‘He Faced The New Year With His Arsenal’: A Short Fiction By Manto

This short story by Manto, translated by Dr Rakhshanda Jalil, sums up the essence of annus horribilis that was 2020.

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(Disclaimer: This is a short fiction originally published in Urdu by Saadat Hasan Manto, and has been translated to English by Dr Rakhshanda Jalil. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

The last page of the calendar, on which ‘31 December’ was printed in big bold letters, was captured between his slender fingers in the flash of a second. Now the calendar looked like a naked stump of a tree from whose branches autumn has blown away every single leaf.

The clock hanging on the wall was tick-tocking. The last leaf of the calendar – no more than a 1.5-inch square of paper – was quivering between his slender fingers like a death-row prisoner before the hangman’s noose.

The clock struck 12; at the first note his fingers moved and by the last note that piece of paper had been crumpled into a tiny ball.

The fingers did the task with great cruelty and the person to whom these fingers belonged swallowed the ball with even greater ruthlessness.

An acidic smile spread on his lips and he looked towards the calendar with victorious eyes as he said, “I have eaten you up... I have swallowed you whole.”

And then such a loud laughter erupted that it buried in its noise the sound of cannons booming somewhere in the distance to herald the new year.

‘His Life Was More Miserable Than A Dog’s, But Nothing Could Get In His Way’

For as long as the canons were being fired and loud laughter kept erupting from his parched throat like volcanic embers, he was extremely happy. So happy, in fact, that it was almost as if he was overcome by a madness. His happiness knew no bounds; every bit of him was consumed by laughter. But his eyes were crying. When his eyes laughed you would have looked at his pursed lips and guessed that his spirit was wracked by a terrible agony. Again and again, he let out the loud cry:

“I have eaten you up... I have swallowed you whole... one by one all 366 days, including the leap day!”

The empty calendar was attesting his strange claim. Exactly four years ago when he had set out to earn his own living, carrying the mountain of his hardships on his shoulders, so many people had made fun of him. So many had sniggered and mocked. But he had not paid heed; he still didn’t.

He was only interested in himself. He always gave importance to his own hell in comparison to other people’s heaven.

These days he was working harder than a vulture. His life was more miserable than a dog’s but nothing, really, could get in his way. Several times he had to extend his hand for help, and he did, but always with pride. He used to say, “All these beggars on the streets who go about with their hems wide open and their bowls extended – they should be shot! These wretched dogs look grateful when they have received alms whereas they should express their thanks with abuses. Those who ask for alms are not as accursed as those who give alms. They are traders who are booking a cool place in heaven for themselves by giving alms and charity!”

‘Only Fools Read Newspapers...’

On several occasions he had to go to the wealthy men of the city for financial aid. He took the financial assistance from these people — by selling them their own weaknesses. But he never made this transaction like a novice shop keeper.

“You have been appointed the guardian of the city’s health but in reality you are the kingpin of amassing sicknesses. In government records your name is listed as Health Officer but in my book your name is listed under those who sell diseases and obscenities. Day before yesterday you had two hundred baskets of oranges cleared and sent to the market which, according to medical principles, are extremely detrimental to public health. Ten days ago you averted your gaze from approximately 10,000 bananas whereas each one of them was a carrier of cholera. And today you have saved this ancient and rotting building which is a cradle of diseases...”

Usually, he had no need to say any more... because his deal would be done with just a few words. He was the editor of a cheap and pedestrian newspaper which did not have a print run of more than 200. Actually, he was not in favour of a large print run.

“Only fools read newspapers. And those who believe what is written in the newspapers are bigger fools. Those whose own lives are full of action and adventure, what need do they have for these printed rags?”

‘Death Comes To Those Who Give Up Their Life In Fear Of Death’

He didn’t run the newspaper because he liked to write articles. Or because he wanted to earn name and fame through it... No, not in the least! Save for a couple of hours of work that were necessary for the publication of his newspaper, he spent the rest of his time dreaming those dreams that had been swirling about in his head for ages. He wanted to create a position for himself where no one could bother him, where he could rest in peace even if it were for two seconds!

“I should savour victory in the battle ground even if it’s momentary, but I must! And if I am defeated and beaten, so what? I will savour defeat as I am trying to trying to achieve success. Death comes to those who give up their life in fear of death, and those who embrace death in a bid to stay alive are alive. And shall always stay alive ... at least for themselves!”

‘Whoever Met Him Hated Him, But He Was Happy’

The world was aligned against him. Whoever met him hated him, but he was happy. “There’s greater potency in hate than in love... If everyone were to start loving me than I will become like the wheel that has been oiled inside out... and I would never be able to push that cart along that is called Life.”

Nearly everybody was against him and he used to look at his opponents as though he was looking at the bits and pieces of an engine fitted in a motor. “They should never get cold...”

And he had never let them grow cold. He used to keep that bonfire constantly lit on which he would warm his hands. The day he added a new person among his list of opponents, he would tell himself:

“Today I have added another dry twig to the bonfire; it will keep the fire going for a long time.”

One day, one of his opponents spewed a lot of venom against him at a public gathering... said all sorts of things against him, even heaped the vilest of abuses upon him. His opponent thought that he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night after hearing all this. But on the contrary, that night he slept far more soundly than usual whereas the opponent stayed awake all night.

The man’s conscience troubled him all night long so much that he got up in the morning and came to him and sought his forgiveness in the most abject manner.

‘Virtue — The Finest Garment Of Humanity’

“I am deeply sorry that I said such foul things about person of such exemplary virtue, called you names and hurled abuses. Actually... actually, I said all this in haste without thinking. I was instigated. I am deeply ashamed of my actions and I sincerely hope that you will forgive me. I have committed a grievous error.”

