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Book review: Manto's daring short stories written during subcontinent partition

Saadat Manto's newly translated short stories exploring life in the cosmopolitan, laissez-faire Bombay of the 1930s and 1940s have enduring appeal, writes Chandrahas Choudhury

Bombay, which is now Mumbai, before partition. Margaret Bourke-White / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images
Bombay, which is now Mumbai, before partition. Margaret Bourke-White / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Bombay Stories
Saadat Hasan Manto
(translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed)
Vintage Books

The short-story writer Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) deserves to be thought of as the patron saint of modern South Asian fiction for at least three reasons.

First, Manto was personally and artistically impacted, in a way that he transformed into enduring narrative prose, by the massive cataclysm of history that was the partition of colonial India in 1947 into two nation states, the Hindu-majority India and the Muslim-majority Pakistan. The decision sparked off the largest two-way migration in history, with millions of Hindus and Sikhs in what was suddenly Pakistan crossing into India and millions of Muslims in what was now a smaller India attempting to flee to Pakistan. Both sides leapt at each other's throats on the long, strife-torn route, generating a bloodbath - and more lastingly, memories that were passed down for generations afterwards - that may take hundreds of years to heal.

This event generated the enduring politics of distrust between the two great powers of the subcontinent, which between them account for more than a quarter of the world's population today. What Manto wrote then in the light of what he had known, heard or witnessed - and what he did with this material artistically, within the four walls of his own independence as a writer of fiction - make him an eerie and thrilling writer to this day.

Second, Manto's daring and iconoclastic writing served as a kind of declaration of independence from the main narrative tenets and orthodoxies of his times, which was that fiction should be "socially relevant" in its content, that it locate the personal within the larger realm of the public sphere, and that it deal coyly and euphemistically - or at best metaphorically - with the subject of bodily functions. Manto was in his lifetime repeatedly charged by his critics (many of them writers themselves) with obscenity, and was even taken to court for what was seen as the outrageous licentiousness depicted in his work.

But what his critics saw as a determined emphasis on the bawdy, Manto merely understood to be a determined emphasis on the body - as a site for pleasure and violence, trust and treachery, a house for yearnings of mind and spirit as well as its own longings. The world of the prostitutes, pimps, waifs, wastrels and debauchees that he wrote about in story after story was a universe that existed in reality - as much a centre of Bombay (now Mumbai) as the film world or the world of polite society - and was stratified and impacted by religion, politics, ideology, migration and economics as interestingly as any middle-class or radical world.

The current of defiance embodied by Manto is one of literature's most necessary currents; its spirit was given voice by the French-Arabic writer Tahar Ben Jelloun at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year when he remarked, bitingly, of censorship, "What bothers censorship is the representation of reality and not reality itself." To Manto, the writer must think through every sphere of human life, including one's private life. If he is the frankest sensualist in Indian literature, it is because he knows (as did the 18th-century Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova in his magnificent 12-volume autobiography The Story of My Life) that sensuality is not without its own rules or ethical codes. For this reason, he speaks as powerfully to the 21st century as he did to his own.

Third, Manto stands implicitly for a certain progressive ideal of civilisation - and then, just as instructively, for a tragic rejection of that very ideal. Although partition found him living on in his beloved city of Bombay (where he had made a living and forged a reputation working as a screenwriter in films and an editor for journals), Manto felt insecure in the city in the poisoned time after partition and suddenly decided - to his everlasting regret - to move with his family to the new state of Pakistan. There, he struggled to find work, he was prosecuted for obscenity, he drove himself to drink, and became a wreck, passing away soon after.

What makes Manto so readable, and so symbolic of the faultlines of his time, is this artistic partition that he went through a few years after the actual historical event by the same name. Manto discovers that the ideological certitude and censoriousness of a new nation-state was thin gruel compared to art's invitation to freedom, doubt, linguistic and sensual pleasure, and dissent. He discovers, that is, what he already knew, and submits to it.

In Manto's own biography, as much as in his stories, the human being is a whirlpool of conflicting impulses, often most deluded precisely when most sure of himself. Human beings also appear constricted or enabled not just by nature or birth (their class, or gender) but also by culture - in the world of Manto's stories, by the tangled history, cosmopolitan culture, and worldly, laissez-faire philosophy of Bombay, so infrequently seen in the history of the subcontinent and so valuable for precisely that reason. It is a superficial criticism of Manto's stories to see them as titillating tableaux of the whims and deceits of pimps and bawds. What we are also supposed to see is the social energy, toppled hierarchies, polyglot tongues, fantastic metaphors, and moral reverses and sacrifices of this universe.

That is why it is surprising to note that none of Manto's many previous translators have achieved what Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed have done in their new collection of Manto translations, and titled their collection Bombay Stories. Bombay is not just the place where his stories are set but the world's primal word, the two syllables of which generate all else in the geographical and narrative field it encompasses. Colloquial and frank where too many previous translations of Manto have been euphemistic and censorious, Reeck and Ahmed give us a Manto who walks with us in time instead, of receding from us in the vehicle of the archaic English and slightly appalled gaze of many South Asian translators.

"If you haven't been to Bombay, you might not believe that no one takes any interest in anyone else," writes the narrator in Manto's story Mammad Bhai. (Bhai, literally brother, is used frequently in India and Pakistan as an honorific; many of Manto's stories are named after their protagonists.) But it is just not the sights and sounds and moral universe and freedoms of Bombay that are common to Manto's stories, but also a narrator. Almost without exception, the stories are told by a character who shares much of the real Manto's biography and is referred to by the characters in the stories as "Manto saab" (Mr Manto). The more we see this figure, the more mysterious he becomes, particularly since he keeps watching men fall in love with women without ever falling into the net himself. When at one point he confesses to a great admiration for a certain woman's beauty and intelligence, he protests immediately, "For God's sake, please don't think I was enamoured!" It is as if his men and women can get together only when he agrees to keep watch.

Love in Manto is sometimes transcendent, but always physical. "'Love'. What a beautiful word!" the prostitute Saugandhi is shown thinking. "She wanted to smear it all over her body and massage it into her pores." Here Manto, in a characteristically ingenious invention, makes love not something that emanates from the heart and soul and irradiates the body, but something like a salve or balm that is rubbed into the body from without. Manto's romance is often deliberately anti-romantic - one woman, the Jewish girl Mozelle, carelessly smears on lipstick in such a way that her lips "seemed as fat and as red as chunks of buffalo meat".

Over and over again in Manto's stories, as in the majestic fictions of Isaac Bashevis Singer, men and women come face in face in private and confront one another with their deepest dreams and desires, their histories of guilt and pain. Readers of these stories who know Bombay today as Mumbai might find the city's spirit somewhat impoverished in comparison to the midcentury Bombay that Manto describes. But that world lives on forever in Manto's stories - and in these new translations by Reeck and Ahmed, Manto is himself reborn as our contemporary.

 

Chandrahas Choudhury is a Mumbai writer and the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf.