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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Manto -- A Story in Translation

Translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil

The riots of 1947 came and went. In much the same way as spells of bad weather come and go every season. It wasn’t as though Karimdad accepted everything that came his way as God’s will. No, he faced every vicissitude with manly fortitude. He had met hostile forces in a head-on collision – not necessarily to defeat them, but simply to meet them face to face. He knew that the enemy outnumbered him but he believed that it was an insult, not just to him but to all mankind, to give in in the face of trouble. To tell you the truth, this was the opinion others had of him -- those who had seen him take on the most savage of men with the most amazing courage. But, if you were to ask Karimdad himself if he considered it an outrage for himself or all mankind to admit defeat in the face of opposition, he would no doubt fall into deep thought – as though you had asked him a complicated mathematical question.

Karimdad knew nothing of addition-subtraction or multiplication-division. The riots of 1947 came and went. People began to sit down and calculate the loss of lives and property. But Karimdad remained untouched by all this. All he knew was this: his father, Rahimdad, had been ‘spent’ in this war. He had picked his father’s corpse, carried it on his own shoulders and buried it beside a well.

The village had known several casualties. Thousands of young and old had been killed. Many girls had disappeared. Several had been raped in the most inhuman way possible. Those who had been inflicted with these wounds sat and cried – they cried over their own misfortune and the heartless perpetrators of these crimes. But Kaimdad did not shed a single tear. He was proud of his father’s valiant fight to the finish. His father had single-handedly fought 25-30 rioters armed to the teeth with swords and axes. When Karimdad had heard that his father had fallen down dead, after bravely fighting off the attackers, he had only these words to say to his dead father’s spirit: ‘Yaar, this isn’t done. I had told you to always keep at least one weapon handy with you.’

And he had picked up Rahimdad’s corpse, dug a hole beside the well and buried it. Then, he had stood beside the grave and by way of prayer said only this: ‘God keeps count of vices and virtues. May you be granted paradise!’
Whoever heard of Rahimdad’s brutal murder cursed the savages who had butchered him, but Karimdad never uttered a word. Karimdad had lost several ready-to-harvest crops. Two houses belonging to him had been burnt. Yet, he never added these losses to the loss of his father. He would simply content himself by saying: ‘Whatever has happened has happened due to our own fault.’ And when someone would ask him what that fault was, he would remain quiet.

While the rest of the village was still grieving after the recent riots, Karimdad decided to get married -- to the dusky belle, Jeena, on whom he had been keeping an eye for a long time. Jeena was grief stricken. Her brother, a strapping youth, had been killed in the riots. He had been her only support after the death of her parents. There was no doubt that Jeena loved Karimdad dearly but the tragic loss of her brother had turned even her love into heartache; her once ever-smiling eyes were now always brimming with sorrow.

Karimdad hated crying and sobbing. He felt frustrated whenever he saw Jeena looking unhappy. But he always refrained from admonishing her because she was a woman and he though his rebukes might hurt her aching heart even more. One day, he caught hold of her when they were both out on their fields and said, ‘It has been a whole year since we buried our dead. By now even they must be weary of this mourning. Let go of your sorrow, my dear. Who knows how many deaths we have to see in the years ahead. Save your tears for what lies ahead.’

Jeena did not like his words. But because she loved him she thought long and hard over what he had said. In solitude, she searched for the meaning behind his words and, at long last, came around to convincing herself that Karimdad was right.

When the subject of Karimdad’s marriage to Jeena was first broached, the village elders were against it. But their opposition was weak. They had grown so weary of the constant state of mourning that they no longer had the conviction for any sort of sustained opposition. Therefore, Karimdad was duly married. Musicians and singers were called. Every ritual was performed. And Karimdad brought his beloved home as his legally wedded wife.

The village had turned into a vast graveyard a year after the riots. When Karimdad’s wedding procession wound through the village amidst shouts and cries, some villagers were initially scared. They thought it was a ghostly parade. When Karimdad’s friends told him about it, he laughed loudly. But when Karimdad laughingly narrated the incident to his new bride, she shivered with fright.

Karimdad took Jeena’s red-bangled wrist in his hand and said, ‘This ghost will haunt you for the rest of your life… even the village sorcerer will not be able to rid you of me with his witchcraft.’

Jeena put the tip of her hennaed finger between her teeth and mumbled shyly, ‘Keeme, you are scared of nothing!’

Karimdad licked his brownish-black moustaches with the tip of his tongue and smiled, ‘Why should one be scared of anything?’

The sharp edge of Jeena’s grief was becoming dull. She was about to become a mother. Karimdad saw her blossoming womanhood and was pleased.

The first Eid* came. Then the second one**. Karimdad celebrated both festivals with fervour. The rioters had attacked his village twelve days before the last Eid when both Rahimdad and Jeena’s brother, Fazal Ilahi, had been killed. Jeena shed copious tears in memory of both. But in the company of one who resolutely refused to harbour any trace of sorrowful memories, she could not mourn them as much as she would have wanted to.


By the time Muharrum* came around, Jeena made her first request to Karimdad. She was dying to see the famous horse and taziya during the procession. She had heard a great deal about the procession from her friends. And so she said to Karimdad, ‘Will you take me to see the procession if I am well enough?’

Karimdad smiled and said, ‘I will take you even if you are not well… and this son of a pig as well.’

Jeena hated the way he referred to her unborn baby. She would go into a huff whenever she heard it but Karimdad’s tone was, as always, so loving that it transformed Jeena’s anger into an indescribable sweetness and she would wonder how so much love could be stuffed into that awful expression -- ‘son of a spig’.

Rumours of a war between India and Pakistan had been floating for some time now. In fact, it had become a near-certainty shortly after the creation of Pakistan that there would be war between the two countries. Though no one in the village knew exactly when the war might break out. Whenever someone asked Karimdad about the imminent breakout of hostilities, he would answer briefly and succinctly: ‘It’ll happen when it’ll happen. What’s the point of thinking about it?’

Jeena was terrified at the very thought of war. She was, by nature, a peace-loving girl. The smallest tiff between friends made her unhappy. In any case she had seen enough looting and killing during the last riots. Terrified, she asked Karimdad one day, ‘Keeme, what’ll happen?’

Karimdad smiled and said, ‘How would I know whether it’s going to be a girl or a boy?’

This sort of rejoinder always made her mad but she would soon get caught up in Karimdad’s banter and forget all about the war clouds gathering over her head. Karimdad was strong, fearless and completely in love with Jeena. He had bought a rifle and learnt to take perfect aim. All this combined to lend courage to Jeena but every time she heard idle gossip from a scared friend or loose talk among the villagers, her fears would return.

One day, Bakhto, the midwife, who came to check on Jeena everyday, brought the news that the Indians were going to ‘close’ the river. Jeena didn’t know what that meant so she asked Bakhto, ‘What do you mean by closing the river?’

Bakhto answered, ‘They will close the river that waters our crops.’

Jeena thought for a minute, then laughed and said, ‘You talk like a mad woman … Who can close a river; it’s a river, not a drain.’

Bakhto gently massaged Jeena’s distended belly and said, ‘I don’t know… I have told you what I heard. They say the newspapers are full of it, too.’

‘Full of what?’ Jeena found it hard to believe.

Bakhto felt Jeena’s belly with her wrinkled hand and answered, ‘That they are going to close the river.’ Then she pulled down Jeena’s shirt and got to her feet speaking in the tone of one who knows, ‘If all stays well, the child will be born ten days from now.’

Jeena asked Karimdad about the river the moment he stepped foot inside the house. At first, Karimdad tried to fob off her insistent queries, but when Jeena kept repeating her question, he said, ‘Yes, I have heard something of the sort too.’

Jeena demanded, ‘What have you heard?’

‘The Indians are going to close our river.’

‘But why?’

‘So that our crops are ruined.’

By now Jeena was convinced that rivers could actually be closed. So all she could say, a bit helplessly, was this: ‘How cruel those people are!’

Upon hearing this, Karimdad smiled after a moment’s pause. He said, ‘Forget all this… Tell me, did Bakhto come?’

Jeena answered listlessly, ‘She did.’

‘What did she say?’

‘She said the baby will be born ten days from now.’

Karimdad hurray-ed loudly, ‘And may he live long!’

Jeena showed her displeasure and muttered, ‘Look at you, rejoicing at a time like this… when God knows what sort of Karbala* will be visited upon us.’

Karimdad went away to the village centre where almost all the men from the village had gathered. Everyone was clustered around the village headman, Chaudhry Nathu, and was asking him questions about the closing of the river. Someone was busy showering abuse upon Pandit Nehru, another wishing every manner of mishaps for him, and yet another was resolutely refusing to admit that the course of a river could be changed at will. And there were some who believed that whatever was about to happen was a punishment for our own misdeeds and the only way to avert the calamity that hovered overhead was to go to the mosque and pray.

Karimdad sat in a corner and listened quietly to the talk that swirled about him. Chaudhry Nathu was the most vocal among those who were abusing the Indians. Karimdad turned restlessly from this side to the other as though acutely frustrated. Everyone agreed on one thing: that closing the river was a dirty, low-down trick, that it was a petty, unscrupulous, extremely cruel thing to do, that it was a sin that matched the one perpetrated by Yazid.

Karimdad coughed a couple of times as though preparing himself to say something. But when yet another shower of the choicest profanities erupted from Chaudhry Nathu’s mouth, Karimdad could no longer contain himself. He cried out, ‘Don’t abuse others, Chaudhry!’

A terrible mother-related profanity got stuck midway in the Chaudhry’s throat. He turned and looked strangely at Karimdad who was, at that moment, busy adjusting the turban on his head.

‘What did you say?’

Karimdad answered in a low but firm voice, ‘I said: Don’t abuse others.’

Chaudhry Nathu spat out the profanity stuck in his throat and turned aggressively towards Karimdad, ‘Abuse who? How are they related to you?’ And then he looked around and addressed all those who had gathered in the chaupal. ‘Did you hear, people? He says don’t abuse others… Ask him: How are they related to him?’

Karimdad answered patiently, ‘Why would they be related to me? They are my enemies, what else?’

A loud, strained sort of laughter tore out of the Chaudhry’s throat with such force that it shook the hairs of his moustache. ‘Did you hear that? They are his enemies. And should one love one’s enemies, son?’

Karimdad answered in the tone of a dutiful son answering an elder, ‘No, Chaudhry, I didn’t say that. All I said was: Don’t abuse others.’

Karimdad’s childhood friend, Miranbakhsh, who sat next to him, asked, ‘But why?’

Karimdad spoke directly to Miranbaksh, ‘What’s the point, yaar? They are trying to close the river and ruin your crops and you think you can abuse them and even the score? Does it make sense? One abuses when there is no other answer.’

Miranbakhsh asked, ‘Do you have an answer?’

Karimdad paused for a minute, then said, ‘The question is not mine alone; it involves thousands upon thousands of people. My answer can not be everyone’s answer. In such situations, one can come up with a satisfactory answer only after careful consideration. They can’t turn the course of the river in one day. It’ll take them years. Whereas here, you are taking just one second to vent your pent up venom against them in the form of expletives.’ He put one hand on Miranbakhsh’s shoulder and spoke with affection. ‘All I know is this, yaar: that it is wrong to call India unscrupulous, petty and cruel.’

Instead of Miranbakhsh, Chaudhry Nathu shouted, ‘Now hear this!’

Karimdad continued to address Miranbakhsh, ‘It is stupid, my dear friend, to expect mercy or favour from the enemy. When war breaks out and we begin to cry that they are using a bigger bore rifle, or that we are dropping smaller bombs while they are dropping bigger bombs, I ask you in all honesty, are such complaints right? A small knife can kill just as effectively as a big knife. Am I not telling the truth?’

Instead of Miranbakhsh, Chaudhry Nathu began to think, but he quickly became vexed. ‘But the issue here is that they are going to close our water… they want to kill us of hunger and thirst.’

Karimdad removed his hand from Miranbakhsh’s shoulder and addressed the Chaudhry, ‘When you have already declared someone as your enemy, why complain that he wants to kill you of hunger and thirst? If he doesn’t drive you to your death from hunger and thirst, if he doesn’t turn your green fields into arid wastelands, do you think he will instead send you pans full of pilau and pots full of sweet sherbet and plant gardens and groves for your leisure?’

This only aggravated the Chaudhry. ‘What is this nonsense?’ he asked furiously.

Even Miranbakhsh asked his friend softly, ‘Yes, yaar, what is this nonsense?’

‘It isn’t nonsense, Miranbakhsh!’ Karimdad spoke as though trying to explain things to his friend. ‘Just think, in a war the two parties try their hardest to defeat the other side. Just as the wrestler who grids his loins, as it were, and enters the ring, and tries every trick in the book to bring his opponent to the ground.’

Miranbakhsh nodded his tonsured head and said, ‘Yes, that’s true.’

Karimdad smiled, ‘Then it is all right to even close the river. It may seem like cruelty to us; but for them it is perfectly acceptable.’

‘When your tongue begins to loll and hang to the ground with thirst, then I will ask you if it is acceptable. When your children cry for every morsel of food, will you still say it is okay to close the river?’

Karimdad licked his dry lips with his tongue and answered, ‘I will still say the same thing, Chaudhry. Why do you forget that only they are not our enemies; we too are their enemies. If we could, we too would have shut off their food and water. But now when they can and are going to close our river, we will have to think of a way out. But what’s the point of useless abuses? The enemy will not sprout rivers of milk for you, Chaudhry Nathu. If he can, he will mix poison in every drop of your water. You might call it cruelty, even barbariism, because you don’t like this form of taking life. Isn’t that strange? Before the commencement of war, should the two warring parties lay down a set of conditions and clauses, a bit like a nikah? Should we tell them not to kill us of hunger or thirst but that they are welcome to do so with a gun and that too a gun of a certain bore?  This is the real nonsense… Think about it, carefully and coolly.’

By now Chaudhry Nathu had reached the far limit of his frustration. He shouted, ‘Someone get a slab of ice and place it on my breast.’

‘You expect me to get that too?’ Karimdad said and laughed. Then he patted Miranbakhsh on the shoulder, got to his feet and left the chaupal.

As he was about to cross his threshold, he saw Bakhto coming out of the house. She saw Karimdad and a toothless smile appeared on her face.

‘Congratulations, Keeme! You have been blessed with a healthy baby boy. Think of a suitable name for him now.’

‘Name?’ Karimdad thought for no more than a second and said, ‘Yazid – Yazid.’

Bakhto’s mouth fell open with surprise. Whooping with joy, Karimdad entered his house. Jeena was lying on a string bed. She looked paler than she had ever before. A bonny baby lay besides her, busy sucking his thumb. Karimdad looked at him with a glance full of love and pride. Touching his cheek lightly with a forefinger, he said softly, ‘My little Yazid!’

A faint shriek escaped Jeena as she squealed with surprise, ‘Yazid?’

Karimdad looked closely at his son’s face, inspecting each feature carefully, ‘Yes, Yazid. That’s his name.’

Jeena’s voice sounded faint, ‘What are you saying, Keeme? Yazid…’

Karimdad smiled, ‘What’s in it? It’s only a name!’

All Jeena could manage was a brief: ‘But whose name?’

Karimdad answered with perfect seriousness, ‘It needn’t be the same Yazid. He had closed the river; our son will open it.’

The above story is from Naked Voices, Stories and Sketches by Saadat Hasan Manto, Translated by Rakhshanda Jalil, Roli Books/India Ink, New Delhi, 2008.

Naked Voices - Stories & Sketches

*  Within 50 years of the Prophet’s death, the small community of Muslims was torn by conflicting claims to leadership. The governor of Syria, Mu’aviya, opposed Ali and wrested the Caliphate from him. His son, Yazid, carried the enmity forward by demanding allegiance (bay’ ah) from Ali’s son and successor Husain. When Husain – son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad -- declined, Yazid issued an unequivocal call: Surrender or Die! Surrender meant recognition of Yazid and the power he had wrongfully wrested. For Husain both were unacceptable; instead, he chose willing sacrifice of himself, his family and supporters.
It was the year 679 AD -- seventy men held out against 4000 in a desert named Karbala, approximately 70 km from Kufa. Rations dwindled, men died in battle, children were slaughtered and the enemy closed in on the small, besieged group. On the eighth day of battle, water supply was cut off. The river Euphrates glimmered in the distance but the way was barred. Ill, hungry, dying of thirst, the bedraggled but valiant group faced battle on the fateful tenth day, the day called Ashura, when all perished save for three male members and some women and children who were paraded till Damascus to be presented before Yazid. Quite naturally, then, Yazid is one of the most hated figures in Islamic history.
* Called Chhoti Eid in the Urdu original, meaning ‘small Eid’ referring to Eid ul-Fitr that comes after the month of Ramazan.
** Called Badi Eid in the Urdu original, meaning ‘big Eid’ referring to Eid-uz-Zuha or the Feast of the Sacrifice which is celebrated in memory of Abraham’s sacrifice of that which was dearest to him, his son Isaac.
* Muharrum is the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar. The incidents of Karbala happened during this month. Shaam-e-Gharibaan (Eve of Sorrows) on the night of the ninth day of Muharrum is a poignant cathartic occasion for remembrance. By Ashura, the tenth day, the matam or mourning reaches a frenzied climax: processions are taken out, the faithful walk on live coals, flay themselves with chains and whips. Alam, a replica of the standard or pennant carried by Husain in battle, is carried at the head of the procession. The Panja, an emblem in the shape of the open palm signifying the panj tan paak, the Five Holy Ones, namely, the Prophet, Fatima (his daughter), Ali (her husband), Hasan and Husain (their sons) – and the Taazia -- an elaborate construction of paper, tinsel and other finery replicating Husain’s tomb – are included in the procession for ‘burial’ at Karbala. Any city with a sizeable population of Shia Muslims has its own ‘Karbala’ to bury both the annual Taaziya and serve as burial ground for Shias.  All over north India, both Shia and Sunni Muslims participate in these Muharrum processions. Crowds gather to watch them, and in rural India occasionally the ‘spectacle’ overtakes the solemnity of the occasion.
* Karbala, here is a metaphor for vicissitudes, troubled times, when there might be shortages of food and water.

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