Virtuous person! How he hated the word... virtue — the finest garment of humanity... virtue, virtue, virtue! All it meant was a meaningless litany of do’s and don’ts! Nothing but a censor on man’s freedom!

He knew that his faint-hearted opponent had lied. But God knows why it did not give rise to anger in his heart. On the contrary, he felt as though the person sitting in front of him and making an abject apology had lost something very precious. He was regarded as a very cruel man and he was, in fact, very cruel. You could say his breast was absolutely free of soft and tender feelings. But this time something could be seen crawling on the stone. He began to feel sorry for the man.

“As far as your spirit is concerned, you have died today and I feel sad at your death.”

Hearing this, the opponent once again launched a barrage of abuses. But not a sound reached his ears. He had buried him in a distant graveyard a long time ago.

‘He Who Wishes To Cut The Heart Of A Diamond With A Flower Petal Should Be Admitted Into A Mental Asylum’

This is how he had been living for the past four years – stubbornly, against the wishes of the world. Several forces were bent upon defeating him. But he was not willing to surrender even an atom of his being to them – without a battle. Battle, battle, battle... against every opposing force! Unacquainted with mercy and kindness, he stayed away from love and romance.. Hope, fear and welcome were all strangers to him ... whatever will be will be!

For the past four years he had been standing like a sturdy tree buffeted by strong and gusty winds.

It’s possible that the passing of the seasons may have wrought some changes in his body but nothing had made any impact on his spirit. His spirit was still the same... as it was four years ago – strong as iron. This strength was not a gift from nature; instead it had been nurtured by him.

He used to tell himself: “You will not be able to walk on the stony path of the world with a soft and delicate spirit buried in your breast. He who wishes to cut the heart of a diamond with a flower petal should be admitted into a mental asylum.

He never allowed poetic thoughts to enter his mind. If perchance such thoughts rose unconsciously, he would instantly strangle the throats of these illegitimate children. He used to say, “I don’t wish to become the father of those children who will become a burden on my shoulders.”

‘He Was Alone...But Never Desolate Over His Aloneness...’

He had removed all emotions, all joys, all excitements from the instrument of his life. He had discarded all those strings that brought forth soft and delicate sounds. “There’s only one secret of life and that is the rajaz — the verses read at the battlefield to arouse the spirit of the soldiers. It is the rajaz that instills the desire to move forward, to attack, to kill or be killed. Apart from this all other melodies are a waste; they merely create exhaustion and fatigue.”

Despite his youth, his heart was empty of love and romance. Thousands of beautiful girls and women had passed before his eyes but not one had touched his heart. He used to say, “The leech of love cannot be stuck to this stone.”

He was alone, completely alone. Like the date palm standing alone in a blistering desert. But he was never desolate over his aloneness. Actually, he was never lonely.

“When I am busy at work, work is my companion and when I finish work my other thoughts and ideas surround me. I am always in a thicket of friends,” he would say.

‘The Iron Tape Of Time Was Passing By...’

He used to pass his days as though he was eating mangoes. At night when he lay down on his bed it would seem as though he had spat out the day like a sucked-out seed. If you were a wall in his room, then these words would no doubt have ricocheted off you several times that he was prone to speak aloud before going to sleep: “How tart was the day today… it will be such fun if the remaining days in this basket are just like this!”

And the nights… regardless of whether they were dark or luminous, for him they were all concubines whom he forgot as soon as the sun rose.

This is how he had been passing his life for the past four years. It seemed as though he was sitting atop a high platform with a hammer in his hand. The iron tape of Time was passing by and he was embossing it with loud thumps of his hammer. When a day passed by he would stop it for a while. The, releasing it, he would say: “Go now; I have used you up fully!”

‘Tonight A New Year Was Awaiting Him...’

Some people regret that they did not do such and such thing at such and such a time. And they feel this regret for a long time. But he never experienced any such regret or remorse. He tried to reap unthinking benefit from the time that was wasted in thinking, even if the result was injurious to him.

“If there was benefit in being thoughtful then why would the life of prophets and seers have been so full of hardships and defeats, considering they expended so much time and energy on thoughtful action? If there’s loss and defeat even after a great deal of contemplation, then is it not better to face the consequences without getting entangled in thoughts and ideas?”

He had faced thousands of failures in the past four years. Not just faced them but seen them from head to toe and yet he had remained adamant upon his principle as a rock in the face of tidal waves.

Tonight a new year was awaiting him after the clock struck 12. And he had swallowed the past year, without so much as a burp.

‘Lift Your Veil... Let Me See Your Face...’

He was happy at the arrival of the new year just as a famous wrestler approaches his new opponent in the wrestling pit, with confidence and aplomb. And he stood facing the new year armed to the teeth with all his arsenal. In a loud voice he was calling out: “I have defeated many wrestlers such as you. I will throw you to the ground too.”

After having rejoiced to his heart’s content he moved towards the new calendar that was curling upwards on the dirty wall. He ripped off the opening flap with a jerk and said:

“Lift your veil… let me see your face… I am your Master… I own you... I am your Everything!”

The page for 1 January was revealed in all its nakedness. He let out a peal of laughter and said, “You shall be destroyed tomorrow night.”

(Saadat Hasan Manto [11 May 1912 - 18 January 1955] was a noted colonial Indian and Pakistani writer, playwright and author born in Ludhiana, India. Writing mainly in the Urdu, he produced 22 collections of short stories, a novel, five series of radio plays, three collections of essays and two collections of personal sketches.)

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. )

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