Revisiting Manto’s ‘Last Letter to Uncle Sam’ on his 108th birthday
Today is Saadat Hasan Manto’s 108th birthday. In the last years of his life, he achieved notoriety – and also immortality – due to his biting satires and his series of Letters to Uncle Sam. More than a decade after his untimely demise, his friend and contemporary Mohammad Khalid Akhtar paid the ultimate tribute to his deceased friend by writing a ‘Last Letter to Uncle Sam’, a fictional letter written on Manto’s pattern, which is a very successful imitation of Manto’s style and was sent to the addressee from Heaven a few days after Manto’s passing away.
In it, Akhtar talks about the political character of the superpower, the United States (US), and its influence, imposition and interference in Pakistan. Actually, this is a satire about the behaviour of the Pakistani nation and its rulers. It was published in Akhtar’s Adamjee Prize-winning collection “Khoya Hua Ufaq” (The Lost Horizon), published in 1968. Since 2020 is Akhtar’s own birth centenary year, this prescient letter, in my original English translation, can also be read as evidence of Akhtar’s own matchless prowess as a satirist and humourist. For others, it may offer a healthy antidote to the relentless and duplicitous dual diet(s) of Diriliş: Ertuğrul and piety induced by Maulana Tariq Jameel (discerning readers may note that the resemblance to another irksome Maulana in the letter itself, which is of course entirely fictional) favoured and advocated by our own Prime Minister of Naya Pakistan during the current Ramazan season. So read on!
“Chacha Jan – Assalamu Alaikum
You will be very grieved hearing that I passed away recently. Chacha Jan, that threat about dying which I used to give to you in every letter of mine has come true after all. Whether you accept it or not, your inattention and carelessness too has quite a hand in my death. Despite my repeated requests and entreaties, neither you had John Haig whiskey sent (to me) from your side nor the million-dollar legs of some mischievous Hollywood hottie. I think in just my previous letter I had expressed the wish to view these legs in proximity. How loveless you turned out to be Chacha Jan, you just kept quiet by turning a deaf ear to my request. On the other hand witness the state of my obedience that I praised you incessantly. Now your dearest nephew has passed away and as I have just said, you are wholly to blame for this indeed. God knows whether you even comprehend the meaning of passing away or not; since by sheer good luck you remain immortal. You will never pass away. Chacha Jan! By God do not pass away even by mistake. Whatever I had heard about Heaven turned out to be lies upon coming here. Here neither there are the pleasures of the seven freedoms of your master nor there is Hollywood. There is no country even which you could grant military aid or you could blow to smithereens with your hydrogen bomb. Your John Haig cannot be had here even in the black market. In the evening the pure wine is indeed distributed among us the inhabitants of Heaven in flasks but the wretched (thing) neither exhilarates nor intoxicates. What to talk of your John Haig; it does not even have the specialty of Pakistani tharra. Your Coca Cola, which I had the chance to drink in Lahore once, is vastly better than this nectar.
So yes Chacha Jan! I was narrating the incident of my sorrowful death before you. You must have read this news in the papers. What worth did a poor writer from the East have that your papers and magazines bothered to publish it. They do not get any relief from publishing the nude photos of girls with million-dollar legs; how and why would they have been attentive towards it! Though the papers in our country indeed published this news by drawing up black margins. That is their kindness otherwise what worth was this incapable nephew of yours that his death should have been noticed. If possible, please thank on my behalf the editors of these newspapers, who are a ray of sunshine. Pardon my rudeness, what is your Marilyn Monroe doing these days? Chacha Jan, please send her to Pakistan for just a week to encourage these editors. If possible, fill up the mouths of these editors with dollars. In any case, they should be rewarded for this generosity.
Chacha Jan! You may perhaps not know this that this nephew of yours, who is incompetent and imprudent, also had a wife and three dear daughters. You will say it would have been better for them all to pass on with me. I too had intended for something similar that I will depart taking them along with me but Mr Angel of Death did not allow me time and instantly seized my life.
Chacha Jan! You are renowned for being very kind-hearted and respecting. So I have the audacity to say that if possible do fix some stipend for my wife and children. One dollar of yours is worth 4.5 rupees of ours (I do not remember well), 50 dollars per month will be enough to keep them alive. Chacha Jan, by God I am not joking. Just 50 dollars; 50 dollars are a lot in our poor country and quite a large household can be brought up on this amount – but I know that you will in principle not do this because you are seriously irritated by beggars like me and then these days you are busy labouring to save the seven freedoms from the Russians and preparing the hydrogen bomb. Never mind whether a poor, dead artist’s girls live or die. There are greater issues before you! Okay so leave this matter. That province where this desolate soul resided; its Prime Minister is Feroze Khan Noon (at the time of my passing this gentleman indeed placed on this seat) Write him a recommendation letter; maybe even that will not have an effect; because Noon sahib would be involved in the difficulties of One-Unit in those days. Anyway what do you care? Do certainly write him a letter. In any case my only hope now is your dollar-like personality.
