Monday, May 7, 2012

Saadat Hassan Manto: What I write

To celebrate the centenary of Saadat Hassan Manto (11 May 1912), I have translated a piece he wrote towards the end of his life in Pakistan, where he discusses the subjects of writing that interest him. I have also translated two of his short stories about the events during partition.

What I Write 
Saadat Hassan Manto
translated by 
Mustansir Dalvi

Why do I write? That’s like asking me why I eat... why I drink... but look at it this way: I have to spend money to eat or to drink, but when I write I have to give nothing away in cash.

But if I examine this deeply, I realize that this line of thinking is wrong, and I sustain my writing by money alone.

Obviously, if I don’t get food or drink, my body will weaken to a state that I can no longer hold a pen in my hand. It is possible, even in my famished state, my mind may work, but it is necessary that my hand works too. If the hand is too weak to function, the tongue, at least, should give voice. What a tragedy it is that one cannot do anything without food or drink.

Art is given such a high status that it is elevated to the seventh heaven. But isn’t it true that every worthy and important thing is dependent on a dry scrap of bread?

I write because I have something to say. I write, so that I can earn enough to be able to say something.

It’s strange, this relation between bread and art, but what is to be done if this is what God wills? He positions Himself neutrally from all things, but this is wrong. He is most certainly not neutral. He desires your supplication. And supplication is a very soft and delicate roti... why, it can be said that your supplication is like a roti lubricated with ghee with which He fills his belly.

If the lady next door deigns to be beaten up by her husband every day, and cleans his shoes nevertheless, then she does not elicit any sympathy within me. But if the lady next door fights with her husband, threatens to kill herself and then goes off to the movies, and I am able to see her husband fret and fulminate for an hour or two, then I feel a weird sort of empathy for them both.

If a boy falls in love with a girl, it’s as if I had a mild cold, I couldn’t be bothered. But the boy would certainly grab my attention if he declared that despite the many, many girls willing to die for him, he feels a dryness in his heart like a drought-stricken denizen from Bengal. If I could ever feel the tragic sobs bubbling under the colourful love stories of this self-proclaimed Romeo, my heart would seek him out, and I would tell his story to anyone who would listen.

Any woman who grinds grain for the whole day and goes to sleep without a care can never be a heroine in my stories. My heroine can be an well-worn whore. A whore who stays awake at night and, during the day sometimes awakes in horror from her slumber with the nightmare thought that old age shall soon come knocking at her door. Her heavy drooping eyelids, weary with years of waiting to sleep can be the subject of my story. I like the thought of her infirmities, her illnesses, her irritations, her gaalis, I write about these things, and I prefer to ignore the religious rectitude, the good health and the cultivated propreity of housewives.

Saadat Hassan Manto writes because this God is not the greatest poet or teller of tales, but it is the regard for Him that makes Him so.

I am aware that I have a big personality and that in Urdu literary circles I am very well regarded. If I was not self-opinionated like this, it would be even harder to go through life. But for me, it is a fact that I cannot put aside that I have never been able to find my proper place in my homeland, which goes by the name of Pakistan. This is keeps my soul unsettled. This leads me to stay in a madhouse sometimes and in a hospital at other times.

I am often asked why I do not get rid of my chronic alcoholism. I have given away a full three quarters of my life to indulgence. And it has led me to this- I have to stay in a madhouse sometimes and in a hospital at other times.

I think that leading a life of abstinence is like being in jail. Leading a life full of indulgence is also like being in jail. What we have to do, in some form or the other, is to hang on to a strand of this unravelling rope and keep going. That’s all.

A Miracle 
The police had commenced raids to recover the looted goods.
Scared of this, everyone tried to dispose of the looted goods in the dark of the night.
There were also some, who, finding the right moment, secreted the goods away from their homes, to remain out of reach of the long arm of the law.
One man was faced with a very awkward problem. He was in possession of two sacks of sugar that he had looted from the grocer’s shop. He had, taking advantage of the dark, willy-nilly, managed to dump one sack into the nearby well, but when he tried to throw the other in, he fell in himself, sack and all.
Hearing his cries, many rushed to the well. Ropes were dangled into its dankness.
Many young men lowered themselves in and the managed to extricate the man.
Despite their efforts, after a few hours the man died.
The next day, when people drew from the well to drink, the water was sweet.
From that very night, lamps were found lit over the man’s grave.

Halaal and Jhatkaa 
(Halaal aur jhatkaa)
“I put my knife to his jugular, cut slowly, baaack and forth, and finished him, halaal fashion.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Do what?”
“Why did you grant him a halaal death?”
“It’s fun, this way.”
“Fun? Fun? You son of a bitch... you should have killed him with a jhatkaa... like this!”
And the halaal maker’s neck was lopped off with a single jhatkaa.

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