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]