A Wet Afternoon: Stories, Sketches, Reminiscences
Saadat Hasan Manto
Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan
‘What is characteristic of (Manto’s) best work is a wry, sardonic refusal to be shocked. His attitude is that of a man who can no longer be surprised by the things people do to each other, but who nevertheless retains his humanity and compassion.’
Times Literary Supplement
‘There is still no literary rival to Manto.’
The Independent, London
‘Manto is a master storyteller.’
SAADAT HASAN MANTO, the most widely read and the most controversial short story writer in Urdu, was born on 11 May 1912 at Samrala in Punjab’s Ludhiana district. In a literary, journalistic, radio scripting and film-writing career spread over more than two decades, he produced 22 collections of short stories, one novel, five collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches, and many scripts for films. During the war, he worked for All India Radio in Delhi, but the best years of his life were spent in Bombay where he was associated with some of the leading film studios, including Imperial Film Company, Bombay Talkies and Filmistan. He wrote over a dozen films, including Eight Days, Chal Chal Re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib. The last one was shot after Manto moved to Pakistan in January 1948. He was tried for obscenity half-a-dozen times, thrice before and thrice after independence. Manto’s greatest work was produced in the last seven years of his life, a time of great financial and emotional hardship for him. He died several months short of his 43rd birthday in January 1955 in Lahore.
KHALID HASAN, journalist, writer and translator was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, and has written over 30 books. Ten collections of his own writings have appeared, including Scorecard, Give Us Back Our Onions, The Umpire Strikes Back, Private View and Question Time. He has translated most of Saadat Hasan Manto's best work and four of these collections have appeared since 1987 in London and New Delhi. He has also published The Women's Quarter, the selected stories of Ghulam Abbas. His translations of Raja Anwar's two books The Tragedy of Afghanistan and The Terrorist Prince were published in London in 1987 and 1997. He has also published two books on Kashmir: The Kashmir Holocaust and Azadi.
One of Pakistan's best known columnists, Khalid Hasan has written for newspapers in many parts of the world. He worked for a specialised international news agency in Vienna from 1981 to 1991 and was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's first press secretary. After spending five years in the country's foreign service - Paris, Ottawa, London - he resigned to return to the profession of journalism, barring of a two-year break - 1997-99 when he worked as head of the Shalimar Television Network in Pakistan. Currently, he is special correspondent of the Associated Press of Pakistan in Washington.
‘Sorry, wrong number,’ said a woman’s voice.
Manmohan put the receiver down and returned to his book. He had read it about twenty times, not because it was anything extraordinary, but because it was the only book in this room.
For one week now, Manmohan had been the sole occupant of this office room. It belonged to a friend of his who had gone out of town to raise a business loan. Since Manmohan was one of this big city’s thousands of homeless people who slept nights on its footpaths, his friend had invited him to stay here in his absence to keep a watch on things.
He hardly ever went out. He was permanently out of work because he hated all employment. Had he really tried, he could easily have got himself hired as director with some film company, which is what he once was when he had decided to drop out. However, he had no desire to be enslaved again. He was a nice, quite harmless man. He had almost no personal expenses. All he required was a cup of tea in the morning with two slices of toast, a little bit of curry and bread in the afternoon and a packet of cigarettes. That was all. Luckily, he had enough friends who were quite happy to provide for these simple needs.
Manmohan had no family or close relations. He could go without food for days on end if the going got hard. His friends didn’t know much about him except that he had run away from home as a boy and had lived on the broad footpaths of Bombay for many years. There was only one thing missing in his life—women. He used to say, ‘If a woman were to fall in love with me, my life wold change.’ Friends would retort, ‘But even then you wouldn’t work.’
‘It would be nothing but work from then on,’ he would answer.
‘Why not have an affair then?’
‘What good is an affair when the initiative comes from the man?’
It was afternoon now, almost time for lunch. Suddenly, the phone rang.
He picked it up. ‘Hello, 44457.’
‘44457?’ a woman’s voice asked.
‘That’s right,’ Manmohan answered.
‘Who are you?’ the voice asked.
‘I am Manmohan.’
There was no response. ‘Who do you wish to speak to?’ he asked.
‘You,’ the voice said.
‘Unless you object.’
‘No . . . not at all.’
‘Did you say your name was Madan Mohan?’
There was a silence. ‘I thought you wanted to talk to me,’ he said.
‘Then go ahead.’
‘I don’t know what to say. Why don’t you say something?’
‘Very well’, Manmohan said. ‘I have already told you my name. Temporarily, this office is my headquarters. I used to sleep on the city’s footpaths, but for the last one week I have been sleeping on a big office table.’
‘What did you do to keep the mosquitoes away at night? Use a net on your footpath?’
Manmohan laughed. ‘Before I answer this, let me make it clear that I don’t tell lies. I have slept on footpaths for years. Since this office came under my occupation, I have been living it up.’
‘How are you living it up?’
‘Well, there’s this book I have. The last pages are missing, but I’ve read it twenty times. One day, when I can lay my hand on the missing pages, I will finally know what end the two lovers met.’
‘You sound like a very interesting man,’ the voice said.
‘You are only being kind.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I mean, what is your occupation?’
‘Occupation? None at all. What occupation can a man have when he doesn’t work? But to answer your question, I loaf around during the day and sleep at night.’
‘Do you like your life?’
‘Wait,’ Manmohan said.’ That is one question I have never asked myself. And now that you have put it to me, I’m going to put it to myself for the first time. Do I like the way I live my life?’
‘And what is the answer?’
‘Well, there is no answer, but I suppose if I’ve lived my life the way I’ve lived it for so long, then it’s reasonable to assume that I like it.’
There was laughter. ‘You laugh so beautifully,’ Manmohan said.
‘Thank you.’ The voice was shy. The call was disconnected. For a long time, he kept holding the receiver, smiling to himself.
The next day at about eight in the morning, the phone rang again. He was fast asleep, but the noise woke him up. He yawned and picked it up.
‘Hello, this is 44457.
‘Good morning, Manmohan sahib.’
‘Good morning . . . oh it’s you. Good morning.’
‘Were you asleep?’
‘I was. You know I have become spoilt since I moved here. When I return to the footpath, I’m going to run into difficulties.’
‘Because if you sleep on the footpath, you have to get up before five in the morning.’
‘You rang off abruptly yesterday,’ he said.
‘Well, why did you say I laugh beautifully.’
‘What a question! If something is beautiful, it should be praised, shouldn’t it?’
‘Not at all.’
‘You are not to impose conditions. I have never accepted conditions. If you laugh, I’m going to say that you laugh beautifully.’
‘In that case, I’ll hang up.’
‘Don’t you really care if I get upset?’
‘Well, to begin with, I don’t wish to upset myself, which means that if you laugh and I don’t say that you laugh beautifully, I would be doing an injustice to my good taste.’
There was a brief silence. Then the voice came back: ‘I’m sorry, I was having a word with our maid. So you were saying that you were partial to your good taste. What else is your good taste partial to?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean . . . what hobby or work . . . or, shall I ask, what can you do?’
Manmohan laughed. ‘Nothing much except that I am fond of photography—just a bit.’
‘That’s a very good hobby.’
‘I have never thought of it in terms of its being good or bad.’
‘You must have a very nice camera.’
‘I have no camera. Off and on, I borrow one from a friend. Anyway, if I’m ever able to earn some money, there is a certain camera I am going to buy.’
‘Exacta. It’s a reflex camera. I like it very much.’
‘You have neither asked me my name nor my phone number.’
‘I haven’t felt the need.’
‘What does it matter what your name is? You have my number. That’s enough. When you want me to phone you, I’m sure you will give me your name and number.’
‘No, I won’t.’
‘Please yourself. I’m not going to ask.’
‘You’re a strange man.’
‘That’s true, I am.’
There was another silence.
‘Were you thinking again?’ he asked.
‘I was, but I just can’t think of anything to think about.’
‘Then why don’t you hang up? Another time.’
There was a touch of annoyance in the voice. ‘You’re a very rude man. I am hanging up.’
Manmohan smiled and put the phone down. He washed his face, put his clothes and was about to leave, when the phone rang. He picked it up. ‘44457.’
‘Mr. Manmohan?’ asked the voice.
‘What can I do for you?’
‘Well, I wanted to tell you that I’m not annoyed any more.’
‘That’s very nice.’
‘You know while I was having breakfast, it occurred to me that I shouldn’t be annoyed with you. Have you had breakfast?’
‘No, I was just about to go out when you phoned.’
‘Oh, then I won’t keep you.’
‘I’m in no particular hurry today, because I have no money. I don’t think there’ll be any breakfast this morning.’
‘Why do you say such things? Do you enjoy hurting yourself?’
‘No, I’m quite used to the way I am and the way I live.’
‘Should I send you some money?’
‘If you want to. That will be one more name on the list of my financiers.’
‘Then I won’t.’
‘Do what you like.’
‘I am going to hang up.’
‘Hang up then.’
Manmohan put down the phone and walked out of the office. He came back very late in the evening. He had been wondering about his caller all day. She sounded young and educated and she laughed beautifully. At 11 o’clock the phone rang.
‘I’ve been phoning all day. Could you please explain where you were?’
‘Although I don’t have a job, I still have things to do.’
‘When did you come back?’
‘An hour ago.’
‘What were you doing when I called?’
‘I was lying on the table and trying to imagine what you looked like, but I have nothing to go on except your voice.’
‘Did you succeed?’
‘Well, don’t try. I’m very ugly.’
‘If you are ugly, then kindly hang up. I hate ugliness.’
‘Well, if that’s the case, I am beautiful. I don’t want you to nurture hatred.’
They didn’t speak for some time. Then Manmohan asked, ‘Were you thinking?’
‘No, but I was going to ask you . . .’
