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Vignettes from the Holocaust/ Saadat Hassan Manto

[ Dominic Xavier's Illustration ] Independent India woke up to a sweet and sour beginning. The euphoria of Independence was sapped by the anguish of Partition. We were free -- yet we killed.

Communal carnage, broken homes, destroyed relationships -- it scarred souls, perhaps forever...

Saadat Hasan Manto wrote some of the most poignant stories on the horrors of Partition. He takes us to the times which remain the bloodiest in India’s history.

Wages of labour

Looting and plundering was rampant. More so following the inflamed communal passions.

A man was singing gleefully to his harmonium: Jab tum hi gaye pardes laga kar thais; O pritam piyara duniya me kaun hamara. (Now that you too have abandoned me by living in a land far removed; whom can I call my own, O beloved.)

An urchin scurried past with a packet of papads. He stumbled. The papads were strewn on the floor.

'Son, why bother to pick up the papads. They will turn to a crisp because the surface of the road is so hot,' admonished a man carrying an obviously stolen sewing-machine.

A heavy gunny bag landed right in the middle of the road with a thud. A man surged ahead and pierced his dagger into it expecting perhaps to find a bleeding fugitive. Instead out came crystal white sugar. People filled up their shirt fronts with the spilled sugar. One man in the crowd had no shirt on. He promptly took off his tehmad, spread it on the floor and filled it with sugar from his cupped hands.

'Out of the way! Out of the way!' A tonga sped past loaded with almirahs which had a fresh coat of paint.

Out came a bale of muslin from a high-rise building overlooking the street. It caught fire on its way down. The muslin was reduced to ashes before it hit the ground.

'Po, Po,' the loud honk of a car mingled with the screams of two women.

Ten or fifteen persons managed to haul the big iron safe out of the house. They tried to break it open with lathis.

Another man rushed out of a shop carrying a load of Cow and Gate milk tins, his chin resting on them. He drifted away towards the bazaar lackadaisically.

A cry rent the air, 'Lemonade! Come, come, quench your thirst. It is summer-time.'

A man with a car tyre hung around his neck came forward, picked up two bottles of lemonade and made off without a word of thanks.

Another frantic cry filled the air. 'Fire! My goods have caught fire. Please send for the fire brigade!' Nobody took notice.

Looting and pillage was still on. The fire was blazing in all directions. It had spread. The flames had engulfed everyone. Then, came the rattling sound of gunfire.

The police found a deserted bazaar. But far away they could spot a hazy figure through the dense smoke. They dashed in that direction blowing their whistles loud and clear.

The smoke cleared. But the policemen were still in hot pursuit. They soon saw a Kashmiri labourer weighed down by a heavy load on his back. A heavy gunny bag indeed it was. The man kept running furiously. He did not stop. It was as if he was carrying an empty sack, no heavier than a feather.

The men in uniform were breathless. One amongst them fired the first shot in exasperation. The bullet pierced through the Kashmiri labourer's calf. He could not hold on to the gunny bag. Yet he kept running. He looked at his bleeding calf, turned in anguish towards the policemen in hot pursuit and promptly lifted his gunny bag. He was running all the time.

'Let him go to hell,' the policeman said.

The Kashmiri stumbled, fell heavily on the ground and was trapped under the weight of the bag.

He was arrested and taken to the police station. The bag was with him.

He pleaded innocence. 'Hazrat sir, why have you arrested me. I'm a poor man. I only carried a bag of rice. I'll cook some at home. You have needlessly fired at me.'

The Kashmiri labourer repeated the same in the thana. Nobody paid heed to his pleading.

'Hazrat, other tall poppies are busy looting and plundering bigger things, invaluable objects. Why me? I've merely carried away a bag of rice. Hazrat, I'm very poor. I eat rice everyday.'

Ultimately, the Kashmiri gave up. He was worn out. He took out his dirty skull-cap, removed the sweat from his forehead. He eyed the rice bag-the final look. With his outstretched hands, he said to the police officer. 'Okay, hazrat, you keep the rice. I demand my wages. Only four annas!'
Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) belonged to a middle class Kashmiri family of Amritsar. In January 1948, he moved to Karachi, the capital of the newly-created state of Pakistan. He virtually drunk himself to death in 1954.

In all, Manto wrote over 200 stories and scores of plays and essays, the first collection of stories appearing in 1940. Some were received well, but most were ignored or condemned for the obsession with sex and the seamy side of life.

Translated from the Urdu by Mushirul Hasan.

Illustration by Dominic Xavier.

Excerpted from India Partitioned: The other face of freedom, Part I, Lotus collection, Roli books, New Delhi, 1995, Rs 595, with the publisher's permission.