ABOUT THE STORY Even sixty years after it was written, ‘On Top, Under and In Between’ (‘Upar, neechay aur darmiyan’), a story by the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto that invited the ire of a young Islamic Republic of Pakistan, brings to mind the perversity and complexity of free-speech controversies in India today. The story actually features one of Manto’s most discreet fictional narrators, almost proving that censors have much more lurid imaginations than the artists whom they would suppress.
Aakar Patel, the translator, writes, “Manto was prosecuted for four of his stories (‘Bu’, ‘Kali Shalwar’, ‘Thanda Gosht’ and ‘Dhuan’) in British Lahore, but finally convicted by a Pakistani court. This came in 1952 after a Karachi magistrate judged ‘Upar, neechay aur darmiyan,’ to be obscene. The story’s subject is: how should someone write about sex in the Islamic republic? Manto approaches the subject as obliquely as he can, writing about a couple that goes about it as innocents but ends up breaking the bed. The fine imposed on Manto, Rs 25, was the minimum and could not be appealed, thus leaving the conviction against the writer’s name forever.”
Soon after the verdict, in 1952, Manto published the story himself, with the note, “My publisher refused to print this story. That upset me. I was prosecuted and convicted by a Karachi court for writing it. And I was fined Rs 25 after being found guilty. I wanted that my publisher pay me another Rs 25 as recompense for my trauma, but that didn’t happen. Anyway, I somehow scrabbled around for the money to publish this on my own, so that you could read it. I’m quite certain you will honour the piece—for you are my dear reader, not my publisher. Yours, Saadat Hasan Manto.”
Why I Write, a selection of Manto’s non-fiction translated by Aakar Patel, is forthcoming later this month from Westland.
On Top, Under and In Between
Saadat Hasan Manto
Translated from Urdu by Aakar Patel
MIAN SAHEB: We’ve got an opportunity to meet after quite some time.
HIS WIFE, BEGUM SAHIBA: True.
MIAN SAHEB: I try to step back from my responsibilities but those incompetents don’t allow me to do so.
BEGUM SAHIBA: The truth is you’re soft-hearted. Like me.
MIAN SAHEB: True. If you should find the time, send me the speeches you have made in the past few days. I want to study them at leisure.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Certainly.
MIAN SAHEB: And I had spoken to you about that thing.
BEGUM SAHIBA: What thing?
MIAN SAHEB: Perhaps I hadn’t mentioned it. Yesterday, I found the middle son in his room. He was reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
BEGUM SAHIBA: That disgraceful work!
MIAN SAHEB: Yes, Begum.
BEGUM SAHIBA: What did you do?
MIAN SAHEB: I seized the book.
BEGUM SAHIBA: You did well.
MIAN SAHEB: I think I’ll also consult a doctor and change his diet.
BEGUM SAHIBA: That’s the right approach.
MIAN SAHEB: And how are you otherwise?
BEGUM SAHIBA: I’m well.
MIAN SAHEB: I was thinking I’d ask you…
BEGUM SAHIBA: Oh… You’re getting quite naughty!
MIAN SAHEB: It’s all your doing.
BEGUM SAHIBA: But… What of your health?
MIAN SAHEB: It’s fine. I won’t do anything without consulting the doctors. You should too.
BEGUM SAHIBA: I will consult MISS SALDANHA today itself.
MIAN SAHEB: And I’ll go to DR JALAL.
BEGUM SAHIBA: That’s what the rule insists.
MIAN SAHEB: If DR JALAL permits.
BEGUM SAHIBA: If MISS SALDANHA permits. And wear your muffler. It’s nippy outside.
MIAN SAHEB: Thank you!
* * *
DR JALAL: You gave permission?
MISS SALDANHA: I did.
DR JALAL: I did too. Though decency would have had it otherwise.
MISS SALDANHA: I also thought that decency would have it otherwise.
DR JALAL: But I took pity.
MISS SALDANHA: Me too.
DR JALAL: It’s been a full year since they…
MISS SALDANHA: Yes, a full year.
DR JALAL: His pulse quickened under my fingers.
MISS SALDANHA: Hers too.
DR JALAL: He said: “I think my heart is weak. Take a cardiogram.”
MISS SALDANHA: She said the same thing.
DR JALAL: I gave him an injection.
MISS SALDANHA: I gave her one too. Just water.
DR JALAL: Plain water—what a great thing it is.
MISS SALDANHA: Jalal… what if you had been her husband?
DR JALAL: What if you were his wife?
MISS SALDANHA: I would have strayed… I don’t have the character for abstinence.
DR JALAL: I would have died.
MISS SALDANHA: That’s also a sign of your character.
DR JALAL: Whenever we come to visit these fools, we ruin our characters.
MISS SALDANHA: We certainly will today.
