Podcast • August 23, 2011

Ayesha Jalal, Part 2: What Would Manto Say?

Click to listen to Chris’ second conversation with Ayesha Jalal (23 minutes, 12 mb mp3) … One inmate had got so badly caught up in this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day, while sweeping the floor, ...

Click to listen to Chris’ second conversation with Ayesha Jalal (23 minutes, 12 mb mp3)

… One inmate had got so badly caught up in this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day, while sweeping the floor, he dropped everything, climbed the nearest tree and installed himself on a branch, from which vantage point he spoke for two hours on the delicate problem of India and Pakistan. The guards asked him to get down; instead he went a branch higher, and when threatened with punishment, declared, ‘I wish to live neither in India nor in Pakistan. I wish to live in this tree.’

From “Toba Tek Singh,” Manto’s masterpiece on the separation of lunatics — Hindus from Muslims — after Partition in 1947. In Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto. Translated by Khalid Hasan. Penguin, 2008.
Ayesha Jalal, the historian, with Iqbal Hussain‘s painting of two ladies of the night in Lahore, cover art on a Penguin edition of Manto’s stories

LAHORE — Pakistan’s greatest prose writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, set his most famous story in the Lahore lunatic asylum, to render an immortal judgment on the Partition of India and Pakistan. As Ayesha Jalal (who chances to be Manto’s great-grand-niece) sums it up in conversation: to Manto it was clear that “the madness outside is greater than the madness within the asylum.”

The Partititon had in fact two still-astonishing chroniclers of the horror that displaced nearly 15 million people and killed about a million. One was Margaret Bourke-White, whose black-and-white photographs for LIFE magazine stared into the shrouded eyes of the living dead on the march. The other was Manto, whose stories don’t just drip with the cold sweat of rape, murder and unspeakable loss along the way; they also drill far into the absurdity of that vast project of separating neighbors. I am thinking of a Manto story, “The Last Salute,” about Rab Nawaz and Rab Singh — two soldiers who’d gone to the same primary school in a Punjab village, who’d joined the army on the same day and fought for the British 6/9 Jat Regiment in Italy, and in their final, fatal encounter are fighting for Pakistan and India in Kashmir — “the friends of yesterday… transformed into the enemies of today.” Manto writes realistic tales that brim with his own generous, forgiving embrace of sinners and saints, but incomprehension is the telling note of his Partition stories. As Ayesha Jalal is noting for us: “… he cannot understand why India is partitioned. He cannot understand the logic of it.” These are notes of incomprehension and absurdity that recur spontaneously to a visitor in Pakistan even now, 64 summers later.

Ayesha Jalal is writing a biographical and literary reflection on Manto, to be published on the centennial of his birth in March, 2012. She is reminding us that in his short career, abbreviated by alcoholism and death at 42, Manto wrote brilliant sketches, successful screenplays and radio scripts, and essays as well as fiction. His nine “Letters to Uncle Sam” from the early 1950s stand up as playful, pungent and prophetic.

For example:

21 February 1954

Dear Uncle,

I wrote to you only a few days ago and here I am writing again. My admiration and respect for you are going up at about the same rate as your progress towards a decision to grant military aid to Pakistan. I tell you I feel like writing a letter a day to you.

Regardless of India and the fuss it is making, you must sign a military pact with Pakistan because you are seriously concerned about the stability of the world’s largest Islamic state since our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism. Once military aid starts flowing, the first people you should arm are these mullahs. They would also need American-made rosaries and prayer-mats, not to forget small stones that they used to soak up the after-drops following a call of nature. Cut-throat razors and scissors should be top of the list, as well as American hair-colour lotions. That should keep these fellows happy and in business…

I think the only purpose of military aid is to arm these mullahs. I am your Pakistani nephew and I know your moves. Everyone can now become a smart ass, thanks to your style of playing politics.

If this gang of mullahs is armed in the American style, the Soviet Union that hawks communism and socialism in our country will have to shut shop. I can visualize the mullahs, their hair trimmed with American scissors and their pajamas stitched by American machines in strict conformity with the Sharia. The stones they use for their after-drops of you-know-what will be American, untouched by human hand, and their prayer-mats would be American, too. Everyone will then become your camp follower, owing allegiance to you and no one else…

Your obedient nephew,

Saadat Hasan Manto

From “Letters to Uncle Sam,” No. 4. In Bitter Fruit. Penguin, 2008.