“That he could be a rascal and at the same time an extremely honest and honorable man, how could that be? I didn’t even try to understand. This was Manto’s territory.”
Saadat Hasan Manto, much like many of sub-continental regional writers, is largely forgotten by most of India, except perhaps by a few literary readers. I, myself, brought up in the southern most part of this vast country, was never made to know him until my early twenties. Whenever partition as a topic was evoked, Manto’s name appeared in articles written in a Sunday supplementary of an elite English newspaper which has the name of a dominant religion. Of course, we promptly ignored the supplementary. And, along with that Manto as well.
Like all urban educated, English-speaking youngsters, I too had no clue of what I am leaving behind untouched until, too recently, I got acquainted with a Kashmiri friend who would one day go on to say, with no reserve or politeness, “If you do not know the stories of your own land, of what right you have to sing high praise of those writers who are foreign and alien?”. With that began my search for all those Indian writers I have left unnoticed, uncared; and also those stories that I have failed to listen in poetry, art and literature.
This particular work of short stories contains ten gems assorted and elegantly translated by Aatish Taseer. Like me, he had no clue of what a treasure trove of a country we are born in. But, unlike me, he has a much bigger burden – that he is a descendant of famous Urdu poet M.D.Taseer. His past; his lineage; his blood; his identity is so much interwoven with the language of Urdu which he only wanted to read, not write.
“You can’t take a language, break it into pieces, take what you like and leave the rest”
It was his teacher Zafar Moradabadi, to whom this book is rightly dedicated, and taught Aatish the language of Urdu for a paltry sum of Rs.5000 per month, who brought him to learn the language to both write and read. And, thanks to him, we have an excellent rendition of Manto’s stories, without losing their beauty, nuances, and detail. More importantly, Aatish leaves the story as pleasurable as they should be, that right along as you submerge yourself in it, you are often left with a gasping wonder and a flawless smile.
Manto’s stories explore the darkest side of a human being without making them look ugly, vulgar or revolting. You are left with a restlessness, but never does his writing make you regret for spending your time on them. There is a darkness exposed, but that is not a void or an emptiness. They are just like a mirror we hold in front of us, yet a mirror that tells the truth which we do not want to say to ourselves. He reveals our imperfection, hypocrisy, delusions. If only one takes a much closer look to discover that underneath all his words there is a sublime cry to accept humans as what they are, and also a soft voice that celebrates life in all its sensuality and beauty.
The protagonists of each story resemble all those around us, whom we should have noticed but failed. Ten Rupees is about an unusually happy day in the life of a prostitute who is in her early teens, innocent and still a child. Khal Do, set in the backdrop of partition, would leave you teary eyed and might give you a sleepless night, tells you about the gruesomeness of the bloody event, and stands witness that it was not only nations that were ripped apart. Smell explores sensuality in an altogether different manner and makes a reminder that sex is not completely physical, at least not for us humans.
It is the Blouse and For Freedom that remains so intimate to me. The first one goes courageously into the never-explored terrain of the sexual awakening, the tumultuous times of puberty in a teenage boy. Here, Manto takes fantasy to his stride and plays with them at will, creating a new understanding into a subject that is not much spoken in literature. The latter one, For Freedom is a story that has left me totally bewitched. For someone like me, who is so much interested in political science and has spent a greater part of her life reading the history of India’s Freedom Struggle and political developments, and for whom the ideas of Nehru appeals more than that of the idea of Gandhi, this story is an intellectual treat. Here, Manto takes a sarcastic dig at the ideas of Gandhi, especially his call for celibacy. It requires a rare courage to write a story questioning and mocking the ideas of a man, who was swooned and worshiped by people then, and sincerely I say, Manto was too much way ahead of its time.
“When I look back now, Babaji, Nigar, Ghulam Ali, the beautiful panditani and Amritsar’s entire atmosphere at that time, infused with the romance of the independence movement, appear to me like a dream, a dream which, once dreamt, begs to be dreamt again.
Attaining independence was, without a doubt, the right thing to do and I could understand it if a man should die in attaining it, but that some poor wretch should be defanged, made as benign as a vegetable for its sake— this was utterly beyond my comprehension. Living in huts, forsaking bodily comforts, singing God’s praises, shouting patriotic slogans— all this was fine, but to slowly deaden one’s senses, one’s bodily desires— what was meant by that? What was left of a man in whom the longing for beauty and drama had died?”
As I was reading this book, there was a flaming controversy going on at the heart of this country, at its capital city. It is all about the arrest of a young student, Kanhaiya Kumar for raising sane voice, within the campus, against the ruling party in power. There is a great outrage, mob raids to the institution, Jawaharlal Nehru University, in which Mr.Kumar is the student Union leader. To top it all, he was booked under the much-outdated sedition act. As I went through the list of people who were charged with sedition, I learnt that the law has been used repeatedly against writers, cartoonists, and students. And, simultaneously, my mind kept coming back to Manto. Manto was then charged with six obscene cases, and repeated trials (one of such a trial for the usage of this word Breast). The trials killed and sucked the writer out of him, and pushed him to take comfort in alcohol that eventually destroyed him.
And, suddenly, I remembered, it is not only Aatish Taseer who has the burden to serve the language his grandfather has nurtured, but even I am burdened too. The language, the identity, and the culture, which let a short story writer to mock and question the ideas of the man who was called Mahatma by most of his people, is my burden too. A little more careful pondering and realization would throw more truth that it is not actually a burden but a rare gift, which needs to be protected and passed on for all the generations to come. I strongly believe that Manto and this country deserves it. Hope tells me that it is not too much to ask.
P.S: A great many thanks to Jibran and for the wonderful conversation he had with me, where he recommended me this book. Another a reason why I love Goodreads and almost all people I make as friends here 🙂