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Manto on right questions and wrong

by Aakar Patel  Mar 29, 2013 15:11 IST

#Manto'sMusings   #Saadat Hasan Manto  

Manto wrote this piece a few months after Partition. We know this because he refers to Gandhi as having passed away and Jinnah (who died only seven months later in September 1948) as alive.

Incidentally his fondness for Gandhi and his dislike of Jinnah is very apparent here. It is a slightly surreal piece for those who are not familiar with why Manto is writing on the subject of questions. The fact is that the ideological state suppresses the individual through denying freedom of speech. Manto takes this aspect of Pakistan head on. Some of the things he writes here would not have been published today.

Saadat Hasan Manto. Agencies.

Saadat Hasan Manto. Agencies.

There is something lost in the translation of this piece, which used a recurring pun on the word "paida" (born), but I've given it a go anyway.

Sawaal paida hota hai by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Aakar Patel

Respectable ladies and gentlemen (and also less-respectable women and men), your attention please!

You are hereby notified that another question has come up. In fact, from the time of Adam till this day, as many questions have been conceived as there are stars in the night sky. But even so they keep producing themselves.

What I mean to say is that nobody stands up, or indeed sits down, to say that no more questions should be allowed to be produced.

Allah sends down natural disasters to control population explosion. He encourages us to go to war, he creates Pakistan and Akhand Bharat. In doing this, he teaches humans new and innovative methods of birth control.

For some reason, however, he hasn't turned his attention to the problem of controlling this question explosion. Question keep producing themselves everywhere and could in fact arise any moment. The thing is very fecund. No particular weather, type of soil, water or fertilizer or plough is needed for one to produce itself.

A child is born after nine months in the womb, but a question pops out instantly, needing no midwife, no maternity home and no chloroform. It simply presents itself before us: Hello!

A magistrate is smoking in his court. No question arises. The accused, yours truly, is summoned but doesn't bow to his lordship. Immediately the question of contempt of court is produced.

Another example: You can find no work and find it difficult to make ends meet. For two years you have struggled and finally you give in and decide to kill yourself. You're fortunate to fail in this effort. But now a legal question has been produced: Why should you not be punished for making the attempt at suicide?

And another: The government has built a ring road and on its entire stretch did not think it necessary to erect a urinal. One day you're just dying to go. You relieve yourself against a wall but a cop gets you. The question of committing an indecent act in public has now been produced.

Yet another: You're a local refugee (from west Punjab). You're running a press in Rawalpindi, and another in Peshawar. You're staying in Lahore, where a third Hindu-owned press is allotted to you. No question is produced.

But say you're a refugee from the Indian side of Punjab. You've left a large press behind in India. You move to Lahore but can find no press there to be given to you. You're angry and ask why a third press was given to the local man. The question is produced: Isn't he more deserving than you because he's accustomed to running presses?

One more: Thieves strike six times in your house in one month. You've not gone to the police - why bother them with trifles? But they find out anyway. The question now produces itself: Why did you refrain from doing an important duty?

Uncomfortable questions have been produced and more will surely be born. In the last century, the question kept arising whether the Mughal state would be overthrown. And so on every page of its history you'll find men, great historical figures, with their neck through this noose of a single question: Will the Mughal state survive?

In Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh, people of all faith came together for freedom. The question again was produced of overthrowing the state, and thousands of people answered that question with their lives.
Questions are usually dangerous - both those that arise in the minds of rulers and in the minds of the ruled.

For the ruler usually only one question arises (though it can appear in different versions): What can be done to control the ruled? And the question arises whether by doing this, whatever is done, the sentiment of the ruled towards the ruler will be suppressed.

Experience tells us that laws and acts and such things have always been unsuccessful in such suppression. But why? See, another question has popped out.

It's not necessary that every question should have an answer, of course. The real question is: What is the proper thing to do? If it is to remain silent, then undoubtedly politicians would not speak. Here the question is whether this silence might provoke seditious talk among some people. But then again why not just get rid of all such men? And another question comes up. By doing this, which in English is called a 'purge', is it guaranteed that the others will be silenced? Or will the purge produce a reaction in them?

The French philosopher JJ Rousseau was troubled by this question: When man is born free, why is he in chains everywhere? But what became of this line of thought? In cutting off their chains, the French cut down not a few human beings as well. The question is: Was such a revolution moral?

And what happened in Russia? The slaves of centuries rose with the question of freedom. And then? They then enslaved the Tsar and his family and finally executed them. The question arises: what right do the ruled have, over some small question, to sacrifice their ruler? But what is to be done? Whether questions are small or big, thin or fat, the damn things just keep producing themselves.

Elders tell us that the questions that are produced in the mind can be answered by the intellect, but not those produced by the body. For example, the question of hunger has come up in a man's stomach. If you reply to his question with sympathy, dreams of a better future and thoughts of a paradise where grapes automatically squeeze their nectar into his mouth, you'll get nowhere with him. Because the stomach demands an immediate reply to its question about food.

The question here is - when all of us know this, why do we approach the question of hunger and poverty in other ways? It's a serious question.
And then there are the silly questions, which don't really deserve an answer but have your attention in any case. I was at a saloon the other day getting a shave. While he was lathering me up, the barber came up with this: "So do you think Gandhiji shaved himself or got someone to do it for him?"

Whether a man is barber or cobbler, butcher or baker, millionaire or pauper, these questions will keep producing themselves and there's no known way of applying birth control to them.
Yesterday, I wondered to myself: "When Adam came into being, what did he feel?" And forget us adults, even children come up with some beauties every so often. We're all familiar with "Mom, where did I come from?"
What about "Dad, do male pigeons massage female pigeons?"

Two little kids looked into a locked room through its window and the question popped out: "Why do they tell us it's bad to go about with naked feet when..."
Even the most illiterate minds produce a question. I was at a kabab stall on McLeod Road the other day. A man said: "I've heard that Caliph Umar would himself sweep the floor of the local mosque in his neighbourhood. Do you think Jinnah also does this?"

And a beggar was heard saying: "I want to ask Jinnah if his Islamic state means that I wear these rags while he dons spanking new jackets."
It's obvious that these questions are akin to blasphemy. But what can be done? Questions produce themselves automatically whether halal or haram.

Sometimes the same question is produced in the minds of thousands at the same time. These days most people are thinking whether the business of Pakistan's government is governance or mischief. Others among us phrase the question in a slightly different way: "Nawab Mamdot.. Nawab Daultana (AP: Grandees of the Muslim League). But wasn't this supposed to be an egalitarian state?"

In Pakistan today the following questions have produced themselves:
Should women cover themselves?
If yes, what about nurses?
Should women wear their hair in one pigtail or two?
Is it fine for women to walk confidently?
Should women mount a horse wearing a salwar or a sari?
While on the subject of women, another question produces itself. A bearded woman goes to the maulvis and asks: "So what is the proper thing for me to do? Am I to keep this beard? If so, how long? And should I shave off the hair on my upper lip?"

One question that's produced in the minds of our leaders concerns the 50,000 girls who were left behind at Partition and are being used by the enemy. The leaders have been troubled by this for nine months. It's possible that along with the question of those 50,000 girls, another 50,000 little question will be produced (in fact a few thousand may have been produced already).