Cigarettes and a stern wife: Manto on what it takes to be a writer

Representational image. AFP.

In his flat in Lahore, which was given to him as refugee property, Manto wrote his pieces trying to scratch out a living. In this one he answers a question many writers are asked: How do you write? The Paris Review magazine has a section in which it asks writers to explain the way in which they go about their work. Manto was never interviewed in such fashion so far as I know, but here he attempts to tell us anyway.
The flat he writes about, I visited many years ago. His daughter Nighat still lives there.

Main afsana kyon kar likhta hoon (How I write) by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Aakar Patel
Ladies and gentlemen, I've been asked to say how it is that I write. Now I don't really understand the question and what "how" means. My dictionary informs me it means "in what manner".

What can I say about this?

The best way of putting it is to say, well, I sit on a sofa in my living room, pile up a sheaf of paper, unscrew the cap of my fountain pen and begin to write.

My three little daughters play in the same room and I chat with them ever so often. I settle their quarrels, while I toss a salad for myself.  Should someone drop in, I play host and chat with them too. But through all of this I continue to write.

Now if I were to be asked WHY it is that I write, I have an answer for that too.

The most important reason is that I'm addicted to writing, just as I am to whiskey. When I don't write, it feels like I'm unclothed, like I haven't had a bath. Like I haven't had my first drink.

I don't actually write the stories, mind you, they write themselves. And that shouldn't be surprising. You see, I haven't had much education. I have, however, written 20 books and I'm astonished often at the thought of who their writer could possibly be. Clearly important enough a man to be taken to court so regularly for obscenity.

When the fountain pen is not in my hand, I'm merely Saadat Hasan. A man who knows nothing. It is the pen that transforms me into Manto.

The story is never in my mind or in my thoughts. It is always in my pocket, unnoticed. I keep exerting my mind so that it might squeeze out the opening paragraphs. But to no avail.

I try to "be" a writer of stories, putting on the air of one and holding the right pose. I light one cigarette after another. But nothing comes out.

In the end I tire and lie down like a spent woman, exhausted from the exertion of unwritten stories. Then I get up and do other things. I feed the sparrows, take the trash out and play with my little girls. Their shoes, those tiny shoes dispersed about the house, I collect and put in their place.

The dammed story, lying unnoticed in my pocket, doesn't come to mind.
When the pressure begins to mount I retire to the toilet and sit on the pot, but nothing comes out there either.

It's said that every big man thinks in the loo. I say with some experience that I'm not a big man, for I've never had a productive thought in there.
It's quite amazing that I'm considered one of Pakistan's and India's big writers. I can only say that it's possible that I've tricked them into believing this shit...

Forgive me. I'm speaking the language of the toilet.

Truth be told, I promise you I've no clue how it is that I write.

When I'm at a loss for ideas, my wife, who manages our finances, says sternly: "Please stop thinking and begin writing."

And so I pick up the pen and start scratching out a few lines. My mind is still empty -- but by now my pocket is full.

Of its own, as if by magic, a ripe story pops out.

In that sense, I don't consider myself a writer so much as a pickpocket.
One who picks his own pocket and hands over its contents to you.
Have you ever seen such a fool as me?

Updated Date: Nov 29, 2012 16:39 PM

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