“MAN: Enemy of man. Party: Enemy of Party. Government: In conflict with government. This is the story of the 20th century, as it was the story of the 1st century. Like other goods and commodities on sale, human flesh has also always been on sale…”

This is an excerpt from Manto’s incisive comment on the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan on Oct 16, 1951 (Khalid Hasan’s translation). One stumbled upon it during a desperate search for some sanity where darkness prevails and where stories upon stories await to be told for want of an able narrator.

There is plenty happening in Lahore right now that would have inspired the caustic pen of Saadat Hasan Manto, whose birth centenary we mark this year. The following is but a motley attempt at somehow voicing the outrage. This is an attempt at escape from the madhouse for a journalist who cannot understand nor tolerate the shrieking voices around:

The mysterious medicine disease in the city had just found its 140th victim. An intense war was on between the ‘Farishtas’ and the ‘Shaheeds’. The Farishtas suspected the Shaheeds to be behind the contamination conspiracy — to embarrass the Farishtas in front of their people.

“The Shaheeds are responsible for these doses of death,” the Chief Farishta was aghast as he opened shop early one morning. By then, the papers had reported the land of the Farishtas had received the deadly medicine from the area where the Shaheeds had their shrines and their mureeds.

The Chief Farishta was very certain about his suspicion of the Shaheeds — just as he thought them to be capable of plotting the launching of a rampaging murderous mosquito in the Farishtas’ midst. The mosquito had killed hundreds on its own and no one knew whether it had departed or had only chosen to lie low for the time being.

The Shaheeds were equally confident of the lifeline they had been provided with. They looked forward to the revealing of the darkness they knew existed beneath the spotless white robes the Farishtas had proudly sported in public. The mosquito had managed to enter the proud bonnet. It had tugged at the holy robe, lifting it a wee bit for everyone to peep in and hopefully see. The drug deaths had widened the cleavage, and the disclosure, the Shaheeds sincerely believed, contradicted the tamasha staged in the name of better governance by better souls.

The tamasha audience was varied and the view was dependent on the particular angle of the beholder. Many of the old subjects believed all the Farishtas and the Shaheeds were concerned with was pleasing Uncle Sam. Until then Uncle Sam had not found time to reply to the letters that a certain Manto had dispatched to him a while ago. Instead, he had sent drones.

Until then, the cameras were still clicking to capture the prisoners the two countries were busy exchanging at the border post-Partition. By then, Mangu and his tanga and many others had been banished. Some horses were still used for transporting goods in the old city, but their days were numbered. The generous Hatims of the city were ready to slaughter the horses and feed them to the new traders who were coming in.

The wagons had also been expelled: not for the obscene scenes they harboured by innocently insisting on seating passengers face to face in the most compromising of positions — making sure their breath and perspiration intermingled and their legs got so entangled that they made up a large human octopus. They were replaced with buses which now had genders: on the roads were male buses and some female buses.

It was not as if obscenity was not an issue anymore. The debate had actually picked up after it became unnecessary that the participants identify themselves before they spoke.

Many of the new-wave computer debaters — progressive or not, I’m not sure — preferred to remain anonymous as they happily spied on a man who the cameras had spotted by the ring which had plenty of human flesh on sale

The wrestling enthusiast appeared to be a disliked man. He was guilty of raising a storm over a mysterious missive and now found it hard to come here and help in deciphering what he said he had discovered.

The Shaheeds were not too thrilled by his sight and as you would expect, the Farishtas were up on their toes, guaranteeing the wrestling enthusiast security should he decide to come and, hopefully, embarrass the Shaheeds.

Now you may find it mundane but Mangu the coachman had little interest in the topic. His problem was the ‘naya qanoon’ Mian Rabbani and his associates had recently created, in the name of the people and with much fanfare.

The new law was to create a balance between governments. It was to empower the government which was closer to the people. Instead, it left the people even more confused about who was responsible for what. So much so, the people could not tell who was responsible for a death: the small sarkar or the big sarkar?

All that was clear was that people were dying. The officials in the city where the drug deaths had occurred had banned advance booking in the main graveyard. The rush had been diverted to other, smaller cemeteries in the city. These yards were managed by illiterate gravediggers who were too dumb to ask for the domicile of the dead as they hurriedly went about the business they had been eternally involved in.

“Mitti pao (just forget about it),” the senior grave-digger shrugged his shoulders as he busied himself with his latest earthy assignment in a cemetery which was still open to the public.

“Why should it bother us whether it is the Farishta government or the Shaheed? We do not discriminate, do we? We have no business with the immortals. And we know both the Farishtas and the Shaheeds are immortal … Mitti pao.”

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

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