Friday, July 07, 2006

Saadat Hasan Manto's "Letters to Uncle Sam"

Even in translation, the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto are blindingly good. Manto published about 250 short stories in a very brief career -- alcoholism killed him at the age of 42 -- and countless nonfiction pieces for newspapers and magazines. Much of Manto's nonfiction writing is witty and sharp, though he also has a dark side that comes out in some of his best work. Partly because they're available online, today I'd like to point readers to a series of rhetorical "Letters to Uncle Sam" Manto wrote in the early 1950s. There were nine in total, and four of them have been put online at Chowk: one, two, three, four.

If you know Manto well, you might want to skip down a bit for quotes and comments on the "Letters." For those who don't know Manto: the stories are amazing, often horrifying. The Partition stories Manto wrote are about the darkest you'll ever see. Several of them deal explicitly with the psychic effects of rape, on both men and women, perpetrators and victims. Even Manto's pre-Partition writings (stories like "Khushia," for example) are deeply pre-occupied with the problem of masculinity and the dehumanization of women, from a perspective that is only partly feminist.

Manto was in Bombay through the Partition (in 1948, he decided to move, with his family, to Lahore), so it's unclear to me whether he personally knew people who had experienced this kind of violence. But stories like "Open it!" and "Cold Meat" (both of which provoked obscenity trials in Pakistan) seem to be inspired by a very personal awareness of the effects of traumatic violence. Whether or not he was there, Manto's partition stories keenly capture the dehumanization that follows communal violence.

(As a place to start, I would recommend the collection Black Margins, though pretty much any collection will do.)

On to the "Letters to Uncle Sam," which were written in Urdu between 1951 and 1954. These "letters," which Manto says he cannot send as he lacks money for postage, are opportunities for Manto to comment on the strangeness of his new country, as well as on the surreal aspects of American life as discerned from magazines and newspapers. In the letters, Manto happily describes his poverty, and contrasts it to the image of fabulous American wealth. But in some ways, Manto argues, the two countries may not be that far apart after all; the letters are as irreverent in their treatment of "Uncle" as they are of life in Pakistan.

Manto begins the first letter with a note of rancor over the Partition, which led to his displacement from his film-writing career in Bombay and his resentment at the recurring obscenity trials:

My name is Saadat Hasan Manto and I was born in a place that is now in India. My mother is buried there. My father is buried there. My first-born is also resting in that bit of earth. However, that place is no longer my country. My country now is Pakistan which I had only seen five or six times before as a British subject.

I used to be the All India’s Great Short Story Writer. Now I am Pakistan’s Great Short Story Writer. Several collections of my stories have been published and the people respect me. In undivided India, I was tried thrice, in Pakistan so far once. But then Pakistan is still young. (link)

Manto was right: Pakistan was indeed still young then. (There would be two more obscenity trials for his stories before his death. If Manto had lived, you can presume he would have spent most of his life in prison for his writings.)

Of course, America wasn't without its own controversies over obscenity. D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was still banned in the early 1950s, and Manto was struck by the obscenity trial of a novel by Erskine Caldwell, called God's Little Acre:

All I really wanted to do was to convey my good wishes to brother Erskine Caldwell. You will no doubt recall that you tried him for his novel God’s Little Acre on the same charge that I have faced here: pornography.

Believe me, uncle, when I hear that this novel was tried on an obscenity charge in the land of seven freedoms, I was extremely surprised. In your country, after all, everything is divested of its outer covering so that it can be displayed in the show window, be it fresh fruit or woman, machine or animal, book or calendar. You are the king of bare things so I am at a loss to understand, uncle, why you tried brother Erskine Caldwell.

So, I read the Caldwell judgment . . . The last lines of [the judge's] judgment point to the intellectual reach of his mind. He writes: "I personally feel that if such books were suppressed, it would create an unnecessary sense of curiosity among people which could induce them to seek salaciousness, though that is not the purpose of this book. I am absolutely certain that the author has chosen to write truthfully about a certain segment of American society. It is my opinion that truth is always consistent with literature and should be so declared."

That is what I told the court that sentenced me, but it went ahead anyway and gave me three months in prison with hard labour and a fine of three hundred rupees. My judge thought that truth and literature should be kept far apart. Everyone has his opinion.(link)

Ah yes, everyone has an opinion (including a judge); it's in those last lines that you see Manto's characteristic barbed wit at its finest.

The second letter is lighter in tone, and details some of Manto's run-ins with American troops stationed in Bombay during the war. Perhaps the highlight is where he talks about women's legs in American films:

Uncle, your women are so beautiful. I once saw one of your movies called ‘Bathing Beauty’. “Where does uncle find such an assemblage of pretty legs?” I asked my friends later. I think there were about two hundred and fifty of them. Uncle, is this how women’s legs look like in your country? If so, then for God’s sake (that is, if you believe in God) block their exhibition in Pakistan at least.

It is possible that women’s legs out here may be better than legs in your country but, uncle, no one flashes them around. Just think about it. The only legs we see are those of our wives: the rest of the legs we consider a forbidden sight. We are rather orthodox you see.

I have digressed again but I will not apologise because this is the sort of writing you like. (link)

Note the passive-aggressive turn at the end: "this is the sort of writing you like." It's something Manto does again and again. Even as he's mocking the conservative values of the new Islamic nation, at any moment he might turn it around, and mock the absurdities of America as he understood it.

The third letter gets into politics and religion a bit. In addition to writing stories the authorities (British and Pakistani) deemed obscene, Manto was chronically irreligious, as illustrated by the following jab at the local Mullahs:

You have done many good deeds yourself and continue to do them. You decimated Hiroshima, you turned Nagasaki into smoke and dust and you caused several thousand children to be born in Japan. Each to his own. All I want you to do is to dispatch me some dry cleaners. It is like this. Out here, many Mullah types after urinating pick up a stone and with one hand inside their untied shalwar, use the stone to absorb the after-drops of urine as they resume their walk. This they do in full public view. All I want is that the moment such a person appears, I should be able to pull out that atom bomb you will send me and lob it at the Mullah so that he turns into smoke along with the stone he was holding.

As for your military pact with us, it is remarkable and should be maintained. You should sign something similar with India. Sell all your old condemned arms to the two of us, the ones you used in the last war. This junk will thus be off your hands and your armament factories will no longer remain idle.


One more thing. We can’t seem able to draft a constitution. Do kindly ship us some experts because while a nation can manage without a national anthem, it cannot do without a constitution, unless such is your wish. (link)

"Unless such is your wish" -- yes, exactly: a bit of fake obsequiousness to expose the often ethically dubious American approach to fighting Communism in the 1950s.

The fourth letter gets into films, Bollywood and Lollywood. As with the other letters, it seems oddly relevant to the present moment. Either our era is strangely similar to the 1950s, or nothing has changed and people have been talking about the same things for fifty years:

One more thing. Your moviemakers are taking a great deal of interest in the Indian film industry. We cannot tolerate this. Recently, when Gregory Peck was in India, he had himself photographed with the film star Surayya whose beauty he went on record to admire. Another American moviemaker put his arms around our star Nargis and kissed her. This is not right. Have all Pakistani actresses croaked that they should be ignored!

We have Gulshan Ara. She may be black as a pot but she has appeared as the lead in many movies. She also is said to have a big heart. As for Sabiha, while it is true that she is slightly cross-eyed, a little attention from you can take care of that. . . .

There is something about lipstick that I need to mention to you. The kiss-proof lipstick that you sent over did not gain much popularity with our upper-class ladies. Both young girls and older women swear that by no means is it kiss-proof. My own view is that the problem lies with the way they kiss which is all wrong. Some people kiss as if they were eating watermelon. A book published in your country called The Art of Kissing is quite useless here because one can learn nothing from it. You may instead like to fly an American girl over who can teach our upper classes that there is a difference between kissing and eating watermelon. There is no need to explain the difference to lower and lower-middle class people because they have no interest in such matters and will remain the way they are.(link)

And there you have it, the great Saadat Hasan Manto. The next time you're kissing someone or eating watermelon, you will, I hope, remember him.

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]


Anonymous Anup said...

Thanks Amardeep!

10:59 AM  
Blogger Chandra said...

Great post Amardeep...

I couldn't stop laughing after reading "..that there is a difference between kissing and eating watermelon."

I haven't head of Manto before. While I don't claim to know all South Asia writers, I don't if there are any comparable, then or now, to Manto (they take themselves way too seriously) use of word play to make it wonder he was shipped to jail! I actually thing his humour is close Mark Twain.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Chandra, There's no one quite like Manto, though in his day he was often compared to his contemporary, Ismat Chughtai (who also got herself in trouble for obscenity over a short story she wrote).