‘Think before you ask.’
‘Do you want me to sing for you?’
‘All right, wait.’
He heard her clear her throat, then in a very soft, low voice she sang him a song.
‘That was lovely.’
‘Thank you.’ She rang off.
All night long he dreamt about her voice. He rose earlier than usual and waited for her call, but the phone never rang.
He began to pace around the room restlessly. Then he lay down on the table and picked up the book he had read twenty times. He read it once again. The whole day passed.
At about seven in the evening, the phone rang. Hurriedly, he picked it up.
‘Where were you all day?’ he asked sharply.
‘Why?’ the voice trembled.
‘I’ve been waiting. I haven’t had anything to eat, although I had money.’
‘I’ll phone when I want to . . .’
Manmohan cut her short. ‘Look, either put an end to this business or let me know when you will call. I can’t stand waiting.’
‘I apologise for today. From tomorrow I promise to phone both morning and evening.’
‘I didn’t know you were . . .’
‘Well, the thing is that I simply can’t bear to wait and when I can’t bear some thing, I begin to punish myself.’
‘How do you do that?’
‘You didn’t phone this morning. I should have gone out, but I didn’t. I sat here all day fretting.’
‘I didn’t phone you deliberately.’
‘To find out if you miss my call.’
‘You are very naughty. Now hang up. I must go out and eat.’
‘How long will you be?’
‘Half an hour.’
He turned after an hour. She phoned. They talked for a long time. He asked her to sing him the same song. She laughed and sang it.
She would now ring regularly, morning and evening. Sometimes they would talk for hours. But, so far, Manmohan had neither asked her her name nor her phone number. In the beginning he had tried to imagine what she looked like, but that had now become unnecessary. Her voice was everything—her face, her soul, her body. One day she asked him. ‘Mohan, why don’t you ask me my name?’
‘Because your voice is your name.’
Another day she said, ‘Mohan, have you ever been in love?’
He grew sad. ‘To answer this question, I’ll have to clear away the entire debris of my life and I would be very unhappy if I found nothing there.’
A month passed. One day Mohan had a letter from his friend. He said he had raised the money and would be returning to Bombay in a week. When she phoned that evening, he said to her, ‘This is my kingdom’s end.’
‘Because my friend is coming back.’
‘You must have friends who have phones?’
‘Yes, I have friends who have phones, but I can’t give you the numbers.’
‘I don’t want anyone else to hear your voice.’
‘Let’s say I’m jealous.’
‘What should we do?’
‘On the day your kingdom ends, I’ll give you my number.’
The sadness he had felt was suddenly gone. He again tried to picture her, but there was no image, just her voice. It was only a matter of days now, he said to himself, before he would see her. He could not imagine the immensity of that moment.
When she called next day, he said to her ‘I’m curious to see you.’
‘You said you would give me your phone number on the day my kingdom ends.’
‘Does that also mean you’ll tell me where you live? I want to see you.’
‘You can see me whenever you like. Even today.’
‘Not today. No, I want to see you when I am wearing nice clothes. I have asked a friend of mine to get me some.’
‘You’re like a child. When we meet, I’ll give you a present.’
‘There can be no greater present in the world than meeting you.’
‘I have bought you an Exacta camera.’
‘But there’s a condition. You’ll have to take my picture.’
‘That I’ll decide when we meet.’
‘I shan’t be phoning you for the next two days.’
‘I’m going to be away with my family. It’s only two days.’
Manmohan did not leave the office that day. The next morning he felt feverish. At first he thought it was boredom because she hadn’t phoned. By the afternoon, his fever was high. His body felt on fire. His eyes were burning. He lay down on the table. He was very thirsty. He kept drinking water all day. There was heaviness in his chest. By next morning, he felt completely exhausted. He had trouble in breathing. His chest hurt.
His fever was so high that he went into a delirium. He was talking to her on the phone, listening to her voice. By the evening, his condition had deteriorated. There were voices in his head and strange sounds as if thousands of phones were ringing at the same time. He couldn’t breathe.
When the phone rang, he did not hear it. It kept ringing for a long time. Then suddenly there was a moment of clarity. He could hear it. He rose, stumbling uncertainly on his feet. He almost fell, but steadying himself against the wall, he picked it up with trembling hands. He ran his tongue over his lips. They were dry like wood.
‘Hello, Mohan,’ she said.
‘It is Mohan,’ his voice fluttered.
‘I can’t hear you.’
He tried to say something, but his voice dried up in his throat.
She said, ‘We came back earlier than I thought. I’ve been trying to call you for hours. Where were you?’
Manmohan’s head began to spin.
‘What is wrong?’ she asked.
With great difficulty he said, ‘My kingdom has come to an end today.’
Blood spilled out of his mouth, making a thin red line down his chin, then along his neck.
She said, ‘Take my number down. 50314 . . . 50314. Call me in the morning. I have to go now.’
© Nighat Patel, Nuzhat Arshad, Nusrat Jalal
© Khalid Hasan, for English translation