DR JALAL: Very much.
MISS SALDANHA: They are doing it between such long intervals.
* * *
BEGUM SAHIBA: Lady Chatterley’s Lover! What’s it doing under your pillow?
MIAN SAHEB: I wanted to see how disgusting this rubbish is.
BEGUM SAHIBA: I also want to see.
MIAN SAHEB: I’ll read out some excerpts. You listen.
BEGUM SAHIBA: All right.
MIAN SAHEB: And I’ve changed our son’s diet after consulting the doctor.
BEGUM SAHIBA: I was sure you would take care of that.
MIAN SAHEB: I’ve never put off today’s work for tomorrow.
BEGUM SAHIBA: I know… And particularly the “work” of this particular day you never put off.
MIAN SAHEB: Your mind is such a blossom!
BEGUM SAHIBA: It’s all your doing.
MIAN SAHEB: Now, shall we?
BEGUM SAHIBA: Wait. Have you brushed?
MIAN SAHEB: Yes. I also gargled with Dettol.
BEGUM SAHIBA: I did too.
MIAN SAHEB: We’re made for one another.
BEGUM SAHIBA: No doubt.
MIAN SAHEB: Should I begin reading from this obscene thing?
BEGUM SAHIBA: Check my pulse first.
MIAN SAHEB: It has quickened. Check mine.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Yours too.
MIAN SAHEB: Why do you think?
BEGUM SAHIBA: Weakness of heart?
MIAN SAHEB: Must be. But DR JALAL said it’s no big deal.
BEGUM SAHIBA: MISS SALDANHA said the same.
MIAN SAHEB: He tested me thoroughly before giving permission.
BEGUM SAHIBA: She tested me thoroughly too.
MIAN SAHEB: I think it’s fine for us to go ahead.
BEGUM SAHIBA: You know better than I do. I am concerned only that your health…
MIAN SAHEB: And I that your health…
BEGUM SAHIBA: We should think this through carefully.
MIAN SAHEB: MISS SALDANHA arranged for that thing, right?
BEGUM SAHIBA: What thing? Oh, that thing. Yes, she did.
MIAN SAHEB: Then we can be reassured.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Indeed we can.
MIAN SAHEB: Check my pulse now.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Now… It’s fine.
MIAN SAHEB: Yours is normal too.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Now please read a paragraph.
MIAN SAHEB: All right… Wait, my pulse seems to have quickened.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Mine too.
MIAN SAHEB: Did you tell the SERVANTs to place those things in the room?
BEGUM SAHIBA: Yes, all the things are ready.
MIAN SAHEB: Would you mind taking my temperature?
BEGUM SAHIBA: Can’t you do it? There’s a stop watch to check the pulse rate.
MIAN SAHEB: Yes, must note that too.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Where is the bottle of smelling salts?
MIAN SAHEB: Must be with the other things.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Yes, it’s here.
MIAN SAHEB: I think we should make the room warmer.
BEGUM SAHIBA: I agree.
MIAN SAHEB: Should I go weak, don’t forget the medication.
BEGUM SAHIBA: I won’t… Now read this page.
MIAN SAHEB: All right, listen.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Why did you sneeze?
MIAN SAHEB: I don’t know.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Strange.
MIAN SAHEB: I’m surprised.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Oh, I turned the temperature down instead of up. I do apologise.
MIAN SAHEB: It’s a good thing I sneezed and we found out early.
BEGUM SAHIBA: I’m really sorry.
MIAN SAHEB: No problem. Twelve drops of brandy should sort it out.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Wait. Let me do it. You make mistakes counting.
MIAN SAHEB: True. You put it in.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Here. Slowly… now.
MIAN SAHEB: It can hardly get any slower than this.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Are you better?
MIAN SAHEB: I’m getting there.
BEGUM SAHIBA: Rest for a while.
MIAN SAHEB: Yes. I think I’ll need to.
* * *
SERVANT: Where’s the mistress today? Can’t see her.
MAID SERVANT: She’s unwell.
SERVANT: MIAN SAHEB’s also been laid low.
MAID SERVANT: We knew this would happen.
SERVANT: But in some people it doesn’t come.
MAID SERVANT: What?
SERVANT: This natural excitement. We should have been on our deathbed today.
MAID SERVANT: What are you saying? Don’t you know that those who are on their deathbed…
SERVANT: Don’t get me started on the deathbed. It must be magnificent. I’d be tempted to take it to my room.
MAID SERVANT: Where are you going?
SERVANT: To fetch the carpenter. The bed’s broken.
MAID SERVANT: Tell him to use stronger wood this time.
Saadat Hasan Manto was first an Indian and then a Pakistani writer, who lived from 1912 to 1955. His short stories broke new ground in Urdu literature, and enjoy a growing reputation to this day.