And I think he mostly managed to avoid actually going to prison. Though he was often convicted on obscenity, some powerful person or other would intercede on his behalf. He had fans in high places!

2:48 PM  
Blogger Panini Pothoharvi said...

This is a bit intriguing! Exactly how many times did Manto actually go to jail? Although Ismat Chughtai's did try many a time to project her clubbing with Manto (in what else but 'obscenity' cases) as some sort of an extended Benedict-Beatrice banter, I am not so sure if Manto was very happy about this rather unfortunate and completely misplaced equation. Ismat's "Lihaaf" (or Quilt), so extolled by fly-by-night feminists, is in fact a tale that, if read carefully, mocks the lesbians.

10:56 PM  
Anonymous vk said...

Manto's "Toba Tek Singh" is one of the truly great stories about the Partition. You would not go wrong by beginning there.

It is interesting that he left Bombay in 1948 after the bloodbath had subsided, and makes his stories even more remarkable.

4:17 AM  
Blogger take2 said...

Hi I am a theatre actor and director from Bangalore. Incidentally, I was introduced to the world of Manto and other prolific writers from the time of Partition during the research I did during a project called Bedard Zameen. Unfortunately, the project got abandoned midway, but I still remember the unique writing mannerisms of Manto...
"Opad di gud gud di moong di dal di laltain di Hindustan te Pakistan di dur fitey munh."


9:12 PM  
Blogger ana beynaam said...

thank you for bringing khalid hasan's translations to folks' attention here amardeep. i enjoyed reading these letters more so than some of the translations of manto's stories. (with the exception of toba tek singh)they say so much about the period he wrote them in. they really are timeless.

panini, i'm intrigued. i've read 'lihaaf' quite a few times and i'm not quite sure how it mocks lesbians. perhaps this isn't the place to engage in a discussion on chughtai, but i'm still intrigued.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Ruchira Paul said...

I am with you. I asked the same question of Panini at Sepia Mutiny about Lihaaf. I will copy it here. Panini replied there but not to my satisfaction.

"I would like to say something about the comment you left on Amardeep's quieter blog about Ismat and Lihaaf. (I am not terribly familiar with the S. Asian literary scene. I read solely for my own solitary enjoyment. The only time I discuss Indian authors is with my sister and on Amardeep's blog.) So I do not know about the fly by night feminists and their glorification of Lihaaf. What I know is that it was the men around her who never let Ismat forget Lihaaf.

I have read the story. It is not even Ismat's best effort. But it is a remarkable story nonetheless. Sure, it is not "Brokeback Mountain" or "Giovanni's Room", but as I see it, she neither glorified nor mocked lesbianism. In the end, it is a sad story - more about loneliness, idle lives and sexual frustration. The lesbian angle may have caught the critics' imagination because the author is explicit in describing the physical act. But did no one notice the allusions to Nawab Sahib and his preoccupation with the fair, slim waisted, gossamer shirted young boys under his tutelege right in the beginning? Was that not what ate at Begum Jan's heart before she submits to Rabbo's body massages? Why is there no mention of that anywhere? I would think that the fact that Ismat got branded with this early story despite the fact that she went on to write prolifically afterwards, was a double edged sword. It marked her as fearless writer and also had the negative effect of becoming her calling card. And tell me if there is any other Indian author of that era or of more recent vintage, who has tackled homosexuality in the unselfconscious manner as Ismat did in Lihaaf? I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss the feminists and their eager defense of lesbianism. The fact that Ismat was hounded by men for her "transgression," is testimony to what many suspect. That men are more threatened by homosexuality (both male and female) than they care to admit."

8:42 PM  
Blogger Panini Pothoharvi said...

This is how Ismat Chughtai describes her post-Lihaaf life. Shahid, for those who do not know, was a fairly successful film script writer and a director and was married to Ismat Chughtai and was a close friend and associate of Sa'adat Hasn Manto:

But when I wrote "Lihaaf", there was a veritable explosion. I was torn to shreds in the literary arena. Some people also wielded their pens in my support.

Since then I have been branded an obscene writer. No one bothered about the things I had written before or after "Lihaaf". I was put down as a purveyor of sex. It is only in the last couple of years that the younger generation has recognized that I am a realist and not an obscene writer.

