Few years back when I was still in my graduation days, reading up literature from various lands (mostly in translation) for my B.A degree in comparative literature, I remember my professor introducing a class full of us to “this author” by stating that he is the best short story writer from the Indian subcontinent.
Years later when I read him again, I know for sure that best he is indeed, albeit an ignored and neglected one. This is the author who went across the border after partition for reasons inexplicable and regretted this decision for the rest of his life. He died a sordid death at the age of forty two as a Pakistani citizen. Saadat Hasan Manto-for those who have read his works, the name conjures up images of partition and its gory details portrayed in a fashion unmatched with a literary genius par excellence.
His story is real and different and so is he. They are boorish, vulgar yet true. They stare at you blankly on your face leaving you dumbstruck with its details. His characters are charred with the sufferings of life, yet they have the courage to move on.
This collection has a total of 12 short stories written at different times of his career. Translated by Aatish Taseer from the originals written in Urdu, each story is quite different from the other.
The book is a good conglomeration of some of Manto’s well known works like Toba Tek Singh, Khol Do and license with others written in a different vein. The story “My name is Radha”, probably written at the time he was working as a film journalist/scrip writer in the Bombay film industry, beautifully brings out the poignancy of the infatuation/love that a young new comer feels for a well known star from the same industry.
The themes in his stories are new, fresh and revealing. They open a new world for the readers and ample space for them to ruminate. These themes are well investigated by Manto and come forward sometimes through a third-person narrative and sometimes as in “Ram Khilawal” and ““My name is Radha”, through Manto himself. Manto the author is not to be confused with Manto the narrator. He if anything, is a creation of the imagination.
In a city like Bombay, where people from different lands reside, Manto offers a perspective of his own as an outsider into the lives of these people. The reader can
place himself in these spaces described by Manto and be perfectly guided through the lanes and by lanes that he carefully paints.
Truth with its ugly face unfailingly appears in almost all of Manto’s works. The wife of a horse coachman is not allowed to earn money by riding the coach, just because she is a woman, her license is revoked by the municipal committee. However, the same woman gets the license for something else at somewhere else- “the next day she submitted her application. She was given a license to sell her body”.
The poignancy of partition finds its voice in Manto’s writings like nowhere else. Writers like Ismat Chughtai, Bhisham Sahni, Sampooran Singh Gulzar and Khushwant Singh, amongst many others emerged as powerful literary voices at the time of partition. It is however Manto, whose stories with its ferocity, yet unassuming tone, send a shiver down the readers’ spine. “Khol Do” stands as a fare example of it.
A very talented writer and a famous film journalist/scrip writer of his time, Manto is highly ignored today as an author. There are few readers of his work and those who have read him have done very less to restore his work. As the translator Aatish Taseer says, “He was not an Indian or a Pakistani writer as much as he was a Bombay writer, and more than India, the city of Bombay must reclaim Manto”.
About the author: Saadat Hasan Manto has been called the greatest short stori writer of the Indian sub continent. Born in 1912 in Samrala in Punjab, he went on to become a radio and film script writer, journalist and a short story writer. His stories were highly controversial and he was tried for obscenity five times during his career. Manto moved to Lahore in 1948 and died there in 1955.