Chacha Jan! This is indeed like spreading poetry, but I cannot help but say it. I kept requesting you to send me John Haig whiskey till my dying breath and you kept putting it off. God knows what you understood. I used to heap praises on you at every breath in every gathering. Whether you admit or not it was indeed the devotion of my pen that the people in my country became convinced of your knowledge and kindness and so many of your nephews were born. In my poor country, if truth be told, after God and His Prophet, the great belief with which your name is taken, there is no one else. The theologians and mullahs in our mosques, the editors of newspapers, and the leaders of the Muslim League often bring the name of God and His Prophet even now; if you peep in their hearts, dollars will be heard tinkling. This is all the result of the continuous attempts of this deceased nephew of yours. I indeed did all this to brighten your name and in lieu of this sincerity you could not even so much as send some second-hand Packard from there. If not the million-dollar legs, you could have granted at least their prints. Vaah Chacha jan, vaah.
Well leave these things. These are the matters of that unfortunate country which I have left. The place where I am now, here Man is not pestered by desire for anything. Neither John Haig’s whiskey and a Packard, nor the prints of Marilyn Monroe’s lips. It is completely deserted here. Chacha Jan, you will be amazed and happy hearing that here I have kept a beard like yours. Every morning I have my mustaches clipped and remain abluted all eight hours. No evil thought enters my mind. Though I was famous as a pornographer in my own country. There I always used to be irked by the thought of artistic creation, since coming here I have not written a single short story. Actually Chacha Jan (though to say something to a shrewd man like you is like teaching wisdom to Luqman) This art fart is all nonsense, a face full of light and a heart full of delight is the real thing and along with that if there are dollars in the pocket too, then by God, how very fine? Would that rather than ruining my life and health writing away short stories there I was in the sugar business, or of any other commodity and would be elected to the Constituent Assembly on the basis of money earned from gambling, and performed the Hajj three or four times, so my world and the Hereafter would be reformed.
Chacha Jan! You will consider me to be very happy and cheerful in this new world. On no account. Whether you need to blow up the world with a hydrogen world or not, you know better. Yes, had I arrived after learning the prescription of the hydrogen bomb, I would certainly have blown up this world. The hardship and bitterness in the world that was my lot was much better than the pleasure and comfort and light which is available to me here.
Chacha Jan! Can’t you send some bomber jet of yours here, or wait now, let the cobalt bomb be invented. How come you have so delayed making this bomb – how is Mr John Foster Dulles. Next to you, he is the most dear to me.
Chacha Jan. Just yesterday while strolling near the Raised Fountain, I ran into Mirza. This is not that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani who had declared prophethood at one time (and whose sign I could not find here even after much search) This is another Mirza. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. Why would you have heard his name. His father’s name is off my mind right now. What we know is that for a hundred generations the ancestral occupation was soldiery. This gentleman has been a very great poet of our unfortunate Urdu language. The man turned out to be fun; he immediately became informal, said, “Amaan Saadat! What is this Paradise. We used to hear a lot many praises of it in the world; neither can one make out any human at a distance nor anyone possesses a taste for reciting and hearing poetry. Well, yes do ask someone to arrange for a bottle of Scotch – either Old Tom or something else. I will write a voucher to Mithradas Mahajan. The mind has been dulled drinking away the pure draught and well, yes, have you seen my full-moon-faced damsel anywhere?”
Chacha jan! I hold the satisfaction of that Mirza Ghalib very dear, so please if not for me, but for him indeed send a case of fine whiskey; if its champagne, that too will not make a difference. Both of us have damaged livers; do pay attention. Where else would one find a sympathizer and friend like you in this age?
Yes Chacha Jan! A few days before my death you mere making some SEATO, MEDO, etc. I have a strong hope that you will have been successful in this objective. Even in old age your spirit is young; it is impossible that you have a hand in anything and it is not accomplished. Give a request on my behalf to Mr Dulles that this part of paradise should also be included in your SEATO or MEDO. Leave it to me how to appease the agents here. The thing is that we indeed have here an abundance of houris, but they don’t possess that which your Hollywood actresses do. These houris are very much pure-quality and luminous. Then in this paradise, may God be good to you, there is neither newspaper, not magazine or radio; others apart, even a pen and inkpot are non-existent. This pen and inkpot, with which I am writing you this letter, I have asked my recording angels for it with a hundred excuses. They are unemployed these days and waiting for the Day of Judgement with the manuscript of my worldly actions in hand; your nephew has been kept in paradise for an interim period. The dominant guess is that he will be transferred from here and sent somewhere else.
Listen to the situation of my death. Do you know that when I passed away, my wife was so worried for an honourable manner of shrouding and burial for me, there was not even a bit of money worth the lowest value in the house. It was a few publisher gentlemen, may God be good to them, who had published the books of this distressed one, who with absolute generosity gave the expenses of the washer and the grave out of their own pocket. Still, the state of helplessness and despair in which the funeral of such a great short story writer was taken out was not at all worth seeing or hearing. Chacha Jan! Would that I was at least the Willie Moretti of your country.
