Manto’s Centennial: Tapping the Lost Memory

Saadat Hassan Manto (1912-1955) – Source: Wikipedia

Saadat Hasan Manto would have turned 100 today. Anyway he passed away more than 50 years ago in the most hostile of circumstances. However, it is needless to say that his stories continue to be an inspiration and I have personally found them to touch my imagination deeper than I expected, but I cannot say that about all of them. He is certainly a man worth remembering and telling your children about, if you have any or would ever like to have them. He was often criticized for vulgarity and obscenity by his contemporaries, for whom the crude realism and daring of his writing were nothing less than a shock and an attempt of an apparently libertine writer to break the conventions of the time.

I have not read all of Manto’s work as of this day though I do want to. I need to read more to write about it but I doubt if I’d feel too differently. I don’t know much about Urdu literature either but of whatever I have read of Manto’s short stories, I have found it really fascinating. I can’t say but probably there is some sort of encoding of the memories from the past centuries on our DNA from grandparents to parents and so on, or so it seems, probably just our imagination, which seems to be revived or activated by such stories. In Manto’s case, this is true for India during the Raj, particularly around the turbulent years of the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.

Manto’s writing style is often associated with a lot of sexual crudeness and what is commonly and popularly referred to as “obscenity” or “vulgarity”, at least for his time, and for which he had been tried quite a few times as well, but the fact is that his writings are among the most sensual and sensitive that you will ever read. It largely depends on the particular story you are reading but really I am in no position to offer a critique on what sort of a writer he was. I don’t really care about critical analysis as long as the writing taps the lost imagination, or if I dare say, the lost memory.

As a matter of fact, I find a lot of commentary on Manto’s writing very crude and in bad taste itself, especially one which tries to emulate it in admiration and ends up in putting you off. If the writing is indeed “crude”, “obscene” and “vulgar”, the sort of commentary makes it doubly so, or makes it so if it was not in the first place. Those who know about it would know about what I am talking about. Those who do not would probably have to start with his stories first. While his stories are popularly considered to drive a lot of lust and sexual stimulation in the imagination, I wonder if it is really meant to be taken that way at all. I don’t know. This is the beauty of any art form. However, carrying out an open surgery on it certainly does bring the reader’s mind to that level.

But enough of the unpleasantness. I am more of a fan of the subtle detail that constructs the picture of the India that a part of me has known even before I was born perhaps. I keep on going to that absurd threshold of lost memory, instead of lost imagination, because somehow the feeling is far stronger and far more overwhelming than just imagination. Perhaps it is that, imagination, but I would like to think otherwise, or go one step further, calling it lost memory anyway. It feels more like memory. Perhaps, it is my grandmother’s old house, my grandparents themselves, the neighborhoods I grew up in and the city that had not yet lost its tradition to the mechanized modernity disguised in progress. The curiosity how the earlier generation used to live, the loss of the different elements of the Indian society living together, the lost hormony, the lost peace, the lost values.

Some of his short stories such as Mozelle have had a deeper effect on me than others. The greatest thing about those stories is not just the people, but the very environment around which the story has been woven. Another one being Sahib-e-Karamaat, but these surely not being the only ones. It is not just the sensitivity of the story that matters but also the universe that it exists in. Of course it exists merely in our brain cells, but that information certainly comes out of each individual’s association with the time. I know this really has nothing to do with what his stories are actually about but maybe it does not really matter as much since each person can relate to it in their own way and a person born in a different era can find it as a link to reach the years he or she cannot reach otherwise or physically, in their own way. It’s a good portal.

Perhaps one of the great things about his stories has been the way it lets you construct the scene and that is the greatest thing about any writing. Of course, it is meant to bring out that lost lust in you and it was important in a more or less repressive society of the India of the earlier twentieth century, perhaps not as much as a modern mind would imagine, but at least to the extent that such writing style would have been found out of place at the time. To me, writing is supposed to be. Manto was sort of an iconoclast in terms of Indian literature at the time and of course was way ahead of his time. Not to imply that he did not have an audience or people who did not understand and who were not good enough to receive it without going into a state of unproductive shock instead of ecstasy or at least literary if not hormonal pleasure of some sort. But it nevertheless is a fact that the society mostly acts unlike its individuals.

You would say that about every artist probably but more work out of Manto would have been great because the thought of having read all his stories is frightening, as is the thought of watching all the motion pictures from Fellini or Buñuel and getting done with it.

Because we need more inspiration to tap that lost memory.

A sense of nostalgia, a past-future, that is just not supposed to be there, or maybe it is.

Maybe we should try ourselves.

Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race

I have a guest author on my blog today. On the occasion of his 175th birthday, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or who we know as Mark Twain.

What you are about to read is one of my favorite pieces of literature ever produced, the essay “The Damned Human Race”. All credits to Mark Twain for writing this and since this blog is titled “The Truth Journal”, it does not get truer than having this essay featured on it.

I read it during my graduation classes and I fell in love with Twain’s work. I dedicate this post to Mark Twain and my favorite teacher Nasimullah Khattak.

Since it is classical literature, there is no harm at all in putting the essay up on a blog and allowing people to read it for free, especially when it is the Truth.


The Damned Human Race

by: Mark Twain

I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the “lower animals” (so-called), and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man. I find the result humiliating to me. For it obliges me to renounce my allegiance to the Darwinian theory of the Ascent of Man from the Lower Animals; since it now seems plain to me that that theory ought to be vacated in favor of a new and truer one, this new and truer one to be named the Descent of Man from the Higher Animals.

In proceeding toward this unpleasant conclusion I have not guessed or speculated or conjectured, but have used what is commonly called the scientific method. That is to say, I have subjected every postulate that presented itself to the crucial test of actual experiment, and have adopted it or rejected it according to the result. Thus I verified and established each step of my course in its turn before advancing to the next. These experiments were made in the London Zoological Gardens, and covered many months of painstaking and fatiguing work. …

Some of my experiments were quite curious. In the course of my reading I had come across a case where, many years ago, some hunters on our Great Plains organized a buffalo hunt for the entertainment of an English earl — that, and to provide some fresh meat for his larder. They had charming sport. They killed seventy-two of those great animals; and ate part of one of them and left the seventy-one to rot. In order to determine the difference between an anaconda and an earl — if any — I caused seven young calves to be turned into the anaconda’s cage. The grateful reptile immediately crushed one of them and swallowed it, then lay back satisfied. It showed no further interest in the calves, and no disposition to harm them. I tried this experiment with other anacondas; always with the same result. The fact stood proven that the difference between an earl and an anaconda is that the earl is cruel and the anaconda isn’t; and that the earl wantonly destroys what he has no use for, but the anaconda doesn’t. This seemed to suggest that the anaconda was not descended from the earl. It also seemed to suggest that the earl was descended from the anaconda and had lost a good deal in the transition.

I was aware that many men who have accumulated more millions of money than they can ever use have shown a rabid hunger for more, and have not scrupled to cheat the ignorant and the helpless out of their poor servings in order to partially appease that appetite. I furnished a hundred different kinds of wild and tame animals the opportunity to accumulate vast stores of food, but none of them would do it. The squirrels and bees and certain birds made accumulations, but stopped when they had gathered a winter’s supply, and could not be persuaded to add to it either honestly or by chicane. In order to bolster up a tottering reputation the ant pretended to store up supplies, but I was not deceived. I know the ant. These experiments convinced me that there is this difference between man and the higher animals: He is avaricious and miserly; they are not.

In the course of my experiments I convinced myself that among the animals man is the only one that harbors insults and injuries, broods over them, waits till a chance offers, then takes revenge. The passion of revenge is unknown to the higher animals. …

Indecency, vulgarity, obscenity — these are strictly confined to man; he invented them. Among the higher animals there is no trace of them. They hide nothing; they are not ashamed. Man, with his soiled mind, covers himself. He will not even enter a drawing room with his breast and back naked, so alive are he and his mates to indecent suggestion. Man is “The Animal that Laughs.” But so does the monkey, as Mr. Darwin pointed out; and so does the Australian bird that is called the laughing jackass. No — Man is the Animal that Blushes. He is the only one that does it — or has occasion to. …

The higher animals engage in individual fights, but never in organized masses. Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and with calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out, as the Hessians did in our Revolution and as the boyish Prince Napoleon did in the Zulu war, and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.

