Marx in Manto

Published : Jul 13, 2012 00:00 IST

Some of Mantos essays bring out his admiration for and sympathy with the ideas of Karl Marx and the Bolshevik revolution.

A few years after Saadat Hasan Mantos untimely death in January 1955, Pakistans government was replaced in a military coup, with the approval of the United States, and the coup-maker proclaimed with brutal honesty, As far as I am concerned, the only embassy which matters is the American embassy. One wishes that Pakistans parliamentary governments, both elected and unelected, were just as honest about their relations with their favoured Uncle. The country went on to sign up for the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) military pacts, ostensibly to quarantine Arab nationalism and Arab oil.

The era of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the only time the country had some relief from acting as a bulwark against communism and was allowed to have an independent foreign policy. Nevertheless, the ties with Saudi Arabia, which Manto had lamented on earlier, were also re-cemented during this regime with the immigration of thousands of impoverished Pakistani immigrants to that country. Saudi princelings may not have found a suitable match in Pakistan, another fact that Manto lamented in his Letters to Uncle Sam, but they found a suitable home to hunt and kill to near extinction the houbara bustard, an endangered species, during and since Bhuttos regime. During the dictatorship of Pakistans worst military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, the countrys transition to vassal status was complete as the country was used and abused by Uncle Sam for its strategic objectives to contain and eventually defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

The parliamentary governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif maintained the hegemony of the American embassy, with Pakistani society becoming more intolerant and Saudised as a fallout of the Afghan war. The next military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, quickly became Uncle Sams favourite nephew by turning over the country to Uncle Sams so-called war on terror, and now thanks to WikiLeaks, we have a graphic view of the extent to which Uncle Sam and its embassy in Islamabad were involved in supporting the dictator and encouraging the opposition, still consisting of the two traditional parties led by the late Benazir Bhutto and the Sharifs. The dictators exit and the return of parliamentary democracy strengthened rather than weakened Uncle Sams control over Pakistan and its politicians, and make no mistake, the Army remains firmly under Uncle Sams control and will remain so as long as the countrys politicians are unreliable.

The recent execution of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan (after he had lived there in hiding for years); the Memogate controversy where the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. (in recent times he has come to resemble a mere clone of the various American proconsuls in the third world) had to resign following revelations that he had tried to convince senior members of the American political elite via an unreliable fixer to remove the current Pakistan Army chief; and the tragic incident last November where the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers are only symptoms of the wider malaise. The sham of a parliamentary review of relations between uncle and nephew following that incident would have irked Manto no end. This review refused to call for an end to the drone attacks led by Uncle Sam, which have spread much dread, destruction and resentment in the country, and the fact that it was not open to public debate made it as undemocratic a process as any other in the past involving military aid pacts, treaties and other cooperation with Uncle Sam. There is now talk of taking joint ownership of drone attacks and sharing of drone technology with the countrys military elite, and the type of technology transfer this will entail should come as no surprise to readers of Mantos Seventh Letter.

Meanwhile, Manto would also have been distressed to know that the good old Pakistani mullah had come a long way from his dry-cleaning and armed mercenary days and was now openly and shamelessly pro-American, and that this prestige had come hand in hand with his victory over godless communism and the rise of Saudi influence.

India did not begin as an American vassal state upon Independence and had a more independent foreign policy but still qualified for military aid from Uncle Sam, as Manto also noted in his letters. Being a favourite of Uncle Malenkov probably also meant a fixation with genuine neutrality rather than big-power status. However, with the passing of the Russian uncle came the realisation of orphanhood (the other South Asian Muslim nephew has had this orphanhood complex since its birth), and therefore the Indian nephew also clambered onto Uncle Sams bandwagon.

Manto would have chronicled with disdain the wrangling over the India-U.S. nuclear treaty and the failure of the Indian Left to make an impression in that struggle as sure as he would have opposed the countrys new-found status as Uncle Sams proxy adjunct to halt the rise of China, probably bringing with it the licence to do its own bidding in Kashmir (Manto was a proud Kashmiri). Neither would his ever-ready cynical eye have been slow to deconstruct the so-called India-Pakistan peace process, which appears at the moment to be largely dictated by Uncle Sams interests and the interests of its arms manufacturers and lobbyists as well as the mammoth armies of its two fawning nuclear-nationalist nephews; ordinary people have not really benefited from this process, ensconced as they are in a debilitating cycle of visa restrictions. Not content with taking on the imperial interference of Uncle Sam in Pakistans affairs, Manto then took on the custodians of religion, in several sharp essays such as Veil Talk ( Bitter, Sour and Sweet, 1948):

Young boys and girls were playing in the street. A boy suddenly says to a girl: Dont you have any shame? You are playing about naked. Go and come back wearing a burqa. The girl replies: I dont wear a burqa, but why do you go about with bare feet?

On a grass patch near the footpath of Mall Road, a man was sitting cross-legged and telling his friends: There are many types of women who wear the veil. One type is those who just cover from their relatives, they dont feel shy from unknown men; another type is also of those women whose veil is limited to men of their immediate street: they will travel the whole city with the veil either tucked under their arms or will keep shifting it from one place to another as the occasion demands, but upon entering their street will immediately cover themselves; however, the more dangerous ones are those who do wear the veil, but [do] not [veil] behind it.

In the tonga, a burqa-clad girl said to her fellow burqa-clad passenger, Today our science teacher was telling us that black things absorb a lot of heat. Then why do we wear these black burqas?

A boy was standing near the Queens (Victoria) statue saying to his friend: What is this unveiling ceremony? When the statue is ready, no one covers it up, but as soon as it is set up, it is covered by a black sheet and some eminent person is requested to unveil it. I think the issue of the veil is also similar.

A man was saying to his wife: I am a supporter of the veil, but I heard from my respectable grandfather that a riot ensued in Aligarh once only because a woman came out unveiled; therefore, its better if you please dont veil.

An elderly person is in conversation with his children at home: At the moment in India I mean in Pakistan two curses are very common: unveiling and progressiveness. Both are intimately linked. Unveiling creates indecency, and progressiveness nudity.

Then there are some essays of Mantos that clearly bring out his admiration for and sympathy with the ideas of Karl Marx and the Bolshevik revolution, something which not even his political Letters do. These essays can be found in Maxim Gorky, Red Revolution and Peasant, Worker, Capital, Landlord.

But the clearest indication of his Marxist views comes from his radio play Karl Marx: [The] Soviet Union is no longer a dream, a raw idea or a madness; its a concrete reality. A concrete reality which clashed with the steely plans of Hitler in war fields thousands of miles long, and which shattered fascism ironclad fascism into a million pieces. That socialism which used to be understood once as mere fantasy of a few Don Quixotes; the socialism which was once understood as a source of idle play; the same socialism which was treated like a prostitute by several pious European nations; the same socialism which was trusted to be bereft of both religion and humanity. Today it is shining as a ray of hope for sick humanity in the vast fields of Russia. This is the same socialism whose map was prepared approximately 150 years ago by Karl Marx he is worthy of our respect, he who found a source of equality and fraternity not for himself, for his nation, his race, his country, but for the whole world, for all humanity. Like a lily is born in the mud, in the same way the anti-capitalist Karl Marx was born into a family of capitalist Jews, on 5th May, 1818. He was but a child when his father opined about him that he would turn out to be a devil when he grew up. Whether Marx turned out to be a devil or an angel, our present generations already have some idea; the decisive conclusion will be in the hands of future generations.

Yet a discussion of these by no means salutary radical views and his two earliest collections of short stories ( Nuggets of Fire, published in 1936, and Short Stories of Manto, published in 1940), where he displayed his debt to Marxist ideas, has now been firmly held hostage to the whims of postmodernism, pseudo-nationalism (attempts to make him over as a true patriot and Muslim) and the academic fashions of the day, not just in the scores of special Manto issues brought out by various newspapers here but also in dramatic renderings of Mantos craft. He is now marketed as the sole realist of Partition and sexuality or, at best, a great storyteller without an agenda a la Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry and Anton Chekhov.

Some of his best writings have been set aside for gems such as Hindi and Urdu, If, I Complain, Prostitution, The Question Arises, When I Awoke Early Morning Yesterday, On Iqbal Day, By the Grace of Allah, and Save India from Its Leaders, an evocative passage from which serves to highlight his foresight in predicting the rise of such opportunists and time-servers as Narendra Modi, Asif Zardari and even the mercurial Imran Khan: These people who are commonly known as leaders, view politics and religion as that crippled, lame and injured man, by displaying whom our 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. Religion is the same as it has always been and will always remain so. The religious spirit is a concrete reality which can never change. Religion is a rock which cannot be affected by even powerful waves of the sea. When these leaders cry their hearts out telling people that religion is in danger theres no reality to it. Religion is not something which can be endangered. If there is danger, it is to these leaders who endanger religion to achieve their own ends. These leaders are bedbugs who have entered the tiniest crevices of the nations bed; they should be ejected by the boiling water of hate. Leaders pour vitriol against capital and capitalists only so they can accumulate it for themselves. Arent they worse than capitalists? They are robber barons and mountebanks. Now the time has come for the people to reveal their faithlessness in them. There is a need for the youth in tattered shirts to rise and to embrace determination and passion in their broad chests; they should throw out these so-called leaders from the pedestal which they have ascended without our permission. They have no right to sympathise with us, us the wretched of the earth remember poverty is not a curse; whoever views it as a curse are they themselves accursed. That poverty is far better than the rich man who rows his own boat with his own hands. Be the rower of your own boat; be your own evaluator of profit and loss and then witness the circus of how these leaders and so-called guides row the heavy ship of their lives in the vast sea of life.

Significantly, Manto wrote this powerful indictment in 1942, in pre-Partition India before its horrific pogroms were to shake him to the core and cause him to produce his best work. But he died, alcoholic and broken-hearted by the condition of the country he had left was in and the new country he had made his home. Ultimately, Manto was a humanist who always sided with the underdog and was not afraid to take risks while doing so. This is evident in his work, which deals with the lives, loves and travails of women, prostitutes, dancing girls, pimps, petty criminals and hobos, those shunned by polite bourgeois society. Manto was always scrupulous about avoiding sentiment and taking sides; the goodness inherent in humanity, even while performing the most profane tasks rape, bestiality, murder, pillage, theft among them was the eventual winner with Manto. He would have identified with the global New Left, which was taking shape in the 1950s and 1960s (I often compare him to another radical, the American sociologist C. Wright Mills, who also refused to take sides in the Cold War, maintained his independence of mind and spirit and, like Manto, passed away relatively young aged 45, but after leaving a prolific body of significant sociological work), and would have been its spokesman in Pakistan had he lived long enough to see the effects of dictatorship in Pakistan, leading to the eventual break-up of the country, and would have cynically and brilliantly deployed his caustic pen against it.

But it was not just the partition of India or the suppression by and indifference of the countrys ideological and moral custodians that killed Manto; literary custodians also played an ignoble part. In fact, Manto used to joke with apparent irony that the Pakistani government regarded him as a communist, while the communists regarded him as a reactionary.

A collection of Mantos stories, essays and sketches translated into English by his nephew Hamid Jalal just a year after his death was quickly censored and withdrawn from circulation.

Looking at the list of some of the luminaries who received the Nobel Prize in Literature between 1936 and 1955 the period of Mantos intellectual efflorescence one can only feel sorry that some unknowns such as Roger Martin du Gard, Frans Eemil Sillanpaa, Johannes Vilhelm Jensen, Par Fabian Lagerkvist and even Francois Mauriac received the award and Manto did not. It would have been a different story had Jalals translations reached the Nobel Committee samizdat (and Manto would surely have heartily approved if the long arm of Uncle Sam had taken some time off from smothering democracy in Pakistan to help smuggle these to Oslo, as happened later in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyns case. But maybe Manto was on the wrong side of the Cold War).

Surely, Winston Churchill, one of historys greatest warmongers and the 1953 Nobel laureate in Literature, might have been overlooked in favour of Manto that year for it was the irresponsible policy instituted under Churchills leadership that led to the bloodbath of Partition and the deaths of close to 1.5 million people, and which made Manto the consummate artist he was: a perfect example of how poetic justice would have ideally been served.

And Manto would have been a worthy successor to the only prior winner from the subcontinent of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Sir Rabindranath Tagore. Of his own talent, Manto had no doubt, writing his own epitaph in 1954, just a year before he died: Here lies buried Saadat Hasan Manto, with all the secrets of the art of short story-telling buried in his chest. He is still thinking, buried under tons of earth who is the greater short story-writer: he or God? Saadat Hasan is dead. Long live Manto.

Note: All the translations of Manto (from the original Urdu) are Raza Naeems.

Raza Naeem is an independent writer living in Lahore and is at present working on a book on the crisis of bourgeois democracy in Pakistan.

He can be reached at
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