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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Saturday, July 5, 2008
Literature

Impure alcohol in the land of the pure

How much do we know of literature in subcontinental languages other than our own? We know more about Western literatures, down to the latest Booker and Pulitzer aspirants. No doubt this is another, regrettable, instance of continuing Western hegemony. If things were better ordered in South Asian culture, we would be familiar with at least all the major writers in the region, and there would be many more books directly translated from one regional language to another. The most satisfying translations must be those between closely related languages, such as the North Indian ones, whose kinship minimizes the loss in passage. As matters stand, our best introduction to other subcontinental writers is through English - witness, for instance, A. K. Ramanujan's magisterial translations from Tamil and Kannada.

Manto has never lacked translators, certainly not into English, and his writings are so tart and salty, that not even a mediocre translation fails to excite the taste buds. But he deserves good translators, among whom the palm must go to Khalid Hasan (Selected Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto; Penguin India Modern Classics; 2008). Hasan, like Manto, is a Kashmiri, with a feel for the hang of the target language that sets him apart. The inclusion of the present volume by Penguin in their Modern Classics series, whose titles are not allowed to go out of print, marks a well-deserved canonization. Two other volumes of Manto in Hasan's translation are also available from Penguin: Mottled Dawn, a collection of “Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition,” ten of which are also in the present selection, and Stars from Another Sky, deliciously gossipy essays on “the Bombay Film World of the 1940s”.

As with many great writers, Manto's work is of a piece with his life. He was a natural bohemian - the black sheep, to put it bluntly - in the professional middle-class family into which he was born. The people who fascinated Manto, the ones he lived among and wrote about, were mostly beyond the pale of middle-class respectability, film people, the demi-mondaine, spivs, oddballs, pimps and prostitutes. Their shenanigans on the one hand, and the horrors of communal violence on the other, demarcate the desolate terrain of Manto's fictional world. The vivisection of the subcontinent and the Partition holocaust drove him to despair and gave him his great tragic theme. In Pakistan, for which he left in 1948 from Bombay, Manto led a precarious existence, supporting himself and his family on the meager fees paid by newspaper and magazine editors for stories. He was twice put in a mental asylum. His liver gave out: in the land of the pure he could only afford impure alcohol. He was only 43 when he died in 1955.

Manto's last seven years, when he was writing more powerfully and prolifically than ever, bear out the Sartrean dictum that genius is the way out of a desperate situation. The present volume brings together a substantial number of Manto's best stories. Four of the Partition stories here are among his most memorable. 'Toba Tek Singh', which is often described as the most powerful indictment of the dismemberment of the subcontinent, makes good use of black humour; the two newborn countries agree to exchange inmates of lunatic asylums on the basis of religion. The lunatics of course can make no sense of it all, hilarious scenes follow, and finally at the border the “hero”, a Sikh whose village, Toba Tek Singh, has fallen in Pakistan, refuses to cross over and falls dead in no-man's-land.

'Colder than Ice' (Thanda Gosht) and 'The Return' (“Khol Do”) are probably the most chilling Partition stories; Manto was taken to court for obscenity over both. In the first, Ishwar Singh is suddenly unable to perform in bed. His lover Kalwant Kaur, suspecting an involvement with another woman, stabs him with his kirpan, and hears a confession from his dying lips. After raiding a Muslim house he had made off with the beautiful daughter of the house, carrying her slung across his shoulder till he came to a lonely spot. He put her down, raped her without any preliminaries, and discovered she was stone dead. In the second, a young girl is separated from her father in the flight across the border, and is raped by men on both sides. She is in a state of shock in hospital when her father finds her again. As the doctor points at a window and orders an attendant to “Open it” (“Khol do”), the comatose girl slowly unfastens the drawstring of her shalwar, pulls it down and parts her thighs. “She is alive”, the father shouts with joy; the doctor breaks into a cold sweat.

A very different, psychologically intriguing, Partition story is 'The Woman in the Red Sari'. An ordinary young man infected with the communal virus waylays a Eurasian woman escaping the city in a car and brings her home. It is night, there is a power outage, and in the dark extraordinary intimacies are under way, but as the man's servant brings a lantern he discovers that he is with an old hag. A very Baudelairian twist. But that's not all; there's another turn of the screw. The anonymous narrator informs the young man that after he asked her to leave the woman was killed in a car crash. The young man is guilt-ridden, for he sent her to her death. The narrator tells him he is responsible for two deaths. The woman was an old artist who had hated men all her life. Under the peculiar circumstances of their encounter, another woman, responsive to his caresses, was emerging out of her; she too had been snuffed out.

It's pointless giving capsule summaries; the stories should be experienced as they unfold in all their artistic fullness. There is much variety to be relished. Manto deserves to be read in his entirety, and if there is a collected edition in English translations by Khalid Hasan I should like to be among the first to order a set.

Kaiser Haq is Professor of English at Dhaka University. His Published in the Streets of Dhaka: Collected Poems 1966-2006 is available in Dhaka bookstores.

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