Chacha Jan! Are you not bored. Actually I greatly enjoy talking to you. This is my last letter addressed to you. It is a strange headache writing and sending a letter from paradise. I have already presented the state of the pen and inkpot, there is no satisfactory arrangement for mail too, in fact it is non-existent in the first place. No comfort of your land of the seven freedoms is available here. I have enticed and pacified a gentleman with many entreaties into readiness to deliver this letter to your blessed hand; his name is His Excellency Azrael. He is a very famous sage, it is entirely possible that you have heard his name. Hayen Chacha Jan what’s this. Why did you turn pale at the mention of Azrael. You are indeed immortal and now then you have to increase the seven freedoms to sixty freedoms; shape SEATO, METO, NATO, etc.; invent the cobalt bomb. God forbid how can you die now?
Chacha Jan! Listen to another joke. There is a sage in India Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi. A few days ago I heard he came to meet our respected Governor General Ghulam Mohammad in some connection. He publishes the journal ‘Sidq’. Your Honour is a writer of great rank and an acknowledged scholar and the author of numerous scholarly and learned articles and books; these books can only be read by those gentlemen whose hearts have light and eyes have delight (or the opposite) within them. And whose eyes have the swath of prejudice and religious madness over them. Maulana Daryabadi spontaneously became agitated over the sorrow and mourning which occurred over my passing and he expressed strong surprise at this in his journal ‘Sidq’ in that why is the death of an ordinary pornographer being mourned to such an extent.
See Chacha Jan! How enlightened and writer-friendly gentlemen reside in our land. Are Ernest Hemingway, Caldwell, Thomas Wolfe and every such artist who exposes the lies with truth and dare and carries the world forward in your country called a pornographer in the same manner! Here even the Father Adam is singular in the first place. Believe me if the incompetent nephew had a hand’s length beard, clipped mustaches, a husband of three wives and a father of two dozen children; the author of some Behishti Zevar kind of a book instead of lewd and nude stories; and he had by the grace of Allah allotted himself five houses, two orchards and ten shops arriving in Pakistan, the same Maulana Abadi would be expressing unlimited pain at his death and deemed it a great catastrophe for the country and nation. Well Chacha Jan, now I do not feel sad what opinion people like Maulana Daryabadi have about me. This will indeed be decided by the coming generation and yes Chacha Jan, the thought has certainly been put into your mind by some enemy that this nephew of yours is communist. Had I been in the land of your seven freedoms, it was very likely that you would have deemed me truly communist or fellow-traveler at the indication of Mr McCarthy. Alas that I died dissolving away in poverty and illness. At your place, undoubtedly I would have died with great pleasure seated in the high, comfortable chair by electric shock in your incomparable slaughterhouse – though by the grace of God our Pakistan also has seven freedoms, but here a slaughterhouse like yours has not been constructed now – By God I am not a communist. You are a strange simpleton that you thought me to be a communist deceived by my enemies. Oh God, remove this suspicion from your heart. If you don’t believe me you can verify this from your consulate in Pakistan that I have never talked with such affection and love with your enemy Malenkov as I did with you. This is entirely a slander that I had made Malenkov my maternal uncle. Just a single patron and sympathizer like you is enough for me (And now I have also heard that Mr Malenkov admitting his own incompetence has resigned from the premiership of Russia)
Chacha Jan, by the One God who Has no partner, I was only your nephew in the world; even now I am only your nephew indeed. Though because of your suspicion you kept putting off every demand and request of mine with a smile. But there wasn’t even a hair’s breadth of a difference in my obedience and sincerity. Though chacha jan! Why are you so perplexed by communists? Just enjoy yourself in your seven freedoms. Let the Communists drive their axes and sickles. Those wretches neither have your whiskey nor the million dollar legs – haven’t you been a student of history?
Don’t you know that culture and civilization never remain the same?
You may try a million times. Hydrogen bombs have never destroyed humans.
This letter has become very lengthy. Still I wanted to talk further with you but here the ink has finished; there His Excellency Azrael is mounted on my head like a string-legged saint that hurry up I have other things to do.
There is absolutely no need of delivering a written response to this letter to Mr Azrael. Willy-nilly, your time will be wasted. Yes do definitely hand over a case of John Haig to him and if this is not possible, at least grant a prescription for its distillation. Furthermore if you can send the prints of the thighs of some latest Hollywood queen, I will be grateful.
Mr Azrael is eagerly desirous of meeting Mr Dulles, arrange for him to be transported to Mr Dulles’ house in your Buick or even in a rented taxi – yes I remembered. Send ten or fifteen freshly-minted dollars. Indeed now I have a strong desire to see those.
Your deceased nephew,
Saadat Hasan Manto”
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