Manto: Selected Short Stories has been exquisitely prefaced by Aatish Taseer, the grandson of noted Urdu poet M. D. Taseer, who puts Manto’s work, his life and translations under a critical lens, before moving on to present a version of his own. He remonstrates that Manto’s poems and stories had been relegated to the Urdu curriculum solely on grounds of script. “But the question of script had become heavy with religious and political significance –often related to liturgical texts- long before independence.” And the rivulets of parochialism turned into raging seas after the partition. “In death, Manto paid a greater price for his migration than he had when he was alive. He was forgotten in the country he wrote most about. He became part of a number of artists, musicians and writers whom India disowned –sometimes by singling them out, sometimes as part of larger disowning of Urdu- for their migration.” Taseer is severely critical of Manto’s translators, especially Khalid Hasan, who took uncalled for liberties with the contents of his stories while paraphrasing them in English. He also offers deep insights into Manto’s preoccupations, themes and style, bringing into focus his influences and eccentricities. In the process, he spills light on tragic and unsavoury parts of Manto’s life too.
The collection begins with Toba Tek Singh, the quintessential partition story that showcases the utter pointlessness of demarcating terrestrial borders and then forcing these on humans. Bishen Singh is scheduled to be handed over to the Indian authorities in an exchange of lunatics between India and Pakistan. Bishen Singh finds the very idea revolting, bolting up in a tree. He is not interested in either of the destinations at all –he demands to be sent to Toba Tek Singh, his paternal village. However, no one seems to be certain of the whereabouts of Toba Tek Singh, making matters grim when he is forcibly dragged around on the Indo-Pak border. Khol Do is yet another heart-rending story of partition that proves that treachery can crush you equally hard both among enemies and at home. Ram Khilavan uncovers the uglier face of communalism which is apparently driven by liquor and money rather than religion.
The Dog of Tithwal is a tale about a dog that is caught between the crossfire of two armies entrenched in eyeball to eyeball positions. The dog seems to be symbolizing humanity, the only dispossessed entity in the sordid affair. It is a stinging satire on wars.
Manto’s preoccupation with social ills is ably represented by Ten Rupees and License. The filth of society is counterbalanced by the innocence of a child prostitute in Ten Rupees. License is a stunning portrayal of abject helplessness of women in the face of a wolfish world. Shockingly, her defilement is both precipitated and endorsed by the institutionalized governance. The Mice of Shah Daulah is a poignant tale about human superstitions and religiosity bordering on criminality.
Manto’s grip on psychology of sexuality is amply captured by Blouse, My Name is Radha and Smell. He has graphically captured the fire that smoulders subconsciously in men and women, tormenting and cleaving them ruthlessly.
Manto’s style is unique and faithful to the region he inhabited. That, he was influenced by the French and Russian masters of the short story is amply visible in his work. Khaled Mian is quite reminiscent of Hide and Seek by Fyodor Sologub. Yet, Manto’s appeal is universal, quite like the overwhelming rendering of paternal apprehensions and emotions in Khaled Mian.
Aatish Taseer has majestically followed the tenets he has set in the memorable introduction. The result is a rare anthology of stories that will haunt the mind long after it has been read. However, there are moments when Taseer does trip on the uncalled for boundaries set by himself. His obsession for literal translation may have sapped the language of the spice and verve the author has bestowed upon the stories in the original tongue. ‘Comment alez-vous?’ rings more true when expressed as ‘How do you do’ rather than ‘How do you go’. In avoiding the fallacious technique of ‘improving’ upon the author, he may have erred to the other extreme at times.
I agree with Taseer when he says India should reclaim its relinquished gems like Manto. He is an absolute artist who cannot be tied down to a script or a geographical region. He is an author of the human condition, accentuated by poverty, prejudices, religion, superstition and partition. He is unparalleled in the way an author can reveal how humanity is equally naked at the two ends of the border. The sum total of love and hatred is zero across the Radcliffe Line.
Manto: Selected Short Stories
Translator: Aatish Taseer
Publisher: Random House India