Manto: Selected Short Stories –A Review

Manto: Selected Short Stories

Manto: Selected Short StoriesManto: 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
Author: Manto
Translator: Aatish Taseer
Publisher: Random House India
Pages: 158


  1. Manto , Ismat and Amrita Pritam are my top three fsvourite artists.Their literary works are like pieces of can revisit, shred, dissect, decipher , and enjoy each story umpteen times.
    Will surely order this one asap.Nice detailed review of the book USP.

    1. Glad to have picked up one of your favourite authors! Indeed, I read some of the stories twice and I am sure I can return to them after some time, just as you say. Do get this one fast! Thank you.

  2. I have never read Manto although once my mother did read out to me the Telugu translated version of “Dog” which gave me goosebumps . Recently I read one essay written by him on why he and Ismat should never have married 🙂 . Now this review has got me more interested in his works and I think I will buy the book immediately !

  3. I have always heard of Manto, as a great writer, but haven’t really read him or had much awareness on his writing. I am glad there are English translations now and the interest in his books will go beyond scholarly interest.

  4. I have read Saadat Hasan Manto in Punjabi, being Punjabi, always been proud of his works with likes of Amrita Pritam, Balwant Gargi. Thanks for reviewing this book, a fitting tribute to a man, who was way ahead of his times.

    1. MG, it is not that bad -the insistence on literal translation. But the attempted ‘improvement’ by earlier translators does seems to be weighing on Taseer’s mind.

  5. Manto is indeed one of the best short story writers from India.. His contribution to Indian cinema script writing is often ignored…

  6. Hearing about the author for the first time . But you sure got me intrigued with review . Will check out the book for sure sometime . You do have a very versatile style of writing . 🙂

  7. I always get to know something new when I come here (apart from new words, of course 😉 ) I have started to take a liking for reading books now believe it or not, would love to read Manto’s short stories too. Thanks again for introducing me to these authors. 🙂

    1. Happy to be the dispenser of words and things new. Thank you for your continued support, Akshay. Why wouldn’t I believe you when you believe in what I say!

  8. Your review was a fantastic tribute to not just Manto’s unparalleled works but to the man himself. As always, your review is a mirror that reflects the true beauty of the work and its author. I have not read him though I have heard about him but now I will certainly go read his works. The brilliance of writing is so evident in your short synopses of his short stories. Another wonderful review!

    1. Raj, I am not sure if I deserve that praise but I am happy I wrote this tiny piece on Manto, and I am happier that it went well with you. Thank you, so much, and do pick up the forgotten author. You will be surprised by the richness of his work.

  9. I must confess that I heard of Manto only recently and have put his books on my ‘to-read’ list. Your recommendation will push them higher up the list. Thanks, Uma.

  10. Hi umashankar,

    I just realized an error that some people have made while describing manto. Aatish Taseer is not Manto’s grandson. Manto was a part of the ‘Progressive Writers’ Movement’ (PWM)and so was Aatish’s grandfather M.D. Taseer.

    M.D. Taseer’s views did not align with Manto’s and he was actually one of the witnesses for the prosecution in the obscenity trial against Manto. M.D. taseer left the PWM because of his differing viewpoint as the PWM members were reluctant to speak against India.

    I think some other people read your review and have mistakenly started spreading the error!

    Just thought this information would help you edit the review!


    Rajat Singh

    1. Oh, to have been the perpetrator of such a monstrosity! It’s amazing how I never noticed the slip. A bit late in the day, but I have realigned Mr Taseer’s ancestry in my post. Regrets are mine. Many thanks to you, Rajat.

  11. Read this collection recently. Different hues in different stories. Most of them compel the reader to move forward. Startling, sensitive, even insightful.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: