Letters to Uncle Sam
Saadat Hasan Manto
Between 1951 and 1954, Saadat Hasan Manto wrote
nine letters to Uncle Sam. Only the first letter was written in 1951. The
rest all seem to have been written in 1954. I say ‘seem to have been
written’ because three of them bear no date. The last one is dated 26
April 1954. These letters not only tell us a good deal about Manto and his
concerns but even more about his political views. The man who speaks
through these letters is well informed about international affairs and
critical of American policy. We also see Manto’s lighter side at play,
enlivened by his caustic, at times savage, wit. We also learn a good deal
about his friends and foes. He makes fun of Pakistani communists whom he
always considered somewhat fake because they looked for a signal from
their political gurus abroad before taking a position on any issue. A man
with the independent temperament of Manto found such conduct pathetic and
made no bones about it.
I had long wanted to translate these letters
into English not so much because of their intrinsic literary and
historical value but on account of their readability.
First Letter to Uncle Sam
31 Laxmi Mansions, Hall Road, Lahore
16 December 1951
This letter comes to you from your Pakistani nephew whom you do not know, nor does anyone else in your land of seven freedoms.
You should know why my country, sliced away from India, came into being and gained independence, which is why I am taking the liberty of writing to you. Like my country, I too have become independent and in exactly the same way. 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.
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.1
The government of the British considered my writings pornographic. My own government has the same opinion. The government of the British let me off but I do not expect my own government to do so. A lower court sentenced me to three months hard labour and a Rs 300 fine. My appeal to the higher court won me an acquittal but my government believes that justice has not been done and so it has now filed an appeal in the High Court, praying that the judgment acquitting me be quashed and I be punished. We will have to see what the High Court decides.
My country is not your country which I regret. If the High Court were to punish me, there is no newspaper in my country that would print my picture or the details of all my trial.
My country is poor. It has no art paper, nor proper printing presses. I am living evidence of this poverty. You will not believe it, uncle, but despite being the author of twenty-two books, I do not have my own house to live in. And you will be astonished to know that I have no means of getting myself from one place to the other. I neither have a Packard nor a Dodge; I do not even have a used car.
If I need to go somewhere, I rent a bike. If a piece of mine appears in a newspaper and I earn twenty to twenty-five rupees at the rate of seven rupees a column, I hire a tonga and go buy locally distilled whiskey. Had this whiskey been distilled in your country, you would have destroyed that distillery with an atom bomb because it is the sort of stuff guaranteed to send its user to kingdom come within one year.
But I am digressing. 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 heard 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.
Had it not been for my quick reading of the court judgment I would have drunk myself to death by downing large quantities of our locally distilled whiskey because of the shock I received when I came to know of the Caldwell case. In a way, it was unfortunate that my country missed an opportunity to rid itself of a man like me, but then had I croaked, I would not have been writing to you, uncle. I am dutiful by nature. I love my country. In a few days, by the Grace of God I will die and if I do not kill myself, I will die anyway because where flour sells at the price at which it sells here, only a shamefaced person can complete his ordained time on earth.
So, I read the Caldwell judgment and decided not to drink myself to death with large quantities of the local hooch. Uncle, out there in your country, everything has an artificial façade but the judge who acquitted brother Erskine was certainly without such a façade. If this judge – I’m sorry I don’t know his name – is alive, kindly convey my respectful regards to him.
The last lines of his 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.
I am ready to serve my three-month term but this fine of three hundred rupees I am unable to pay. Uncle, you do not know that I am poor. Hard work I am used to, but money I am unused to. I am about thirty-nine and all my life I have worked hard. Just think about it. Despite being such a famous writer, I have no Packard.
I am poor because my country is poor. Two meals a day I can somehow manage but many of my brothers are not so fortunate.
My country is poor, but why is it ignorant? I am sure, uncle, you know why because you and your brother John Bull together are a subject I do not want to touch because it will not be exactly music to your ears. Since I write to you as a respectful youngster, I should remain that way from start to finish.
You will certainly ask me out of astonishment why my country is poor when it boasts of so many Packards, Buicks and Max Factor cosmetics. That is indeed so, uncle, but I will not answer your question because if you look into your heart, you will find the answer there (unless you have had your heart taken out by one of your brilliant surgeons).
That section of my country’s population which rides in Packards and Buicks is really not of my country. Where poor people like me and those even poorer live, that is my country.
These are bitter things, but there is a shortage of sugar here otherwise I would have coated my words appropriately. But what of it! Recently, I read Evelyn Waugh’s book ‘The Loved One’. He of course comes from the country of your friends. Believe me, I was so impressed by that book that I sat down to write to you.
I was always convinced of the individual genius found in your part of the world but after reading this book, I have become a fan of his for life. What a performance, I say! Some truly vibrant people do indeed live out there.
Evelyn Waugh tells us that in your California, the dead can be beautified and there are large organisations that undertake the task. No matter how unattractive the dear departed in life, after death he can be given the look desired. There are forms you fill where you are asked to indicate your preference. The excellence of the finished product is guaranteed. The dead can be beautified to the extent desired, as long as you pay the price. There are experts who can perform this delicate task to perfection. The jaw of the loved one can be operated upon and a beatific smile implanted on the face. The eyes can be lit up and the forehead can be made to appear luminous. And all this work is done so marvellously that it can befool the two angels who are assigned to do a reckoning once a person is in the grave.
Uncle, by God you people are matchless.
One had heard of the living being operated on and beautified with the help of plastic surgery – there was much talk of it here – but one had not heard that the dead can be beautified as well.
Recently one of your citizens was here and some friends introduced me to him. By then I had read brother Evelyn Waugh’s book and I read an Urdu couplet to your countryman that he did not follow. However, the fact is, uncle, that we have so distorted our faces that they have become unrecognisable, even to us. And there we have you who can even make the dead look more beautiful than they ever were in life. The truth is that only you have a right to live on this earth: the rest of us are wasting our time.
Our great Urdu poet Ghalib wrote about a hundred years ago:
If disgrace after death was to be my fate,
I should have met my end through drowning
It would have spared me a funeral and no headstone would have marked my last resting place
Ghalib was not afraid of being disgraced while he was alive because from beginning to end that remained his lot. What he feared was disgrace after death. He was a graceful man and not only was he afraid of what would happen after he died, he was certain what would happen to him after he was gone. And that is why he expressed a wish to meet his end through drowning so that he should neither have funeral nor grave.
How I wish he had been born in your country. He would have been carried to his grave with great fanfare and over his resting place a skyscraper would have been built. Or were his own wish to be granted, his dead body would have been placed in a pool of glass and people would have gone to view it as they go to a zoo.
Brother Evelyn Waugh writes that not only are there in your country establishments that can beautify dead humans but dead animals as well. If a dog loses its tail in an accident, he can have a new one.
Whatever physical defects the dead one had in life are duly repaired after death. He is then buried ceremoniously and floral wreaths are placed on his grave. Every year on the pet’s death anniversary, a card is sent to the owner with an inscription that reads something like this: In paradise, your Tammy (or Jeffie) is wagging his tail (or his ears) while thinking of you.
What it adds up to is that your dogs are better off than us. Die here today, you are forgotten tomorrow. If someone in the family dies, it is a disaster for those left behind who often can be heard wailing, “Why did this wretch die? I should’ve gone instead.” The truth is, uncle, that we neither know how to live nor how to die.
I heard of one of your citizens who wasn’t sure what sort of a funeral he would be given, so he staged a grand “funeral” for himself while he was very much alive. He deserved that certainly because he had lived a stylish and opulent life where nothing happened unless he wished it to. He wanted to rule out the possibility of things not being done right at his funeral; as such, he was justified in personally observing his last rites while alive. What happens after death is neither here nor there.
I have just seen the new issue of ‘Life’ (5 November 1951, international edition) and learnt of a most instructive facet of American life. Spread across two pages is an account of the funeral of the greatest gangster of your country. I saw a picture of Willie Moretti (may his soul rest in peace) and his magnificent home which he had recently sold for $55,000. I also viewed his five-acre estate where he wanted to live in peace, away from the distractions of the world. There was also a picture of his, eyes closed, lying in his bed, quite dead. There were also pictures of his $5,000 casket and his funeral procession made up of seventy-five cars. God is my witness, it brought tears to my eyes.
May there be dust in my mouth, but in case you were to die, may you have a grander farewell than Willie Morrity. This is the ardent prayer of a poor Pakistani writer who doesn’t even have a cycle to ride on. May I beg you that like the more farsighted ones in your country, you should make arrangements to witness your funeral while you are alive. You can’t leave it to others; they can always make mistakes, being fallible. It is possible that your physical appearance may not receive the attention it deserves after you have passed away. It is also possible that you may already have witnessed your funeral by the time this letter reaches you. I say this because you are not only wiser, you are also my uncle.
Convey my good wishes to brother Erskine Caldwell and to the judge who acquitted him of the pornography charge. If I have caused you offense, I beg your forgiveness. With the utmost respect,
Your poor nephew
Saadat Hasan Manto,
resident of Pakistan
(This letter could not be mailed because of lack