From pillow to pistol: Manto on the meaning of 'deterrence'

Saadat Hasan Manto lived through World War II and his most productive writing years in India were 1939-1945. This was the period where nations had converted industrial factories into armaments producing units and the world was awash with weapons. The theory of deterrence also came to be used, though this will surprise us because it was before the nuclear age.

Manto's response to this development, writing this essay, was to write about it through farce. This essay was published in 1942, while he was still working in Bollywood. It is after partition that the writing becomes very dark.

Tahdeed-e-Asliha by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Aakar Patel

International relations is so complex that to understand it is tiresome.

In fact one can get lost in that maze if one enters to figure it out.

I'm sure you've read 20 times about the threat of weapons of mass destruction. But tell me the truth - have you really understood how deterrence works? I don't think so.

I'm not questioning your intelligence, mind you. It's just that the thing has dawned on me recently and what I've understood about the subject can be put so simply that even a child would not be confused.


Imagine that you and I are slightly less clever than we are. It's possible that I possess a pillow and it's likely that at some point I thump your head with it. Now it's possible that you in turn have an egg, which you proceed to smash on my face. My pillow and your egg are weapons of mass destruction - you follow?

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German troops during the occupation of Vienna. Representational Image. Getty Images

To bring about a peace, we call a conference on the threat from these weapons. The result of our conference is that we agree to giving you the right to possess a pillow and me the right to possess an egg.

Both now have the material needed to retaliate in equal fashion if attacked. This ensures a peace. Neither of us has the right to increase our arsenal without consulting the other, because this would threaten the peace.

After some time, however, I bring to your notice your ownership of a pen-knife which could, logically, double up as a weapon.

You in turn point to the axe in my shed - using which I could sever your head with one swing. These discoveries suddenly produce in both of us strong and neighbourly yearnings for maintaining the peace. And so I get myself a pen-knife and you add to your property an axe, though you don't have a garden.

Now, just as happens so often in international relations, things sour between us. I come over and tell you that since I'm threatened by the equilibrium between us, I should be better off getting a pistol from the market. Your response is to be alarmed and to get a pistol as well as a glittering sword.

To be safe, I get a sword and, purely to ensure my security, I get a machine-gun and mount in on my car.
Surely peace should break out anytime now. But then you go off to an arms dealer and buy a tank. You also get a bomb which can blow the roof of my house clean off.

Yours truly notices and gets a couple of bombs for himself. I also order (just in case) a couple of cylinders of poison gas. The gas can turn you and your children a pale yellow and the skin of your faces the texture of roasted brinjal.

In response you look for a gas that can make my head, my arms and my legs entirely vanish from my torso. You also buy a fighter-bomber and park in in your compound.

We have collected so much explosive material inside our houses now that it's impossible to think of war.

Even so, we soon fight and destroy ourselves. However, this is incidental and shouldn't be blamed on us because at least we tried so hard to keep the peace.

Updated Date: Feb 01, 2013 11:43 AM

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