Revisiting Manto’s biting ‘Letters to Uncle Sam’ – Part 2

Published: January 19, 2020
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In this two part series, Raza Naeem translates passages from Manto’s nine Letters to Uncle Sam and discusses their enduring legacy. Read Part 1 here

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Fifth letter

In his fifth letter, Manto brilliantly exposes America’s pretensions about maintaining world peace even after acquiring the capability to make hydrogen bombs:

“I have heard that you have made the hydrogen bomb just so that there should be absolute world peace. Although God knows better, but I am sure of what you say because I have eaten your wheat and, after all, I’m your nephew. Although the young should readily obey the elderly, but I ask you if you did succeed in establishing world peace, wouldn’t the world become a smaller space? I mean so many countries would be wiped off the face of the earth. My school-going niece was asking me yesterday to draw a world map, I told her, not now, first let me talk to Uncle; I will ask him which country will remain and which will not, then I will draw it. For God’s sake, first of all, blow up Russia, for I hate it like anything. Regarding your decision to give military aid to Pakistan and other problems of the Far East over which you have disagreements with India and which Pandit Nehru had severely criticised a few days ago, I have heard that as a reaction to this your country is progressing towards a new strategy, some even think that America is trying a bit too hard in reassuring India of its aims. As far as I understand, by keeping Pakistan and India happy your sole objective is that wherever the flickering lamp of freedom and democracy is burning, it should not be extinguished by blowing it but should be oiled. In fact, drowned in oil so that it never again complains of being thirsty isn’t it so dear Uncle? You want to see Pakistan sovereign because you deeply love the Khyber Pass from where invaders have been attacking us for centuries. In fact, the Khyber Pass is also really very beautiful; does Pakistan really possess anything else more beautiful? And India you want to see being sovereign so because you are always wary seeing Russia’s aggressive activities in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Korea lest this red republic begin working hammers and sickles in India too. Obviously, if India loses its sovereignty, God forbid, it will be a big tragedy you would start trembling just visualising it.”

Seventh letter

While the sixth letter got lost in the post (Manto cheekily blamed the communists for this misdeed in his eighth letter), Manto’s seventh letter makes fun of America’s Cold War obsession with communism (this was still a few years before 1956, when the Communist Party was banned in Pakistan) and offers a subversive suggestion:

“But this secret is now no longer one that in my country Pakistan communism is spreading swiftly. What should I hide from you? Sometimes, I also wish to become a Red by sticking red feathers to myself. In a passage which could have been written in the last couple of years, Manto offers some equally subversive remedies for America’s financial crises, remarkably prescient if one looks at the state of that country today, as well as of Europe, and those with which John Maynard Keynes would have heartily agreed: Dear Uncle, I have heard a very disquieting news that your trade and commerce is passing through a very delicate period. You are wise by the grace of God, but please do also heed a fool’s words. This trade and commercial crisis has only happened because you stopped the Korean War. This was a big mistake. Now it’s up to you to think where will your tanks, bomber jets and guns be sold. Undoubtedly, the strong opposition of world public opinion has forced you to stop the war, but what does world public opinion matter to you? I mean how can the whole world confront your lone hydrogen bomb? You have stopped the Korean War. This is a big mistake but anyhow leave it. You should start a war between India and Pakistan. I dare you, if the benefits from the Korean War are not upended by the benefits of this particular war, then I won’t ever have the right to be your nephew. Please do think, this war will be such profitable trade, all your armaments factories will begin to work on double shifts. India will buy weapons from you, and so will Pakistan. Your five fingers dipped in oil and your head in the frying pan. By the way, please continue with the Sino-Indian war. Keep advising people that this is very noble work. The French people and French government can go to hell, if they are against this war so be it. We should not care about it. After all, our objective is to create world peace, right dear Uncle? I really like what your Mr Dulles said that the free world’s objective is to defeat communism this is the freedom-laden language of the hydrogen bomb.”

Eighth letter

Manto’s eighth letter to Uncle Sam pokes light fun at the Soviet Union, and he reserves his sharpest pen for Saudi Arabia (and by extension organised religion), with whom Pakistan’s ruling elite forged a close relationship, to the detriment of both its politics and culture in subsequent years. Here is Manto on the Soviet Union:

“One day that unfortunate (the communist poet Ahmad Rahi) began to say to me that you should leave Uncle Sam and initiate correspondence with Malenkov; after all he is your maternal uncle. I said this is true but he is my step-uncle; he can never love me nor I him. In addition, I know that he doesn’t treat his own real nephews so well too, those poor people are willing to lay down their lives for him and love him deeply. Clad in rags, despite their hardships they serve him and all he does is just to dispatch a dry appreciation by affixing a red stamp. English uncles, paternal and maternal, were a million times better than this Russian uncle. At least they used to pretend to elevate by bestowing such titles like Sir, Khan Bahadur and Khan Sahib; but Mr Malenkov doesn’t even do this. I will only be convinced if they just give some kind of small title to Abdullah Malik, who is their most faithful nephew. How convenient it will be for him to go to jail and write books with ease and comfort.”