I am fortunate that I have been appreciated in my lifetime. Manto was driven mad to the extent that he became a wreck. The Progressives did not come to his rescue. In my case they didn’t write me off nor did they offer me great accolades. Manto became a pauper in Pakistan. My circumstances were quite comfortable—the income from films was appreciable and I didn’t care much for a literary death or life. I continued to remain a follower of the Progressives and endeavoured to bring about the revolution!

I am still labelled as the writer of "Lihaaf". The story had brought me so much notoriety that I got sick of life. It had become the proverbial stick to beat me with and whatever I wrote afterwards got crushed under its weight.

When I wrote Terhi Lakeer and sent it to Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi, he gave it to Muhammad Hasan Askari to read. After reading it Askari advised me to make my heroine a lesbian like the protagonist in "Lihaaf". I was furious. I got the novel back even though the calligrapher had started working on it, and handed it over to Nazir Ahmad in Lahore. Lahore was then a part of India.

"Lihaaf" had made my life miserable. Shahid and I had so many fights over the story that life had become a virtual hell.

I went to Aligarh after a long time had passed. The thought of the Begum who was the subject of my story made my hair stand on end. She had already been told that "Lihaaf" was based on her life.

We stood face to face during a dinner. I felt the ground under my feet receding. She looked at me from her big eyes that conveyed excitement and joy. Then she cruised through the crowd, leaped at me and took me in her arms. Drawing me to one side she said, "Do you know, I divorced the Nawab and married a second time? I’ve got a pearl of a son, by God’s grace."

I felt like throwing myself into someone’s arms and crying my heart out. I couldn’t restrain my tears though, in fact, I was laughing loudly. She invited me to a fabulous dinner. I felt fully rewarded when I saw her flower-like boy. I felt he was mine as well. A part of my mind, a living product of my brain. An offspring of my pen.

And I realised at that moment that flowers can be made to bloom in rocks. The only condition is that one has to water the plant with one’s heart’s blood.

11:21 PM  
Blogger Ruchira Paul said...

Where is the mockery, Panini? She is describing her own (and Manto's) torment at the hands of the morality police. A price both paid for their boldness. The meeting with Begum Jan actually ends on a high note! Ismat embraces the Begum's son as her own intellectual offspring. I detect no derision here. I think Ismat was too liberated for the common constraints of sexuality.

BTW, can you tell me from what source you quoted the above? It has a familiar ring to it.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Chandra said...

vk, thanks for the suggestion.

12:08 AM  
Blogger Panini Pothoharvi said...

My intention in posting this bit was not to highlight the "mockery" - it was meant to simply add to information that maybe helpful in understanding the times in which both Ismat and Saadat were living. In any case I do not wish to privilege my reading of Ismat over yours or anyone else's. I do believe however that my reading of Lihaaf tells me unambiguously how sardonic and homophobic Ismat's view of the "other sexuality" is. But I have no quarrel with the other readings of the story. For instance, I have one interpretation Of Iago which differs from, let's say Ania Loomba's, but I would be extremely reluctant to dismiss Ania's writings as inconsequential. But at the same time I would not like be bogged down by the traditional "motive hunting of a motiveless malignity" view that still continues to thrive in one form or the other.

The quote in my previous mail is from Kaghazi Hai Pairahan - Ismat Chughtai's autobiography.

1:08 AM  
Anonymous Pooja said...

Coming to this coversation late. Great post. I just read Manto in The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature (Amit Chaudhuri, Ed.) and will definitely seek out more of his writing. (As an aside, what do you think of Chaudhuri's anthology? Do you find it useful in your classes? I wasn't a big fan of his selections--especially the non-translated, English selections.)

3:42 PM  
Blogger sabizak said...

WHy Manto moved to Lahore was because he was not left with much choice since he was being persecuted for being a Muslim and being a higher up in the radio statiion in Bombay. Besides his wife wanted to be with her family in Lahore and had left a few months earlier, he moved to Lahore in order to be with his wife and children as well.
Amardeep, why do you wonder about his knowing people who had faced rape and other hoorors during partition? He lived in Lahore for a number of years, i am sure there were many such people there.
Manto is a great writer and greatly revered in Pakistan of late. He has also been translated (quite well) by Mohammad Asaduddin who incidentally launches a very interesting attack on Khalid Hasan's translations in the wonderful 'Annual of Urdu Studies', also available online.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Panini Pothoharvi said...

