by now, my pocket is full. And of its own, as if by magic, a ripe story pops out. In that sense, I don’t consider myself a writer so much as a pickpocket. One who picks his own pocket and hands over its contents to you.”
  • “The most important reason is that I’m addicted to writing, just as I am to drinking. When I don’t write, it feels like I’m unclothed, like I haven’t had a bath. Like I haven’t had my first drink.”

Content: This book tells you about Saadat Hasan Manto’s thoughts on various subjects ranging from politics, and religious fundamentalism, to feminism and women’s place in society, to marriage, and modernization.
Some of Manto’s essays also talk about the effect of India’s Partition on both sides of the border. His special fondness for Bombay is reflected in his descriptions of how it was before and after Partition.
I don’t know if this is true or if it is a mere coincidence because of the essays included, but Manto’s two favourite topics seem to be Bombay and Bollywood. The book has a long essay on Bollywood and how it can express the spirit of the newly independent India. However, he seems disappointed by the lack of artistic integrity and the increasing mediocrity in the industry.

Writing: Manto’s style, albeit sarcastic, irreverent, and sometimes dark, is entertaining in that he simplifies even the most serious subjects. Not all of Manto’s opinions may be palatable to you but his wit may sustain your interest. Much of what he said, especially about religion and politics, is true even after so many decades.

Translation: I am unable to comment on this as I have not read any of Manto’s original works. The book seems well-translated. However, it has many untranslated Urdu portions, which might pose a problem for those who don’t know that language.

Overall, a good collection of essays that reveal Manto—the man and the writer.

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