I’ve been reading the books sent to me by Random House India, but what with life, and my novel and the A to Z Challenge preparations, I haven’t posted reviews. I read Manto about four months ago, so my memory is a little hazy. I stuck in post-it notes though, which are now helping me remember details as I read some of the stories again.
My Declared Bias: I read and write Literary, and love short stories.
It is possible to review some books without a mention of the context in which they were written, but it is impossible to do so with the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, a writer born in undivided India, who died in Pakistan.
Had he lived, he would have turned 100 last year, but he drank himself to death at the age of 43, eight years after the Partition that created India and Pakistan, after a series of trials where his writing was charged with obscenity. This was one of the best periods of his work, but one of the worst in personal and financial terms.
As such, a lot of history and context is (rightly, or wrongly) read into his work, and one of the simplest ways to understand this in a short span of time would be to read the introduction by Aatish Taseer, Manto’s grandson, who has translated the stories curated into this book.
Taseer has taken great care to retain the rhythm of the original Urdu in his translation, and no reader can deny the resonance of Manto’s voice that comes through. The originals might, I imagine, have a certain colloquial touch to them, like this example from the story, “My Name is Radha“, one of my favorites from this book:
“The studio owner Harmzji Framji, a fat, red-cheeked bon vivant of sorts, was madly in love with a middle-aged actress who looked like a transvestite. His favourite pastime was sizing up the breasts of every newly-arrived actress. Another Muslim hooker from Calcutta’s Bow Bazaar carried on affairs simultaneously with her director, sound recordist, and scriptwriter. The point of these affairs, of course, was to ensure that all three remained in love with her.”
While this reads clunky in English, I can hear it spoken in Urdu (a language I don’t speak, and understand very little of, but admire nevertheless) with a sort of cheekiness and a common touch, which is, imho, fairly impossible to translate.
Manto was writing at a time when a preachy morality was important in the entire sub-continent, and frank sexuality was frowned upon. So it is quite obvious why the author’s matter-of-fact emphasis on the body was interpreted by his contemporary society as lewdness.
Of course a few of his stories can strike us as sentimental, especially those playing heavily on the drama of the Partition of India (and Pakistan), because our sensibilities are used to the spareness of modern fiction.
But the irony of a stray dog in “The Dog of Tithwal” that befriends both enemy camps (Indian and Pakistani) at a border post and is subsequently shot, is not lost on the reader, nor is the pathos of a madman’s refusal (and subsequent death) in “Toba Tek Singh” when an attempt is made to ‘return’ him to his native town, which, after the Partition, no longer lay in Pakistan, but instead in India. In stories like these, Manto questions the very definitions of ‘country’, ‘borders’ and ‘sanity.’
Why you could read it: It is an easy read, and if you are interested in the Indian sub-continent and its history, you could do worse than read this book.
Why you could give it a miss: If you like your fiction to be spare and unsentimental, this book is not for you. As with most translated fiction, the beauty of the original does not fully translate into English, despite the sincerity of the translator.
The typos strewn through the book bothered me (e.g. Pg 28- ‘smoth’ instead of ‘smooth’). The book has some instances of repeated words ( e.g. Pg. 20 “fed fed up”) and other proofreading howlers. If they come up with another edition, they need a better proofreader who would do justice to such an important writer of the Indian sub-continent.
I enjoyed this book, and if you happen to pick it up, the least you should do is read the introduction, which is a modern piece of extremely educational writing, and no less poignant for it. You would not be disappointed, I promise you that.
After I read up on Manto, I realized that he has been marginalized in India, to the extent that I had never heard of him growing up, or even as an adult, and had not read him before this book.
All Indian and Pakistani readers deserve to read more of this writer, because the issues that informed Manto’s work continue to be relevant in the society and politics of both these countries.
It is a shame that this author is not better known in India, and kudos to Random House in attempting to change that.
Only, the next time, I wish they would hire a proofreader worth their time.
What would you like to see any changes in the review format? Was this review helpful? Would you read this book?