[Archipelago; 2021]

Tr. from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan, Muhammad Umar Memon, and Aatish Taseer

Few writers are as closely bound to their times as the Indian-Pakistani, Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. If anything, the selection in the latest collection of Manto short stories, The Dog of Tithwal, confirms this. Manto’s life and career fall into three distinct phases, each meticulously chronicled in his oeuvre. His youth was spent in the shadow of nation-scarring atrocity. At the time of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, Manto was the somewhat neglected seven-year-old son of a lawyer’s second wife, living across town in the Civil Lines. This stage was followed by a successful decade-long career as a screenwriter, mainly in Bombay’s film industry, and as a prolific writer of short stories (“serve literature and earn money through films,” was his advice to a fellow writer). The final chapter of his life and career played out in the aftermath of blood-soaked Partition, living as a repatriated Muslim in Lahore. These three phases are clearly demarcated in Manto’s writings, which are almost entirely political and social satire, totaling over twenty collections of short stories and several volumes of drama, essays, and sketches.

The narrator of the representative story For Freedom’s Sake recalls the mood around the activists in Amritsar in the decade after Jallianwala Bagh. The park had by then become hallowed ground for the independence movement. A large tent on the grounds served as the “political headquarters of the city.” It was the venue for much impassioned speechifying. In the story, Babaji, a deified, ascetic national leader — clearly a stand-in for Gandhi — visits the park often. The movement was rich with symbolism. All “imported cloth” was taboo. To “put the Lancashire textile mills out of business” . . . only “Indian-spun cotton” was acceptable. Indians tossed their imported clothes into street corner bonfires. The narrator describes the career of a close friend, the hero of the tale, once a firebrand activist and charismatic leader in the movement, who over the years, grows disillusioned with politics and settles into the life of a householder.

Like much of Manto’s fiction, For Freedom’s Sake reads like only cosmetically altered autobiography. The years following the bagh massacre saw the tragic though predictable emergence of “terrorist” heroes — the most famous of which was Bhagat Singh — for the restive Indian youth to idolize. As a young college dropout with artistic inclinations, Manto would have been a natural recruit for such radical activity. He attracted the attention of, and might have been interrogated by, the colonial authorities for his “revolutionary” translations, including those of Maupassant, Wilde, Hugo, Tolstoy, and others to Urdu. Russian-style revolutionary nihilistic writings glittered for the young, educated radicals of the day who were impatient of Gandhi-style quietism. Fortunately for Manto — though he never lost his extreme leftist views — a measure of recognition rescued him from such a fate and launched him on a literary career. Manto’s dim assessment of the independence movement follows from his understanding that when such a high premium is placed on ritual and symbolism, it is likely that at the end there will be little else to show. The Gandhian objective of forging a new Indian in the factory of the freedom struggle was in constant danger of being turned into ritualistic nonsense, and Gandhi himself into just another deity. Manto’s was not an unusual judgment. Its echoes ring, for instance, in a far more elaborate setting, on every page of R.K. Narayan’s 1955 novel Waiting for the Mahatma, where the protagonist, after years of impassioned activism, has nothing to cling to but the memory of a brief interaction with Gandhi and his jejune incantation: “spin and read the Bhagwad Gita and utter Ram Nam continuously.” The difference was that Manto’s judgment was earlier, brasher and, exceptional for that era, disparaging in a way which writers like Narayan could never be.

The middle phase of Manto’s life in Bombay’s film world of the late-1930s and 40s is the subject of many of the stories in this collection. It revolved around alcohol, aspiring actors, screenwriters, and starlets with varying levels of resolve when it came to trading sex for career advancement. Manto, newly married, by all accounts did not partake of this promiscuity. However, given that Manto’s stories tilt to autobiography, one wishes for a Manto biography, and a biographer whose gaze is less chaste than those of the English-language biographers to date whose stress, when it comes to his personal life, is on him as a dutiful husband, father, and son. Manto’s portrayals of these “fallen,” or “falling,” women are remarkably sympathetic, even admiring. In an age when uprightness for an Indian woman invariably meant repression and seclusion, he tended to share the great Karl Kraus’ opinion that the “call girl takes the money and keeps the fun too.” In Mummy, the longest story in this collection, a narrator named Manto has to overcome his repulsion to a Madam’s always tawdry makeup to discover the warm domesticity, affection, and stability she brought to the lives of a group of debauched movie-industry hopefuls. In Ten Rupees, a teenage prostitute’s childlike and guileless delight at being driven around in a luxurious automobile cleanses her appointment with three men of all its sordidness.

Bombay, where Manto made his name in the film industry and by his short stories, was the happiest phase of his life, but it was not without run-ins with the law. At the peak of the Second World War, he was hauled up by the British authorities under the “Defense of India Act” for suggesting in a short story that Christian prostitutes in Bombay had become scarce since the arrival of large numbers of English and American troops in the city.

Partition sent Manto from Bombay to Lahore. To be a celebrated writer in a brand-new nation! It could have been a glorious new beginning. But, for several months, by his own admission, he was a disoriented émigré, pondering questions such as “Would Pakistani literature be different from Indian literature?” and “Who would inherit what had been written in unpartitioned India?” Then he attempted to publish his first short story on Pakistani soil, titled Colder Than Ice. The story, on Partition, was passed from editor to editor — all eager to publish something by him, but all wary of the “narrow-minded” and “bearded” establishment that was taking shape in the new Islamic Republic. When the story was finally published, it landed Manto in court on charges of obscenity.

