Manto’s Pakistan

Writing in the 1940s and early 1950s, even before Pakistan’s first military coup, Manto was surprisingly prescient about the dangers confronting contemporary Pakistan.

Published : May 29, 2013 12:30 IST

Undated photo of Saadat Hasan Manto.

Undated photo of Saadat Hasan Manto.

IT was a typical Mantoesque gesture, the decision by Islamabad to hold the national elections on May 11. Mantoesque, not because they were held at all, but because the day eerily coincided with Saadat Hasan Manto’s 101st birth anniversary, coming in the wake of the celebrations of this iconic literary lion’s birth centenary in 2012. If Manto were alive, he would have had a ball with this. Or, maybe not, since he was not prone to the sort of flag-waving nationalism which only comes out here on select days in March, August, November and December annually, only to withdraw just as quickly. This chance coincidence led me to reflect not only on the journey Pakistan has undertaken in the past five years towards May 11, but to do so through Manto’s own eyes, in his own words, had he been alive today. For, when one turns to his satirical essays, which he began to write soon after making a difficult journey to Pakistan in 1947, we find that Manto was searingly prescient as a social critic of the post-colonial state in Pakistan. These essays, it needs to be remembered, were written in the early 1950s, shortly before Manto’s untimely death and Pakistan’s first military coup, at a time when there were ardent debates going on at the state and popular levels regarding the role of Islam and the military in its national affairs, as well as the influence of neighbouring India and the United States on its foreign policy.

Since the general elections just got over in Pakistan, I would like to start from his very grim but accurate warning in his 1942 piece, “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 Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Pervez Musharraf, Altaf Hussain, the Chaudhary brothers from Gujarat, Tahir-ul-Qadri 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, 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 say 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, there’s no reality to it. Religion is not something which can be endangered. If there is a 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 nation’s bed; they should be ejected by the boiling water of hate. Leaders pour vitriol against capital and capitalists only so they can accumulate it themselves. Aren’t 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 shows it as a curse are themselves accursed. That poverty is far better than the rich who row their own boats with their 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.”

On the new Pakistan After reading these words, you might pause to think more about Imran Khan’s project of a New Pakistan. Come the independent Pakistan of 1947, while many progressives are fond of extolling Faiz’s lament on the unfulfilled promise of post-coloniality, especially his evocative poem “Subh-e-Azadi”, in prose it is Manto who captures the opportunism and political chicanery that characterised the new Pakistan. In his essay “See Kabira Cried”, where Manto uses the famous 15th century Sufi poet as a protagonist to satirise the emerging trends of an unnamed, 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 lakh soldiers began to hail the general but 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 lakh men began to decry Kabir.” Then, “‘Brothers, grow a beard, trim your moustaches and wear the (sharia) ordained pajamas. Sisters, braid your hair properly (once), no make-up, wear the burqa’, a man was shouting in the bazaar. Upon seeing this, Kabir’s eyes became tearful. The shouting man asked, shouting harder, ‘Kabir, why did you start crying?’ Kabir replied, ‘You neither have a brother nor a sister, and yet you have dyed your beard, wasn’t it better to let it be?’ The shouter began to abuse Kabir and Kabir began to cry incessantly.”

Another proof of the intolerance in the newly emergent state: “When the country’s greatest leader died, there was mourning far and wide. Several people began to roam about wearing black bands on their arms. When Kabir saw this, he became tearful. The black band wearers asked him: ‘Why are you so aggrieved that you started crying?’ Kabir replied: ‘If these black bands are gathered, they can clothe hundreds of people.’ The black band wearers began to beat Kabir: ‘You are a communist, a fifth-columnist, a traitor to Pakistan.’ Kabir grinned: ‘But friends, there is no band on my arm’.”

On 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 “Independence Day”: “Now listen to some jokes about Pakistan which is our new-born 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 am unnecessary then the government also has the right to declare me a plague rat and exterminate me, but so far I am safe.”

In the same essay, he also reflects on the promise of the newly independent nation: “In the end, I want to narrate a great joke. Right after the birth of Pakistan, when I came to Karachi, there was commotion all around. I wished to leave for Lahore immediately, so I went to the railway station and asked the booking clerk to give me a first-class ticket for Lahore. He replied: ‘You cannot get this ticket because all the seats are booked.’ Being accustomed to Bombay’s environment, where everything could be had on the black market, I said to him: ‘Well, you can charge me extra.’ His solemn and very admonishing response was: ‘This is Pakistan—I used to work like that before, but can’t do it now. All the seats are booked. You cannot get a ticket at any cost.’ And I didn’t get a ticket at any cost.”

While taking a brisk walk on a typical spring morning in Lahore soon after Independence, this is what Manto noted about the shape of such misplaced patriotism (in “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 I’ll have some lassi. When I neared the shop, I saw that the electric fan was running as usual but it was rotating in the opposite direction. I asked the confectioner and he said: ‘Can’t you see?’ I saw; the fan’s motion was directed at a coloured portrait of Jinnah on the wall. I shouted aloud ‘Long Live Pakistan’ and left the shop without ordering lassi.”

Veil victims Among Manto’s literary victims were Uncle Sam and the beards, the twin cancers that have gnawed at the very foundation of Pakistan. In a country whose ruling elite continues to define its relations with both, and where brave women like the lucky Malala Yousafzai and the late Parveen Rehman (as well as men like the late Salmaan Taseer) continue to be victims, Manto was very stark about the challenges Pakistani society faced in those nascent, early decades of the country’s formation, and which have mushroomed out of control in the 21st century. In a sharp essay, titled “Veil Talk”, he took on the custodians of religion: “On a grass patch near the footpath of the Mall Road, a man was sitting cross-legged and telling his friends: ‘There are many types of women who wear the veil. One type [of women] just cover their bodies in the presence of their relatives; they don’t feel shy in front of unknown men; another type wear the veil in front of men from 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: ‘Today our science teacher was telling us that black things absorb a lot of heat. Then why do we wear these black burqas?’”

“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 it’s better if you please don’t 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’.”

In Manto’s arguably most prescient essay, “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; they were a very strange phenomenon, with 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 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, capitalism and, God forbid, religion. By the grace of Allah, we humans are rid of these devils. People had become very wayward, and started to voice illegitimate demands for their rights; they 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.”

Manto continues: “Sirs, I forgot to mention science. It was literature’s maternal aunt. May Allah save us from this calamity, God forbid. They were concerned with making this finite world into paradise, these people who called themselves scientists. Accursed people, they used to claim the act of creation in competition with Allah, that we will create an artificial sun which will illuminate the whole world at night. Whenever we want, we would extract rain from the clouds. Consider, Nimrod was God, what else? Attempts were made to find a cure for an untreatable and dangerous disease like cancer, albeit throwing the gauntlet to Gabriel. One sahib holding binoculars, and claiming that he will reach the moon, another producing children in bottles and containers. They had lost all fear of God, these lowlifes. By the grace of Allah, all these devils have been raised from us.” Now, 50 years later, we would have no problem recognising the malaise Manto so ably diagnosed then, as United Nations teams administering polio drops to beleaguered infants in the country’s north-western areas are attacked and murdered in cold blood by militants emboldened by fatwas outlawing vaccination. A section of clerics declared voting in the May 11 elections un-Islamic!

His prescient “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 the history, politics, culture and international relations of the period as it affected not only Pakistan and India, but the wider world as well. And as a Pakistani delegation hastily crafted to reassure the IMF/Washington of the real loyalties of Pakistan’s ruling elite makes its way back to Islamabad in our own time, what Manto cautioned against was not just dependence on American kiss-proof lipstick (Manto found this appellation disappointingly inaccurate), but also economic dependence (and its less savoury aspects like American-armed jehadis 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 (drycleaning) 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, then do understand that the cat is in the bag. The purpose of military aid, as far as I understand it, is to arm these mullahs. I’m your Pakistani nephew but I am aware of all your machinations but this heightened intelligence is all thanks to your politics (God save it from the evil eye). If this sect of mullahs is armed American-style, then the Soviet Union will have to pick up its spittoon from here, even whose gargles are mixed up in communism and socialism. It is evident that you will try your best to raise up the lower-lower and lower-middle classes. Recruitment will begin from these two classes, but I’m telling you that our upper class is capable of accepting all types of dishonour because they have already had their eyes washed out in your laundries, but the lower-lower and lower-middle class will not tolerate any such thing.”

Details have emerged recently of how journalists from some of the premier Pakistani media organisations are on the U.S. payroll; and separately, how the Pakistani Ministry of Information maintains a “secret fund”, doling out foreign trips and illegal gratification to journalists for doing their bidding. These shenanigans were not new to Manto, himself a beneficiary of a princely sum from the U.S. Embassy but he managed to keep his integrity and clarity of mind intact, as he himself admitted in these “Letters”.

Also, very presciently, Manto said: “I am going to give you another advice and that is, you should help the Daily Zamindar in a way that nobody should find out. Its squint and half-lame editor has no art of receiving money. The noble son of Zamindar ’s founder, Maulana Akhtar Ali Khan (who has inherited the title of Maulana) too did not have this art because when he received some thousand rupees from the former Director of the Public Relations Department, Mr. Mir Nur Ahmad, to keep mum, he immediately bought a new American car and celebrated its public display in a grand manner which was crass foolishness. He is now in jail, may Allah keep him there and he gives no proof of his further stupidities. But I am surprised that his son too, who is the managing editor of Zamindar these days, despite being highly educated, is a total straight idiot. Of all the newspapers here, Zamindar is the sole paper which your dollars can buy whenever you like. If Akhtar Ali Khan is released, I will try to see that Zahur-ul-Hasan remains its editor; he’s a very obedient lad. But you should use your influence to reinstate Mr. Mir Nur Ahmad as Director of the Public Relations Department; Mr. Sarfaraz is useless, he is incapable of distributing millions of rupees among newspapers. Better that you direct the money through me. That way, I would also keep them in check and your propaganda work would also continue perfectly under my supervision. I also write well but unfortunately familiarity has bred contempt in my case; otherwise I can write such elegies in your honour which can’t occur to even Hameed Nizami’s ancestors. Just invite me a single time, facilitate a tour of your state of seven freedoms for two or three months, then see how this free man admits all of your hidden abilities and merits in such powerful words. I’m sure that you would be so pleased as to fill my mouth with dollars.”

Manto was just so much more than a chronicler of sex or partition. He was, in fact, 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 so-called foreign-educated (and based) intellectuals and gullible talk-show hosts to well-earned shame.

And just to leave you with a Mantoesque flavour at the end, and with no apologies to all editors, here is the inimitable Manto himself in this hilarious essay, “Wanted”, with the (election) season’s compliments: “Two editors—salary Rs. 250, annual increment Rs. 11 and salary upper limit Rs. 420 per month. Qualifications of first editor: should know how to ride a bicycle; should know mathematical tables above and below by heart; should have written 6 short stories, 10 ghazals, 7 couplets and 22 quatrains by the time of application; should be the inventor of pain-killer for the waist; at least 6 years of work experience of writing slips to buyers in a daily newspaper; should know dentistry though a degree from a dental college is not necessary; should be 26 years and 7.5 months old. Applicants who wrestle will be preferred. Second editor’s wanted qualifications: should have spent at least 6 months and 7 days in a weekly film newspaper answering buyers’ questions; should know how to write signboards; should eat at least 35 paans a day; should know the addresses of all Indian and Pakistani actresses; should have read all aphorisms related to females; should have suffered at least once from typhoid. Applicants having marks of smallpox will be preferred.”

Note: All the translations of Manto (from the original Urdu) are the author’s own.He can be reached at:

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