There are many great writers in the East who remain invisible to readers in the West. Hopefully the Internet will help remedy that sad reality.
Can Americans appreciate the moment to moment challenge of those living in abject poverty? In A Matter of Rats: A short Biography of Patna by Amitava Kumar, Kumar writes about life in the city of Patna, the largest city in the Indian state of Bihar. Nurses at a city hospital play the radio at night to keep the rats from nibbling on their toes. The low caste Musahar have the job of killing the rats. A local bureaucrat puts it all in perspective. The rats must be appreciated, he laments, and the anti-rat prejudice must end.
Not surprisingly, the Musahar would agree. Kumar accompanies Musahar on his rat-catching expedition. “‘High-minded abstractions weren’t among his pressing concerns, Kumar tells us. ‘His worry was finding food for that day and the next.’ That food was rats.”
Saadat Hasan Manto
This is not, however, the cause of the despair we want to focus on in the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto. “Saadat Hasan Manto has a good claim to be considered the greatest South Asian writer of the 20th century.”
Called by the reviewer Suketu Mehta, the Indian F. Scott Fitzgerald, Manto died at the age of 42 after a long struggle with alcoholism and dissipation. This is the sadness and despair that we referred to earlier. The details of his life differ from those of his readers, but we know that fundamentally, we are all dealing to some degree with sadness and despair even though we may not want to admit it. Metaphorically at least, many of us find ourselves (as did Manto), strolling down the myriad dark and fetid “sidestreets and alleys” of life’s squalor-ridden cities. This is true only those of us who have yet to discover P-A, the resplendent “city on a hill” basking in the light of awareness. Since most of us have yet to arrive at this peaceful metropolis, we will have no trouble relating to Manto’s favorite city Bombay, today’s Mumbai.
“A visitor to the city today is struck by the vast number of houses of pleasure and houses of worship, and their proximity: Manto provides the explanation in the rich Babu Gopi Nath’s response, when asked why he likes whorehouses and shrines: ‘Because there, from top to bottom, it’s all about deception. What better place could there be for a person who wants to deceive himself?’”
In the context of P-B, truth is illusive and in fact often not welcome. Manto questioned the incestuous relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan in his essays “Letters to Uncle Sam” He was also sentenced to three months in prison for obscenity. “My judge thought the truth and literature should be kept far apart.” Given that in the recent war in Afghanistan, the ISI (Pakistan’s CIA) worked covertly against the U.S. by supporting the Taliban, we can see that the truth is still a casualty of the fear-driven oligarchs. Pakistan uses the Taliban as a proxy in its conflict with India in Kashmir and the U.S. as a proxy in its need to dominate and control Afghanistan. The truth, hidden in the fog of illusion leads to sadness and despair.
We conclude this brief essay with a lengthy quote, a prayer by Manto. “Dear God, Compassionate and Merciful Master of the Universe, we who are steeped in sin, kneel in supplication before Your throne and beseech You to recall from this World Saadat Hasan Manto, who was a man of great piety. Take him away, O Lord, for he runs off from fragrance, chasing filth. He hates the bright sun, preferring dark labyrinths. He has nothing but contempt for modesty but is fascinated by the naked and shameless. He hates what is sweet, but will give his life to sample what is bitter. He does not so much as look at housewives but is entranced by the company of whores. He will not go near running waters, but loves to wade through slush. Where others weep, he laughs; where they laugh, he weeps. Evil-blackened faces he loves to wash with tender care to highlight their features. He never thinks about You, preferring to follow Satan everywhere, the same fallen angel who once disobeyed You.”
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.