Colder Than Ice opens with a rustic bedroom scene between young, earthy, and lustful Sikh lovers. It is a disarming start because the lustful — and lusty — Sikh, in contrast to the supposedly meek and cautious non-Sikh, is a droll cliché which follows from the sanguinary associations of the Sikh community’s martial past. Even the detail that the gold ornaments the young man has been heaping on his lover were looted from Muslim homes does not hint at what lies ahead. However, what is intended to be a preamble to a bout of wholesome sex gives way, on the one hand, to the inexplicably frazzled condition of the young man, and, on the other, to the shrill accusations of his lover. He intensifies his foreplay to placate her and employs “every trick he knew to ignite his loins . . .” Nothing works. She is convinced that he has been “squeezed dry” by another lover. He dithers under her angry questions. In a jealous rage, she stabs him. Only then, in his death throes, does he tell her about the libido-killing horrors he has witnessed and committed. The young Sikh killer becomes the victim of his crimes. This is exemplary of Manto’s humanistic vision: both victim and assailant are equally human, equally victims.

“Something” is invariably lost in even the finest translations. Words in one language might be too heavily freighted to deliver into another language without a loss of heft or, on the flip side, a light, flighty word might become weighty, officious, or even formal upon arrival in the new language. Sometimes literal translations are called for. At other times, a word, so weighed down by cultural or dated baggage, may need anything but the literal translation. Of course, the reader always hopes that what is lost or mangled is negligible vis-a-vis the primary thrust of the story. But in some of these stories, one cannot be certain. For instance, in For Freedom’s Sake, the title of “dictator,” accorded the protest leaders, appears to be a literal translation of a tongue in cheek title, but something significant is clearly lost by the literal translation. The Urdu title of Colder Than Ice is Thanda Gosht, literally “Cold Meat.” I was unable to find an explanation, in any Manto collection, for this tame rendition of a title that was intended to shock. For some, it might seem that Manto’s stories await a new generation of translators, but one suspects that some of the confusion has to do with the nature of Urdu, a language excessively burdened by history to this day. It is a history which, at Partition, made Manto speculate if “Urdu would disappear on [the Indian side.]”

Urdu, with its Arabic script and its Persianate influences, had been in rivalry with Hindi, with its Devanagiri script and Sanskritic origins, at least since the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The jostling for position between Urdu and Hindi in colonial India paralleled the Muslim-Hindu competition in many ways. Urdu, too closely associated with the high courtly style of the discredited and effete Mughals, had been on the defensive long before Manto’s time. Urdu lovers took solace from the grandeur of its past, especially from its golden age in the late-18th and early-19th century. Urdu became overly flowery and romantic, or its speakers, scrambling for higher ground, sought to accentuate these aspects of it. The 1984 novel In Custody by Anita Desai, the masterful chronicler of people shoved to the fringes of their societies, is a distinctive account of the post-independence arrogance and cultural superiority claimed by the wielders of that old stately Urdu. An Urdu lecturer in the novel, thirty years after Manto’s death, addresses his concern: “Urdu is . . . a rarity — it is only grown for export. To Pakistan, or to the Gulf (the middle-eastern states). Have you heard Faiz (a famous Urdu poet and Manto contemporary) has gone to Beirut, to edit an Urdu Magazine there?”

Partition — a concern of a sizable portion of these stories —  also shortened Manto’s life. In Lahore, the only option for the heavy-drinking, always cash-strapped writer was “Gymkhana whisky,” the consumption of which did not decline in the face of growing legal troubles over his writings. Meanwhile, Pakistan was changing course. With its economy floundering, it had become dependent on American grain, a small step from becoming an American pawn in the Cold War, a capitulation which Manto saw as trading one kind of colonialism for another. He began to write a series of Swiftian “Letters to Uncle Sam” from his “Pakistani Nephew.” Interspersing “flying kisses” and other endearments to Liz Taylor, Gene Tierney, and Hedy Lamarr, he requested the atomic bombing of mullahs and bad distilleries and urged for the rapid sale of condemned Second World War American arms to India and Pakistan so that American armament factories could restart production on newer weapons. In 1955, at age 42, after two stints in mental asylums, cirrhosis claimed him. Ever since then, critics connected to both sides of the Line of Control have been pondering the significance of his life and career.

Manto will remain an orphan. He is too closely associated with Urdu to be accepted in fervently, and intolerantly, Hindu-izing India. And he was too irreverent of politics and, though not unbelieving, too secular in his beliefs at a time when that was not an option. He was ignored in Pakistan; in 2001, his principal translator lamented, “there is not a single street or memorial from one end of Pakistan to another that bears Manto’s name. And yet to this day he remains the country’s most widely read author.” Pakistan finally honored him in 2012, his birth centenary. But that was exactly the kind of hypocrisy Manto would have mocked given that the power and influence of the “Mullah types” who had hounded him in the 50s had only grown. Manto is an outlier, a freakish occurrence at a freakish time in South Asia. At the same time, this iconic enfant terrible is ageless because the world from which alcohol was for him the only escape — the world of Hindu-Muslim troubles, misogyny, the class and caste tussles, the struggles with the twisted and conflicted histories, the heartless cruelty of the State, and the dulling of intellectual life in the face of witless nationalism — is still intact. In all his photographs, he looks absurdly boyish, his large eyes always wide open as if missing nothing, but incredulous at what he was seeing.

Mukund Belliappa is working on a novel set in early colonial South India.

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