The pothole mystery: Manto decodes the state-citizen affair

Saadat Hasan Manto.

India's writers have a strange problem. Why does nothing work? Why are the things they notice not noticed by others?

Manto migrated to Pakistan and, without work from Bollywood, began to wonder about such things.
This is a piece he wrote to express his bewilderment with what was happening around him.

The great pothole mystery (Do gaddhay, by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Aakar Patel)

You know me as a writer of fables. The courts know me as a pornographer. The government sometimes refers to me as a communist, and at other times as one of the nation's great literary figures.

Sometimes the doors of employment are shut to me . Other times they are opened. Sometimes I'm classified as an "unwanted person" and evicted from my house.

Then they turn around and say: "No, it's fine. You can keep your place."
I have wondered in the past, and still do today, what exactly it is that I am. This nation -- the "biggest Islamic state on earth" as we are often reminded -- what's my standing in it?

This country, which we call Pakistan and which is very dear to me, what's my place here?

I haven't found it yet. This makes me restless. This is what has sent me sometimes to the lunatic asylum, and sometimes to the hospital.

Whatever else it may be that I am, I am quite certain that I'm a human being. Proof of this resides in the fact that I have a good side to me and a bad one. I speak the truth, but sometimes I lie. I don't do namaz, but I am familiar with the act of bowing.

If I see a wounded stray dog, I am disturbed for hours. But I'm not affected enough to take it home and nurse its wounds.
When a friend is in trouble for want of money, I am inevitably troubled and saddened. But often I have desisted from offering help.

This is because I need money to buy whiskey. When I meet a handicapped, legless girl I think long about what her life must be like. I consider if it will change if I should marry her. But the thought flees me soon after I mention this to my wife.

I am, as I said, a teller of stories. My imagination soars, true, but it plummets in the face of reality and I think to myself that if I had to ultimately fall, why it was that I even soared in the first place. But I continue to be disturbed by small things.

I can't bear to see carelessly discarded banana peels. I can't believe how stupid the people are who do this. I feel saddened by those who catch rats in their own house and let them loose in another's neighbourhood. By those who clear the rubbish from their property only to litter someone else's doorstep.

It is said that this sort of behaviour is the product of illiteracy. If this is so, and certainly it seems universally accepted as being so, why is it that education isn't made universal?

Does it not show that those in charge of society and its laws are themselves illiterate?

I am shaken by the culture of our leaders. A man becomes minister and the road to his house (inevitably in a good neighbourhood) is kept spotless and smoked for mosquitoes.

But roads that actually need cleaning, the neighbourhoods of the poor that need smoking, are ignored. Even if a mosquito were to bite the minister, what of it?

Those thousands of children who spend their childhoods in rancid and fetid air are far more valuable than a minister.
These things are known to all, so what's the problem then? One can only wonder.

I often liken the relationship of the state with its citizens to that of a troubled marriage.

As a writer I find the relationship fascinating. Consider it. There is tension, and often unpleasantness, in both the union of man and woman, and of state and citizen. There is a great deal of hypocrisy too, but the relationship is not ever severed.

The intercourse between state and citizens (it will be appropriate to call it forcible intercourse) also produces offspring as a marriage does. But frightening ones, like the "Safety Act and Ordinance". Offspring that resemble their father, the state, more than the citizenry.

I don't want to say much about this save the fact that it is beyond my understanding, as many other things are.

I can understand the aggressive capitalism-loving nationalism of America. I understand also the real meaning of Russia's hammer and sickle. But what happens here, in Pakistan, is beyond me.

It's possible that what's happening is too sophisticated for me to follow, I accept that, but it's possible also that it's too crude for me to follow. I shall always regret that there's been nobody to explain this to me.

What can a short-story writer make of the pact with America that arms us? Then what can he make of our military pact with, of all nations, Turkey? He cannot even wonder what became of the inquiry into Liaquat Ali Khan's assassination. He dare not ask whether Liaquat's killer, killed immediately by the mob, received justice or whether he was also a human being murdered unjustly.

A short-story writer can, however, ask what the two potholes on the lane leading to McLeod Road from the Telegraph Office mean. Those two potholes may have been perhaps filled over by now. But the truck that fell victim to them is certainly still there.

It isn't clear how long it will remain there wounded, asking, as I am, what the meaning of those two potholes is.

If they were dug to ensure that in the night's insufficient light, tangas fell into them, horses died or were crippled, cyclists fractured their limbs or some motorcyclist singing film songs was made to see stars, if they were dug for this reason, I have no problem with them.

Perhaps the municipal corporation should do this sort of thing to keep citizens alert. But if I were to actually say this, that I have no problem with it, the government might get me. They might say: "Well, you don't have a problem with it, but we do." Truth be told, taking objection and having a problem with things around us isn't done these days.

I told you that I haven't yet understood my place in Pakistan. I assume that I'm some great literary figure. I'm told I am a writer of some renown in Urdu literature (if that also were untrue, life would be even more unbearable). I have now discovered something of my real standing, and the meaning of those two potholes. They may seem unimportant, but are actually most important.

Seemingly unimportant because people may get hurt even without them. The unending and silly accidents would have continued to plague us here. Important for this reason that they demonstrated that life could go on without the corporation.

A while ago I got a notice from the corporation saying I was an unwanted person, and ought to empty the house allotted to me. I thought this notice was itself quite unwanted.

Anyway, a few days ago I left Tea House and hailed a tanga. When we neared the Telegraph Office, I thought we should go to Beadon Road from McLeod Road so that I could buy some flowers for my three little girls.

As the tanga turned towards McLeod Road, I suddenly spotted two monstrous holes directly in front. I'm astonished I saw them at all, for I'm quite blind in the dark. I screamed.

The alarmed coachman yanked his reins and the horse stopped. So violently did he rear that the tanga went a couple of feet back.
If he had stepped forward another foot, we would have fallen in. The coachman thanked me profusely for saving his horse from injury. We could now see a few yards away a broken tanga whose crippled horse was whimpering in pain.

Now here's the first thought that came to me: Pakistan's finest short-story writer has been saved. I thought of the nation, at this point, not my wife or my three little girls.

I thought of myself as the nation's property, saved from damage and destruction. The truth is of course that had I died, it would have been the end of an "unwanted person."

A few loved ones and a couple of friends might have shed a tear or two. But this nation, which I thought of myself as belonging to, would have no tears for me.
Many things continue to remain beyond my understanding but I particularly can't figure out why these two potholes near the Telegraph Office did not have warning signs around them.

Boards to inform passers-by: "Look, if you want to kill yourself, please fall in. But if you want in fact to live, please avoid this place. If god had wanted you dead, he'd send you on your way to the promised land even on a straight and safe road."
That they did not put up such a board is a mystery. Certainly it is beyond the understanding of a mere writer of stories. But even so he must ask -- what was the nature of this mystery? If nothing else, he could have made a little story of it.

Near the Telegraph Office, where sometime ago were two potholes, a wounded truck still stands, on three wheels and a lot of bricks.
I'm not sure what it's trying to say to me, or to the corporation.

In my opinion, the state government should immediately set up a commission to investigate those potholes. It can produce enough paperwork to fill up those two holes, and take long enough in doing so to ensure that other holes are dug in the meantime so that yet other commissions may be formed.

Those two potholes - zindabad!

And horses and humans that fall into them to die - murdabad!


Updated Date: Nov 23, 2012 17:36 PM

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