Manto’s Pakistan: An Election 2013 Special

It was a typical Mantoesque gesture, the decision by Islamabad to hold the national elections on May 11, 2013. Mantoesque, not because they are being held at all, but because the day eerily coincides with Saadat Hasan Manto’s 101st birth anniversary, coming in the wake of celebrations of this iconic literary lion’s birth centenary in 2012. If Manto was 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 within the last five years towards May 11, but to do so through Manto’s own eyes, in his own words, had he been alive today. For if and 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 postcolonial 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 our national affairs, as well as the influence of neighboring India and the United States in our foreign policy.

Since this is election season in Pakistan, I would like to start from Manto’s 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 all opportunists and time-servers from Asif Zardari and the Sharif brothers to the disgraced, now-jailed dictator Pervez Musharraf, 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 bandy about that they will breathe new life into this carcass. 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.”

You might pause to think more about Imran Khan’s project of a New Pakistan, after reading these words. Come the independent Pakistan of 1947, and while many progressives are fond of extolling Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s lament on the unfulfilled promise of postcoloniality, his evocative poem Dawn of Freedom, in prose it is Manto who captures the opportunism and political chicanery which characterized the new Pakistan. In his essay See Kabira Cried, where Manto uses the famous 15th century Indian sufi poet Kabir as a protagonist to satirize the emerging trends of an un-named, 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 million soldiers began to hail the general, Kabir began to sob loudly. The general got infuriated and shouted: ‘Man, can you tell me why do you cry?’ Kabir replied, still sobbing: ‘Brave general, who will fight hunger?’. The two million men began to decry Kabir.”

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 an August 14, Pakistan’s independence day, 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 newborn 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 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 seats are booked. You cannot get the ticket at any cost ’. And I didn’t get the ticket at any cost.”

On a typical spring morning in newly-independent Lahore, this is what Manto noted about the shape of such misplaced patriotism while taking a brisk walk, 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 to have some lassi (buttermilk). When I neared the shop, what do I see that the electric fan is running as usual but that it is doing so in the opposite direction. I addressed the confectioner: ‘Can’t you see’. I saw, the fan’s motion was directed at a colored portrait of Jinnah on the wall. I shouted aloud ‘Long Live Pakistan’ and left the shop without ordering lassi.”

Among Manto’s literary victims were Uncle Sam, and the beards, twin cancers which have gnawed at the very foundation of Pakistan to date. In a country whose ruling elite continues to define its relations with both, and where the brave women like the lucky Malala Yousafzai and the late Parveen Rehman (as well as men like the late Governor of Pakistan’s most populous province Punjab, Salmaan Taseer) continue to be the 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 quite out of control in the 21st century. In several sharp essays, he took on the custodians of religion.

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’ (in Urdu, ‘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, this was a very strange phenomenon, 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. But I didn’t tell you, towards the last phase of poetry, a few poets were so 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, of the system of society, of capitalism and God forbid of religion. By the grace of Allah we humans are rid of these devils. The people had become very wayward, and started to voice illegitimate demands of their rights, wanted to set up a secular government by waving flags. Thanks 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: “Attempts were made to find the 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 crazy 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, fifty years later, we would have no problem recognizing the malaise, Manto so ably diagnosed then, as United Nations teams administering polio drops to beleaguered infants in the country’s northwestern areas are attacked and murdered in cold blood by militants emboldened by fatwas outlawing vaccination. A few days prior to this writing, one section of the clerics declared voting in the May 11 elections as 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 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 savory aspects like American-armed jihadis 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. 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 dishonor 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.”

In the last few weeks, details have been emerging of how journalists from some of the premier Pakistani media organizations are on the US 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 US Embassy but managed to keep his integrity and clarity of mind intact as he himself admitted in these Letters. Also, very presciently, Manto said, “Of all the newspapers here, Zamindar is the sole paper which your dollars can buy whenever you like. 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.”

As the country marks the end of Manto’s centenary and goes to the polls, ironically both on the same date, we need to remember that Manto was just so much more than a chronicler of sex or partition, 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 flavor at the end, and with no apologies to all editors (including my own at CounterPunch), here is the inimitable Manto himself in his 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 (betel-leaf) 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.”

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, literary critic, translator and political activist (of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party) He has been trained in Political Economy from the University of Leeds in UK, and in Middle Eastern History and Anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He is presently working on two books, namely, on the crisis of bourgeois democracy in Pakistan, as well as translating Saadat Hasan Manto’s Letters to Uncle Sam and other postcolonial essays from the Urdu. He can be reached at: