In a writing career spanning over two decades, Saadat Hasan Manto, one of Urdu’s Great stylists, produced a powerful and original body of work including short stories, a novel, radio plays, essays and film scrip.
This collection brings together some of Manto’s finest stories, ranging from his chilling recounting of the horrors of partition to his portrayal of the underworld. Writing with great feeling and empathy about the fallen and the rejects of society, Manto the supreme humanist shows how the essential goodness of people does not die even in the face of unimaginable suffering. Powerful and deeply moving, these stories remain as relevant today as they were when they were first published more than half a century ago.
Khalid Hasan’s brilliant translation succeeds in capturing the intensity of Manto’s prose, and the author’s sense of humour, no less than his razor-sharp vision.
SAADAT HASAN MANTO WROTE HIS OWN EPITAPH SIX MONTHS BEFORE HE died, though it does not appear on his grave in Lahore. This is what it said: ‘Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short-story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short-story writer: God or he, Saadat Hasan Manto, 18 August 1954’
Born into a middle-class Kashmiri family of Amritsar, Manto showed little enthusiasm for formal education. Close to his mother and always in awe of his stern father, who scoffed at his first attempt at writing, Manto was instinctively a rebel, questioning what others took for granted. Manto considered himself a reject of the family because he was always being told to be like his older step-brothers, who were lawyers. He was fortunate in finding a mentor in the historian and journalist Ban Alig, who encouraged him to write and to translate a number of literary works, including Victor Hugo’s The Last Days of a Condemned Man and Oscar Wilde’s play Vera. About Alig, Manto wrote, ‘He it was who encouraged me to take to writing. Had I not run into him in Amritsar, I would either have died as an unknown man and been forgotten or I would have been serving a long sentence in jail for armed robbery.’
Manto failed his school-leaving examination twice in a row; ironically, one of the subjects he was unable to pass was Urdu, in which he was to produce such a powerful and original body of work in the years to come, blooming into one of the language’s great stylists. Manto entered college in Amritsar in 1931, failed his first—year examination twice, and dropped out. He was also at Aligarh for a short while but ill health forced him to abandon his studies. He neither completed his education nor was he interested in doing so, but under Ban’s influence and his own inquiring and sceptical mind, he read a great deal. It is poetic justice that the very institutions where he could not complete his education now have his work placed in the textbooks they teach.
Those were heady times. Manto was a boy of seven in 1919 when the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar, an event that left a deep arid bloody imprint on the Raj, one from which it never recovered. Not surprisingly, Manto was greatly inspired by revolutionary ideas. As he later wrote, he and his friends, walking the streets of Amritsar, would pretend that they were in Moscow launching a revolution. He was also much taken with the firebrand Punjabi revolutionary and Indian nationalist Bhagat Singh, who was hanged in Lahore for the murder of a British police officer. There was a smell of revolt in the air and, for the first time, it appeared possible to force the British out of India.
Manto‘s first job took him to Lahore where he worked for a magazine, but he kept returning to Amritsar, only a couple of hours away by train. Soon after, he went to Bombay where he worked briefly for a film journal. But he fell out with the owner-editor and left for Delhi where he found work at the All India Radio, already home to many writers and poets, including Krishen Chander, Upindar NathAshok, Meeraji and Noor Meem Raashed. Manto produced a large number of radio plays for AIR and scripted very many other presentations. Only some of his radio plays survive and these have been published in one volume.
Eventually, it was Bombay where his heart was set and where he settled down. His love affair with Bombay was to last throughout his life, though he left the city twice, once only briefly in 1941 but for good the second time, after Partition in 1947. In his powerful memoir about his friend the actor Shyam, he summed up his feelings about Bombay and the trauma of Partition and his departure for Pakistan. ‘I found it impossible to decide which of the two countries was now my homeland— India or Pakistan?’ Manto would have felt sad, were he alive today, that Bombay has been renamed Mumbai by an intolerant, revivalist party of religious zealots, the kind of people he hated passionately all his life.
Why did he leave Bombay? Manto himself has not written about it but his wife, Safia, wrote to one of Manto’s Indian biographers, Brij Premi, on 6 April 1968: ‘He was always treated unjustly by everyone. The truth is that he had no intention of leaving India, but a few months before Partition, Filmistan handed him a notice of termination and that, believe me, broke his heart. For a long time, he kept it hidden from me because he was proud of his friendship with Mr Mukerjee and Ashok Kumar. So how could he tell me that he had been served with a notice? That was when he started drinking heavily which in the end claimed his life. I had come over earlier; he came in January 1948 .While he was alone in Bombay, his drinking got completely out of hand. Here his life was full of worries. You can yourself imagine the state he was in and if it was conducive in any sense. His health had also become poor. But one thing he did. He wrote prodigiously, almost a story a day, until the day he died. That is all I know’ Whether Manto was sacked or whether he left on his own, one day in January 1948, he packed his bags and boarded a ship for Karachi, the first capital of the new Muslim homeland of Pakistan.
Manto wrote with amazing speed and never revised what he had once written. Writing a hand that was neat and calligraphic, he would sometimes complete a very long story in one sitting with the final page as neat and legible as the first. Manto was the first to write about what had until then been forbidden territory in Urdu literature: sex and the sexual urge. Some of his most celebrated stories revolve around this theme. He wrote about the onset of puberty in a young boy, about a torrid encounter on a wet afternoon between a young man and an earthy woman, the powerful memory of which makes his bridal night by comparison a lacklustre, unexciting experience. When accused of pornographic writing, he asked how he could possibly disrobe a society that was already naked. He did not beautify what was ugly nor hide what he felt should be exposed. He did not moralize. Manto had great empathy with those on the outer fringes of society. He had a natural feeling of oneness with the poor and the despised. He could identify with the alienated because he had felt that alienation in his own life from his own family. He also had contempt for the hypocrisy and double standards of so - called ‘respectable’ society.
However it is Manto’s Partition stories that are most read and anthologized. No one has written about the holocaust of Partition with greater power than Manto. What distinguishes his writing from that of others are his deep humanism and his refusal to treat people as Hindu or Muslim or Sikh. To him, they are all human beings. What he finds incomprehensible is why they turned on each other with such savagery at a time which should have been their greatest moment of joy: independence from alien rule. The greatest of Manto’s Partition stories is ‘Toba Tek Singh’, which recalls the madness that had gripped the subcontinent at the time of independence, permeating even lunatic asylums, inducing decision makers in the two countries to exchange their inmates on the basis of religion. Others included in this collection are ‘The Return’, ‘Colder Than Ice’ and ‘The Assignment’ all of which chillingly illustrate the savage irony of those times. ‘The Last Salute’, set in the war in Kashmir in the wake of independence, underscores the dilemma of yesterday’s comrades having become today’s enemies because of a line drawn across the map.
Manto’s classic ‘The New Constitution’, written several years before independence, is the story of a tonga driver who hates the British passionately and beats up a Tommy who abuses him on the day the 1935 India Act is promulgated because he mistakenly believes that ‘we are now free’. His rude awakening comes when he is told at the police station that the same old law is still in force and nothing has changed. ‘Khushia’ is about a procurer whose manhood is challenged by the girl he provides to his customers when she tells him to walk into her place although she is stark naked. He returns to her later, but in a different capacity: as a customer. Manto could also write a pure love story, such as the moving and lyrical ‘On the Balcony’ , which is included in this collection. His light and satirical stories are a special pleasure to read. ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ is a rib-tickling count of an old couple that plans to ‘risk’ having sex but is not sure if that is what the doctor would recommend or approve. As a counterpoint, Manto moves us to the quarters of the domestic help, where we find the young couple fit and ready to get into what their masters are scared to death of attempting.
No other Urdu writer’s work has been as extensively translated in English as that of Manto, though the quality of the translations has tended to remain indifferent. Manto has also been translated in very many languages spoken in the subcontinent. A collection of his stories has been published in Japanese translation; and here and there in English-language anthologies, the odd Manto story continues to appear.
In translating Manto, I have tried to retain the bite and sharpness, no less than the infrequent but moving lyricism of his style, to capture the essence of his style—or perhaps I should call it the sound of his voice, However, like all translators, I am painfully aware that all translations are approximations of the original, at best. My only aim, if not my ambition, was and has been to bring the work of one of the greatest writers of Urdu prose to the attention of as large an audience beyond the subcontinent as possible.
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