Since this is election season in Pakistan, and our vote was scheduled to coincide with Saadat Hasan Manto’s 101th birthday, I would like to start from Manto’s very grim but accurate warning in his 1942 piece “Hindustan ko Leaderon say Bachao” (Save India from Its Leaders), an evocative passage from which serves to highlight his foresight: “These people who are commonly known as leaders, view politics and religion as that crippled, lame and injured man, displaying whose injuries beggars normally beg for money. These so-called leaders go about carrying the carcasses of politics and religion on their shoulders and to simple-minded people who are in the habit of accepting every word uttered to them in high-sounding vocabulary, they bandy about that they will breathe new life into this carcass.”
While many progressives are fond of extolling Faiz’s lament on the unfulfilled promise of postcoloniality, his evocative poem “Subh-i-Azadi,” in prose it is Manto who captures the opportunism and political chicanery which characterised the newly-formed state of Pakistan. In his essay “Dekh Kabira Roya” (See Kabira Cried), where Manto uses the famous 15th century Sufi poet as a protagonist to satirise the emerging trends of the newly-independent state, he says, “A general addressed his army lined up against the enemy: ‘Food is scarce, but we don’t care. Crops are destroyed, but no problem — our soldiers will fight the enemy on an empty stomach’. Two lac soldiers began to hail the general, Kabir began to sob loudly. The general got infuriated and shouted: ‘Man, can you tell me why you cry?’ Kabir replied, still sobbing: ‘Brave general, who will fight hunger?’. The two lac men began to decry Kabir.”
On an August 14, soon after the partition of India, Manto’s cynical eye was quick to discern what has now become a nationalist, ritualistic, albeit flag-waving pathology, in his essay “Yaum-i-Istaqlal” (Independence Day): “Now listen to some jokes about Pakistan which is our newborn Islamic nation. Last year on Independence Day a man was trying to take a dried-up tree home by cutting it. I said to him: ‘What are you doing, you have no right to cut down this tree.’ He said, ‘This is Pakistan, this is my property’. I became silent. One day before Independence Day, two years ago, I received a notice that I am an unnecessary man, and that I should explain why I shouldn’t be thrown out of the house I had occupied. If I too am not necessary then the government has the right to declare me a plague rat and exterminate me, but so far I am safe.” On a typical spring morning in newly-independent Lahore, this is what Manto noted about the shape of such misplaced patriotism while taking a brisk walk, in “Saveray Jo Kal Aankh Meri Khuli” (When I Awoke Early Morning Yesterday): “It was morning time, a strange spring and a strange walk. Nearly all the shops were closed, but a confectioner’s shop was open. I thought to have some lassi. When I neared the shop, I saw that the electric fan was running as usual but that it was facing the opposite direction. I pointed this out to the confectioner who said, ‘Can’t you see’. I saw — the fan’s motion was directed at a colored portrait of Jinnah on the wall. I shouted aloud ‘Long Live Pakistan’ and left the shop without ordering lassi.”
In Manto’s arguably most prescient essay, “Allah Ka Bara Fazal Hai” (By the Grace of Allah), he envisages a future where everything from music and art to literature, newspapers and even the poetry of the country’s national poet, Muhammad Iqbal, would be censored and banned, to create, literally a ‘Pakistan’ (Land of the Pure): “By the grace of Allah, sirs, all other curses in addition to music are no longer to be found and God willing, slowly the curse of life will also go away. I mentioned poets. This was a very strange phenomenon, no care for Allah or His Prophet, just following lovers. One is singing the praises of Rehana, another of Salma, all power and strength be only to Allah. Now their tresses are being admired, then their cheeks; a tryst is being dreamed about. What dirty thoughts these people had, O woman! But now by the grace of Allah, sirs, firstly women have become scarce, and the remaining ones are safe in the four walls of their homes. Since this land was purified of the poets’ existence, the air has become totally clean and pure. But I didn’t tell you, towards the last phase of poetry, a few poets were so born who used to versify workers instead of lovers, praising hammers and sickles rather than tresses and heart troubles. By the grace of Allah, sirs, good riddance from these workers, they wanted revolution, they be damned. Did you hear? They wanted to overthrow the government, the system of society, of capitalism and God forbid, of religion. By the grace of Allah we humans are rid of these devils. The people had become wayward and started to voice illegitimate demands for their rights, wanted to set up a secular government by waving flags. Thank God now not even one of them is among us and a million thanks to God that we are now ruled by mullahs, and every Thursday we treat them to sweets.”
His “Chacha Sam kay Naam Khutoot” (Letters to Uncle Sam) were written in the early 1950s when the contours of Pakistan’s foreign policy were just beginning to be shaped by an unconstitutional government; though written in a bitingly satirical vein, they contain a remarkable overview of history, politics, culture and international relations of the period, as they affected not only Pakistan and India, but the wider world as well. And as Pakistani delegations hastily crafted to reassure the IMF/Washington of the real loyalties of Pakistan’s ruling elite make their way back to Islamabad, what Manto cautioned against was not just
dependence on American kiss-proof lipstick, but also our economic dependence (and its less savoury aspects like American-armed jihadis in Manto’s time, and Saudi and Canadian ones in our own): “India may grovel before you a million times but you will definitely make a military aid pact with Pakistan because you are really worried about the integrity of this largest Islamic sultanate of the world and why not, as our mullahs are the best antidote to Russia’s communism. If the military aid starts flowing, you should begin by arming the mullahs and dispatch vintage American (dry cleaning) stones, vintage American rosaries and vintage American prayer mats, with special attention to razors and scissors, and if you bless them with the miraculous prescription of vintage American hair dye as well … The purpose of military aid as far as I understand it is to arm these mullahs.”
We need to remember that Manto was so much more than a chronicler of sex or Partition. He was a very discerning and prescient social critic who foresaw many of the patterns our state and society forged in subsequent decades with religion, the army, India and the United States, with a clarity which would put many of our intellectuals and analysts to shame.
Note: Translations by the writer
The writer is a social scientist, literary critic, translator and political activist. He is translating Saadat Hasan Manto’s Letters to Uncle Sam and other postcolonial essays from the Urdu.