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Anita Agnihotri
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Saadat Hasan Manto

Mixed media by SABA HASAN

He leaned against a lamp-post at the crossroads near Kaiser Park, by the tonga rank, thinking, "This is the desolation at the very heart of desolation…" Until a couple of years ago, this park had bustled with life. Now, it was completely forlorn. This promenade for fashionable men and women was now home to ragged wanderers. The bazaar was crowded but it lacked the pulsing energy of the past. The buildings around it looked haggard and seemed to be gazing at each other in a state of shock, as though they had just been widowed.

The transformation was amazing — where had it all gone? The rouge and the vermilion were blown away, even the music had been silenced… And it had not been so long ago either. After all, two years is hardly a long time! He had just arrived from Calcutta then, a fresh recruit at a local firm, and he had found it impossible to rent a flat in Kaiser Park. But now, it seemed, even cobblers, weavers and vegetable-sellers were squatting in flats, rooms, whatever they could lay their hands on.

To think that the offices of a big film company had given way to a sooty kitchen with coal stoves, that washermen did the laundry where the beautiful people had once gathered. In just two years!

He was truly astonished — neither the newspaper reports nor his friends in the city had prepared him for this transformation. Now, he appreciated the magnitude of the storm that had wrecked this place. An evil wind, he thought, a savage tornado that drained buildings of colour and turned men into murderers and rapists. He had heard that women had been stripped and paraded naked while this storm raged, their breasts had been slashed off… Even today, whatever he was saw around him seemed to be stripped bare, sullied.

He was leaning against the lamp-post waiting for a friend who would help him find a place to stay. They had arranged to meet here.

Two years ago, when he had come here to work, this tonga rank had been very popular. For a price, you could get the choicest, most elegant tonga, and nearby, there were all the accoutrements of pleasurable decadence: the finest restaurants and hotels, excellent teas, superb food, unimaginable luxuries. The richest traders of the city gathered at Kaiser Park, and liquor and money flowed like water.


Someone called him softly. Ah, his friend had finally arrived, he thought. He turned to discover a stranger — a plain-looking man in a crisply starched salwar that really did not need any more pleats, and a blue poplin shirt that sorely needed a trip to the laundry. "You called me?" he asked. "Yes," said the stranger. The man must
be a mohajir seeking alms. "What do you want?" he asked.
In the same manner, the stranger replied: "Nothing." Then drawing closer, he asked, "Do you want something?"


He, too, had enjoyed the pleasures of Kaiser Park — the best women every night and even Scotch whisky. It was banned because of the war but here, you just had to ask for it.

Today, the tongas were still there, but without the fancy trimmings. No shiny metal stirrups and bridles. Like everything else in Kaiser Park, they had vanished.

He glanced at his watch — it was already past seven. In February, the shadows deepen early.

Silently cursing his friend, he was about to head for a nearby hotel for some tea, when someone called him softly.

Ah, his friend had finally arrived, he thought. He turned to discover a stranger — a plain-looking man in a crisply starched salwar that really did not need any more pleats, and a blue poplin shirt that sorely needed a trip to the laundry.

"You called me?" he asked.

"Yes," said the stranger.

The man must be a mohajir seeking alms. "What do you want?" he asked.

In the same manner, the stranger replied: "Nothing." Then drawing closer, he asked, "Do you want something?"

"What?"

"Some girl-shirl?" the stranger stepped back.

He felt a sharp stab of pain straight through his heart. He stared at the man. Even at a time like this, there was no stopping the sex trade. Human nature… He asked sharply, "Where is she?"

The pimp backed off immediately. "No, I don’t think you need this," he said.

But he stopped the man: "How do you know what I need? All men need this all the time, this thing that you can provide. Even on the gallows or a burning pyre, men will need it…" He checked himself. "Listen, if it is close by, I am willing to go with you. You see, I’m supposed to meet a friend here."

The pimp came closer still, "Actually, it’s nearby."

"Where?"

"In that building in front of us."

He looked at the building. "There?"

"Yes."

He hesitated for a moment, then said, "Shall I come with you?"

"Fine… but I’ll walk ahead." The pimp led the way. He followed, wrestling with a million painful thoughts. It was a short walk, and within minutes they were in the building.

Inside, it was terrible. Bricks missing, plaster peeling off. Taps that had dried up long ago stuck out from the walls and the floor was strewn with garbage. They crossed the threshold and stepped into darkness.

The pimp took him to a place where the masons were still building. Bricks, heaps of gravel, lumps of dried plaster and cement scattered everywhere.

A set of difficult stairs. The pimp stopped and said, "You stay here, I’ll be back in a moment."

He watched the pimp go up. Right at the top of the stairs, he could see a very bright light.

The moments turned into minutes. When the pimp did not return, he silently climbed the stairs. At the top, he heard a man bark out, "Will you get up?" It was the pimp.

A woman’s voice, in a strangled whisper: "I’ve told you, please let me sleep."

The pimp snapped back, "I’m ordering you… Get up, or else…"

"Kill me, then. But I can’t get up. For God’s sake, take pity…"

The pimp’s tone changed to cajoling: "Rise, my love… don’t be so stubborn… or how shall we live?"

"The money can go to hell… I don’t care. I shall die of hunger. But for God’s sake don’t trouble me. Let me sleep."

"You won’t get up?" the pimp snarled. "You haraamzaadi, you daughter of a pig!"

"I won’t get up, I won’t get up, I won’t get up!" The woman was now screaming.

Again, his tone softened. " Speak softly, speak softly… someone will hear you. Come on, get up… you will get some thirty or forty rupees!"

"Please, I haven’t slept for days, please have mercy…"

"Only for an hour or two. Then you can go to sleep. Or I’ll have to get tough with you, you know."

A sudden silence. He stood for some time on the last step, then tiptoed up and peeped into the brightly-lit room.

The tiny room was bare save for the blinding light of a bulb, which must have been of at least a hundred watts. A woman lay on the floor, and there were a few empty vessels lying around. Nothing else. The pimp sat with his back to the doorway, massaging the woman’s feet.

After a short while he said, "Now get up. I swear you will be back in a few hours, and then you can sleep."

The woman sprang up like a field rat surprised by a sudden fire, and yelled, "All right, I’m getting up."

He withdrew, overcome by a strange dread, and crept down the stairs. He wanted to run away — run away from the city, run away from the world. But where could he run to?

p. 1 p. 2

 
 
Saadat Hasan Manto was a cult figure in Udu literature. He moved from India to Pakistan
at the time of Partition. The author of hundreds of short stories, radio plays and articles,
he died in penury in Lahore in 1955