“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 firstborn is also resting in that bit of earth … I used to be All India’s Great Short-Story Writer. Now I am Pakistan’s Great Short-Story Writer … In undivided India, I was tried thrice, in Pakistan so far once. But then Pakistan is still young.”
Thus goes one of the first paragraphs of Manto’s series of nine rhetorical letters written to America. After the partition of India on the basis of religion, the Indian writer Manto, who had been to what would later become Pakistan only thrice as a British subject, was forced by circumstances to pack up and cross the border. More well-known for his short stories and bare-bone sketches of the horrors of partition, Manto’s Letters to Uncle Sam reveals a side of the writer that is more than any specific ideology and strikingly prophetic about the way US-Pakistan relations would unfold in the next two decades. Written between 1951 and 1954, at a time of economic hardship for the writer, these letters strike at the heart of how the USA would draw Pakistan into the Cold War, failing to win an officially non-aligned India. The letters bear all of Manto’s trademark: Sardonic wit, subtle jabs and a refusal to put his writing in the service of any ideology.
Manto’s fear of the US backed rise of the “mullahs” would soon turn into reality. Even as a believer, or maybe especially as one, he felt imperative to point out the hypocrisies of self-righteous preachers. Pakistan’s dalliances with the US to compete with India would, as he predicted, worsen the poison of partition and set Pakistan on a track which it still runs on today
Ayesha Jalal, the eminent partition scholar and also Manto’s niece, in her biography of Manto, Pity the Partition, speaking of why he started writing these open letters, points to the USA’s cosying up to Pakistani writers in those days to ward off the spectre of communism. Manto himself refers to the incident in his second letter. He was approached by a gentleman from the American consulate who wanted him to write a short story in Urdu for a journal the consulate was publishing. He writes to his American Uncle: “God is my witness, I did not know that he had come to see me at your bidding. Perhaps you made him read the letter I sent you.”
The official asked how much Manto would charge for a story. Barely making fifty for his stories back then, he asked for two hundred. Taken aback, the official offered five hundred. But Manto would not budge: Characteristically eccentric, he replied, “Look, Sir, it will be two hundred and further discussion on this matter I am not prepared for.” The official, thinking Manto was drunk, came back next day and offered three hundred. Manto relented, telling him that what he would write would not be to the US’s liking. The man never came back.
This sets the tone for the entire nine-letter series. Manto, like an unwitting nephew, complains and prods and teases his all-powerful Uncle Sam from the land of “seven freedoms”. He moans and complains of the bizarre partition of his country while playfully satirising the consumerism of America that so attracted Pakistan. He speaks of the charges of obscenity that the government had brought against him. This is not new; any reader of Manto is familiar with this tone of subtle mockery of colonial laws in the subcontinent with its prudish attitude towards sexuality. His stories, which spoke of the prostitutes in their grim hovels or the brutal rapes of Hindu and Muslim women, were seen by many as racy and titillating. For him the freedom of his newly independent country was being put to the docks for breaking colonial laws.
These letters demonstrate Manto as a genius who understood where the country was headed. Mocking America for its wars to benefit itself, he writes to his uncle: “Why don’t you start a war between India and Pakistan? … The gains from the Korean War will be nothing compared with the profits from this one. You have your nephew’s word.”
That Uncle Sam would try to counter creeping communist influence in the new country by mobilising the religious right was not lost to Manto. Two decades before what is today recognised as an important incident in the forming of Islamist terrorist groups, he wrote: “India may grovel before you a million times but 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.”
It is not surprising that for these nine letters, which Manto could not post for want of money, he has been called a prophet. He saw the rise of the religious right, and in his anger against obscurantism, asks his uncle for a bomb for himself. He saw clearly how the religious right and the imperial uncles (be it England or America) were in fact walking the same path through their ideology, and that is why they so seldom could become friends.
Manto’s fear of the US backed rise of the “mullahs” would soon turn into reality. Even as a believer, or maybe especially as one, he felt imperative to point out the hypocrisies of self-righteous preachers. Pakistan’s dalliances with the US to compete with India would, as he predicted, worsen the poison of partition and set Pakistan on a track which it still runs on today. The madness of partition that Manto so brilliantly captured in his stories, always hover in the background of these letters. In the first letter, he mentions: “Uncle, I will not labour the point, since an all-knowing seer like you can well imagine the freedom a bird whose wings have been clipped can enjoy.”
In the midst of writing the letters, Manto was hospitalised for his alcoholism, which soon led to his death. The Pakistan he left behind and which prosecuted him for his stories, now reveres him as one of its greatest writers, as he predicted it would. The letters echo, in Manto’s prescience of global affairs, the world that we know today. That Pakistan failed to heed his warning would probably not have surprised Manto. He was, after all, a sane critic in the midst of a world gone mad.
Maitreyi is a literary critic.