Two thingssabizak's views on why Manto chose to migrate to Pakistan and the popularity he enjoyed in Pakistan etc:

a) It would be interesting to know why a score of eminent Muslim writers, musicians, theatre persons, filmmakers etc chose to stay back in India and to not migrate to Pakistan. Some of these names I mention here are enough to nail sabizak's lie.

Writers: Ismat Chughtai, Majaaz, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Jigar, Janisar Akhtar, Raja Mehndi Ali Khan, Shakeel Badayuni, Hasrat Jaipuri...

musicians: Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Allauddin Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Hafeez Khan, Ustad Alla Rakkha, Ustad Bhurji Khan, Ustad Ahmad Jan Thirakwa, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Begam Akhtar, Ustad Latafat Khan, Ustad Sharafat Khan...

filmmakers: AR Kardar, Shahid Latif, K. Asif, Kamaal Amrohi, KA Abbas, M Sadiq, Abrar Alvi...

composers: Naushad, Khyaam,
Ghulam Mohammad, Sajjad Hussain...

Actors: Dileep Kumar, Suraiyya, Madhubala, Nargis, Meena Kumari, Jayant, Iftekhar, Murad...

Singers: Mohammad Rafi, Mubarak Begam, Shamshad Begam

b) About Prof Asaduddin - who teaches English at Jamia Millia - one wonders how he would have translated such a range of literature from Urdu into English since the said professor can barely sustain a conversation in the English language without making very basic errors.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Panini Pothoharvi said...

I do not understand why a large number of people on both sides of the border continue to uphol and nurture monstrous views of each others' reprehensible role at the time of partition. The fact of the matter is that they were both equally responsible.

People like sabizak need to know that Manto was a very lonely and unhappy man in Pakistan and took to heavy drinking primarily because he could never come to terms with this religion-based division of the sub-continent.

There is little point stressing the obvious that whereas Pakistan is a theocratic state, India was and remains a democratic state despite all its contradictions.

Manto's short stories could never gain the sort of currency in Pakistan that they did in India. The reason is simple: he never accepted the division of the sub-continent. A case in point is is his 50 death anniversary celebrations last year. Whereas Pakistan had completely forgotten him, in India not only a number of seminars were held on his work but a number of theatrical productions and telefilms were launched on his work.

Despite his extremely reluctant and unfortunate migration to Pakistan where he remains relatively unsung, Manto is still perceived by many in India as essentially an Indian writer.

9:42 PM  
Anonymous sabizak said...

Lol!! Mr. Panini, what a bigoted man you are and all your Indian democracy and fairness can be seen through very easily in this last comment from you.
Several books were taken out in Pakistan on Manto's 50th Aniiversary celebrations and I myself have attended at least four different versions of Manto's 'Toba Tek Singh' performed in Lahore, apart from a mini film made on it by ex-studnts of Kinnaird College Lahore. people like you will always remain in your Indian bubble of imagining yourself to be a great democracy when in reality you are nothing else but bigoted, small minded and unable to even begin to comprehend what a great majority in pakistan thinks or doesn;t think. You have just been fed by your biased media as to all of Pakistan in some sort of collective burqa and you have lapped up such ideas readily.
As for the list of names you have given who stayed back in India, i am sure somebody more learned than I am could just as easily come up with a similar list of people who did migrate. What does that prove?

2:36 AM  
Anonymous Salama said...

I am absolutely in love with Manto,his style of writing and his ways of completely cutting through you and making yourself hate for everything, I think its just marvellous. He is the one of the greatest story writers ever.

5:50 AM  
Anonymous The Cities of Lahore said...

Manto's wit is just breathtaking and very reminiscent of George Orwell.

8:26 PM  
Anonymous Rashmi Talwar said...

Sabizak 's contention about 50th anniversary celebrations of manto in Lahore are true and i myself wrote a newspaper article about the first postage stamp of Manto being released by pakistan Government. for someone who was till a long time condemned as a obscene writer it was a rare calling of recognizing the gift of story telling by this great writer from the city of Amritsar (my City) in its bare all form , incisive, killing, in all its profanity , abusive language that is still very much used in our city . His writings had a cutting edge that gave you goose pimples yet made you feel no falsehood . I love this Manto, his writting have stirred me and i wish to carry a paragraph from one of his stories as a foreward to my new blog on Amritsar and Lahore .

AMANPREET i request you to give me a paragraph from his stories that would be appropriate as a foreword . I also enjoyed this blog very very much
rashmi talwar 09814109211

2:53 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home