I had heard of, but never read Manto before.
When the book of his short stories, translated by Aatish Taseer, landed on my lap, I wondered what it would be like, to read the stories of a man who was Indian, but left India to go to Pakistan during the partition.... what would his writings be like? Saadat Hasan Manto passed away in 1955 – two decades before I was born. Would I even be able to relate to stories set in that era, an era which I knew only through history books? Around the time the book arrived, I already had a pile of books with me, and I happily kept this one aside. It was only last week that I finally got around to reading it, and what can I say, but wonder why I never read Manto before?
Sitting down to write this review, I am faced with a dilemma. Am I to write a review of Manto’s stories? Or should I write about Aatish Taseer’s translation of these stories? It is easy for you to say, “Both”. The trouble is, Aatish, in his introduction, writes what I would call, the best possible review of the stories he has chosen to translate for this volume. As he explains his choice of stories, he goes into such wealth of detail, that it is impossible for me not to quote his words, in my own review too, which, unfortunately, is not the idea at all!
However, having taken on the task of reviewing the book, here is my humble attempt at doing so....
Let me begin with Manto himself. Born in the Punjab of a united India under British rule, he studied first at Amritsar and later, at Aligarh. Life eventually brought him to Bombay, where he edited film magazines and wrote scripts to eke out a living. The partition of India saw him choosing Pakistan, a decision which doesn’t seem to have worked too favourably for him. He eventually passed on at the relatively young age of 42, leaving behind a legacy of stories in Urdu which we, as Indians, have been almost completely ignorant of.
Among the 12 stories in this volume only two are set during partition. The first of these is actually one of the last Manto ever wrote, and it a perfect example of the turmoil caused by partition, but seen through the eyes of a mad man. As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder about the sanity of the whole situation. The second is an oft told tale – of a father searching for his daughter, but so much is left unsaid, that the story is even more poignant than ever.
The rest are general stories which depict life as Manto saw it around him. Among these are stories of prostitutes and pimps, middle class parents torn between superstition, common sense, and love for their offspring, adolescent young men discovering themselves, their ideals, their needs, and of course, sex. These aren’t as much stories as sketches of people, their tragic stories visible through the author’s pen. And yet, there is a beauty about these stories, a delicacy in the narration, and above all, a sense of timelessness, which makes them stand out and above other short stories of a similar genre. That, to me, seems to be Manto’s particular success, which only makes our ignorance of him even more inexplicable.
To quote Aatish Taseer,
“So affecting was the experience (of reading the stories) that I wondered why I hadn’t grown up reading Manto. The answer, I discovered, was that he wasn’t taught widely in schools; and though his language would easily have been understood by the average north Indian reader, he was locked into Urdu curriculums; Devanagari editions of his stories were hard to come by and English translations of his writing dense and bland – he had either been forgotten in India, or disowned.”
And so, he sets out to fill this glaring gap, translating the stories himself. That he has done a good job, doesn’t need to be said. That I loved it, was evident from the very first paragraph of this review. What does need to be said is how beautifully he has done what he set out to do.
Aatish Taseer’s tryst with Manto seems to have been a by-product of his own personal quest – a quest which led him to Pakistan, and eventually made him learn Urdu from scratch. It is obvious, from our typically Indian way of looking at things, that he was destined to go in search of his grandfather’s legacy, and find, along the way, another, forgotten one.
Taseer’s introduction itself is a wonderfully readable piece of work, detailing the journey leading to the translation. Discovering a forgotten author above all, leads to questions, and it is these questions that Taseer answers, in advance, in his introduction, thus paving the way for a better understanding of Manto’s works.
I was struck by his description of Manto’s writing.....
“... ‘A coat hanging in the room. And the scene is there!’. This is also what Manto could do. ..... In ‘Ten Rupees’, Bombay is hardly described. There is a single reference to bazaars clogging with traffic from cars, buses, trams and pedestrians – as Sarita and the boys are leaving town, but that is all. Bombay is that factory wall with the stench of urine drifting down the entire stretch. And this quality of detail, seeming to contain the entire milieu in a few lines, runs right through Manto. In ‘Khaled Mian’, the stillness of the night as Mumtaz waits for news of his dying child...... In ‘Ram Khilavan’, the austerity of the narrator’s room...... In under ten pages of short sentences, each sprung like a cricket bat, he conveys what feels like an entire lifetime in Bombay.”
This passage explains more beautifully than I ever could, the relationship between the author and his translator. It illustrates not simply the understanding Taseer has, of Manto and his work, but also a grasp over the language and its usage, which is the most important factor in any kind of translation. And what makes it even more wonderful is Taseer’s rendering of the language, keeping to its brevity, but bringing out the beauty of the original.
I can go on and on about the stories themselves, as well as the translation, but the purpose of a review is not to tell you the story, but to encourage you to read the book yourself. All I can say now is that, reading the stories, I found myself wondering what it would be like, to read the original, or to hear the stories in the language they were meant to be read in. Isn’t that the ultimate purpose of a translation?
This book was sent to me for review by Random House India. The views expressed are my own.