Man is the only animal that robs his helpless fellow of his country takes possession of it and drives him out of it or destroys him. Man has done this in all the ages. There is not an acre of ground on the globe that is in possession of its rightful owner, or that has not been taken away from owner after owner, cycle after cycle, by force and bloodshed.

Man is the only Slave. And he is the only animal who enslaves. He has always been a slave in one form or another, and has always held other slaves in bondage under him in one way or another. In our day he is always some man’s slave for wages, and does that man’s work; and this slave has other slaves under him for minor wages, and they do his work. The higher animals are the only ones who exclusively do their own work and provide their own living.

Man is the only Patriot. He sets himself apart in his own country, under his own flag, and sneers at the other nations, and keeps multitudinous uniformed assassins on hand at heavy expense to grab slices of other people’s countries, and keep them from grabbing slices of his. And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for “the universal brotherhood of man” — with his mouth.

Man is the Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion — several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven. He was at it in the time of the Caesars, he was at it in Mahomet’s time, he was at it in the time of the Inquisition, he was at it in France a couple of centuries, he was at it in England in Mary’s day, he has been at it ever since he first saw the light, he is at it today in Crete — as per the telegrams quoted above — he will be at it somewhere else tomorrow. The higher animals have no religion. And we are told that they are going to be left out, in the Hereafter. I wonder why? It seems questionable taste.

Man is the Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. Indeed, my experiments have proven to me that he is the Unreasoning Animal. Note his history, as sketched above. It seems plain to me that whatever he is he is not a reasoning animal. His record is the fantastic record of a maniac. I consider that the strongest count against his intelligence is the fact that with that record back of him he blandly sets himself up as the head animal of the lot: Whereas by his own standards he is the bottom one.

In truth, man is incurably foolish. Simple things which the other animals easily learn, he is incapable of learning. Among my experiments was this. In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately.

Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away two whole days. When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh — not a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.

One is obliged to concede that in true loftiness of character, Man cannot claim to approach even the meanest of the Higher Animals. It is plain that he is constitutionally incapable of approaching that altitude; that he is constitutionally afflicted with a Defect which must make such approach forever impossible, for it is manifest that this defect is permanent in him, indestructible, ineradicable.

I find this Defect to be the Moral Sense. He is the only animal that has it. It is the secret of his degradation. It is the quality which enables him to do wrong. It has no other office. It is incapable of performing any other function. It could never have been intended to perform any other. Without it, man could do no wrong. He would rise at once to the level of the Higher Animals.

Since the Moral Sense has but the one office, the one capacity — to enable man to do wrong — it is plainly without value to him. It is as valueless to him as is disease. In fact, it manifestly is a disease. Rabies is bad, but it is not so bad as this disease. Rabies enables a man to do a thing which he could not do when in a healthy state: kill his neighbor with a poisonous bite. No one is the better man for having rabies. The Moral Sense enables a man to do wrong. It enables him to do wrong in a thousand ways. Rabies is an innocent disease, compared to the Moral Sense. No one, then, can be the better man for having the Moral Sense. What, now, do we find the Primal Curse to have been? Plainly what it was in the beginning: the infliction upon man of the Moral Sense; the ability to distinguish good from evil; and with it, necessarily, the ability to do evil; for there can be no evil act without the presence of consciousness of it in the doer of it.

And so I find that we have descended and degenerated, from some far ancestor — some microscopic atom wandering at its pleasure between the mighty horizons of a drop of water perchance — insect by insect, animal by animal, reptile by reptile, down the long highway of smirchless innocence, till we have reached the bottom stage of development — namable as the Human Being. Below us – nothing. …