On Saudi Arabia:

“I am recounting briefly the eyewitness and ear-heard account of Saudi King Saud’s Mecca. He reached Karachi via aircraft along with his 25 princes, where he was heartily welcomed. He has other princes too; I don’t know why they didn’t come, maybe because two or three additional aircraft would be required for the purpose; or maybe they are very young and they prefer their mother’s lap to the aircraft. It’s true: how can children brought up on their mothers’ and she-camels’ milk survive on Glaxo and Cow Gate dried milk. Dear Uncle! It is thoughtful that if King Saud had with him his 25 sons, by God’s grace, only God knows how many girls there would be, may God give them long life, and save the King from the evil eye. Tell me that in your state of seven freedoms is there any such iron man who has so many children? Dear Uncle! This is all courtesy our religion Islam and this high honour was given to whoever got it. In my humble opinion, you should immediately declare Islam your state religion. It will have a lot of advantages. Nearly every married man would be allowed to marry four times. If a woman gives birth to four children, even with a lot of miserliness, by this rule then sixteen boys and girls should be proof of a man’s manliness and a woman’s fertility. Boys and girls can be so useful in wartime. You are worldly-wise, you know better. If initially your married men have any type of problem handling four wives simultaneously, you can invite King Saud here to make use of his services. You are his friend; you and his late father were bosom buddies. I heard that you arranged a caravan of very grand cars as a gift for him and his harem. I think that King Saud will tell you all his presidential prescriptions. Nearly every country except India and Russia is taking an interest in Pakistan these days and it is all a result of your kindnesses that you have extended a hand of friendship and cooperation towards us; and we became so capable that others also began to view us kindly. We, Pakistanis, are ready to die for Islam. King Saud was feted along with his 22 or 25 princes in Government House, where all married and unmarried girls and women of high society participated. Cigarette-smoking was not permitted; not even for (Crown-Prince) Abdullah, however he is very safe without the cigarette smoke and he received this privilege owing to his vintage Islamic hospitality. His two dozen princes bought several Pakistani shoes in the Anarkali bazaar and gave a proof of their solidarity and good wishes. Now these shoes will walk on the sands of the Arabian Desert and imprint the temporary stamps of their longevity.”

Ninth letter

In his ninth letter, the final one, Manto satirises some prominent journalists on the payroll of the government and America during the Cold War while passionately trying to prove his anti-communist and pro-American credentials:

“Just observe his (Marxist intellectual Sibte Hasan’s) arrogance, he says that Saadat you yourself are a communist whether you accept or not. Dear Uncle, this letter will soon pass through your eyes, I assure you with your seven freedoms and your dollars as my witness that I was never a communist nor I am one still, this is just a prank by Sibte Hasan, a very Red one, hell-bent on spoiling my relations with you. As you know I am ever faithful to you. I want to reassure you that I am not a communist, maybe I become a Qadiani but I will never become a communist because these oafs just make do by a lot of talking shop and never really spend anything if they have to. Well same goes for Qadianis but at least they are Pakistanis and apart from that I don’t want to spoil my relations with them because I know that you will need a prophet immediately after your hydrogen bomb tests, who can only be supplied by (Qadiani leader) Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud. I have heard an announcement by the government of Iraq today that you have agreed to give military aid to this Islamic country as well; I have also come to know that the aid will be unconditional. Dear Uncle! If you were near me I would have kissed your feet, may God perpetuate you forever. Your kindnesses to the Islamic countries are ample proof that you are about to embrace Islam very soon. Japanese scientists have just revealed in an announcement that hydrogen bombs also affect the weather, reason being that you have recently tested this bomb in the Marshall Islands. These people say that Japan’s weather was affected such that despite the end of April, they are still experiencing extreme cold, I don’t know why those flat-looking Japanese don’t like winter. We, Pakistanis, love it, can you please drop a hydrogen bomb over India? Summer has already begun here and if the weather turns cold, I will be in great comfort.”

Reading these words today, one gets the feeling that Manto had envisioned today’s headlines, not only in terms of the relationship of Pakistan and India with Uncle Sam but even the threat of nuclear proliferation. As I write this, the newspaper headlines scream out today: “Qureshi urges US not to escalate tensions with Iran”; “Iran won’t bow to US pressure: “Afghan Taliban see deal with US by end of month”; “Pakistan urges US to stay engaged with Afghanistan after pullout”; and “Dream of ‘peaceful South Asia’ can’t be realised until Kasmir is solved, Qureshi tells Pompeo”. What more proof does one need of the continuing dominance of Uncle Sam in subcontinental affairs, which Manto foresaw with such perspicacity in the middle of the last century?

Raza Naeem

Raza Naeem

The author is president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and translator. His translations of Saadat Hasan Manto have been re-translated in both Bengali and Tamil, and he received a prestigious Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in 2014-2015 for his translation and interpretive work on Manto. He is presently working on a book of translations of Manto's progressive writings, tentatively titled Comrade Manto.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.