We are entering the last quarter of Saadat Hasan Manto’s centenary year, and we finally have a new, accessible paperback edition of Aatish Taseer’s translations of 12 Manto short stories into English, first published by Random House USA in 2008. Six months into his Urdu-language classes, Taseer encountered Manto in Urdu for the first time, reading the story Dus Rupay (Ten Rupees).
Dus Rupay is about a teenaged prostitute, Sarita, who is so enamoured of cars that the circumstances of her life fade away when compared to her love of sitting in automobiles, feeling the wind in her face and seeing the world zip past her. The story ends when Sarita, exhilarated at the end of a day spent in a car with three feckless young clients, returns the Rs.10 one of them gives her. “Kafayat stared at it in amazement. ‘Sarita, what’s this?’ ‘This…why should I take this money?’ she replied and ran off, leaving Kafayat still staring at the limp note.”
In his long introduction to the stories, Taseer writes: “…I knew that something about the quality of its detail and the oblique gaze of the narrator, the story of a chawl and a prostitute, told through a girl’s love of cars, had altered my life as a reader. If before I had read looking for language and rhythms that I liked, I was reading now to understand how a writer like Manto could evoke his world with a single detail.”
In his detailed examination of Ten Rupees, Taseer arrives at the Manto qualities which have kept his writing thrillingly fresh over half a century later: his wit, his economy, his barbed irony. Sentiment does not travel well through time, and especially not through language. But while Manto is sentimental, the lean, jagged form of the typical Manto story still allows the emotion to retain its power of discomfiture.
The circumstances of contemporary readers’ own encounters with Manto are so weighted by history and politics that our own response to him seems to involve a form of sentimentalization. He died young and under-appreciated for his work; he wrote accessibly about Partition violence; it is his birth centenary. Taseer’s introduction, while excellent in many respects, also falls prey to a certain tendency to wonder about Manto the human being. “(It is hard) to bear that ugly truth about Manto the man: that for all his love of Indian multiplicity, he went to Pakistan.”
This is a strange thing to say about a writer whose great gift to the subcontinent was his cool, almost tongue-in-cheek ability to tell ugly truths about people and societies. Taseer is right to criticize readers who go through Manto looking for clues about where to award moral ground in the war that followed Partition (especially since the answer frequently evades the responsibility of shouldering historical guilt by declaring that since Manto wrote about atrocities conducted on both sides of the new border, neither society should really be blamed). But it seems equally spurious to go through stories looking for clues to Manto the man, a task better left to biographers than social historians.
Taseer’s introduction, which involves his own family history and an extensive reflection on the practice of Urdu and its literary culture in India, as well as a fascinating reading of Manto and his affect, is interesting enough to merit a review of its own. But so is his approach to translating Manto. Like so many things about Manto’s work, the translation of his afsanas (Urdu short stories) into English have incurred both suspicion and controversy. The best-known, and most widely available, English translations of Manto, by the late Khalid Hasan, have been severely criticized for what Taseer delicately puts as “trying to improve upon the writer”.
While Hasan’s translations are heavily editorialized and marked by omissions of Manto’s work, Taseer takes care to be exceedingly literal; he even retains the Urdu title of the story Khol Do (literally, “open it”). This literalism is vital, especially in a situation like Manto’s, where so many translations of varying quality and accessibility exist. But this raises the question of whether the documentary approach to prose is the best strategy for this translation. How can a literal English translation retain the snappiness for which Manto is praised in Urdu/Hindi? The mood of both can differ vastly, as anyone who has ever tried to explain a Hindi film joke or song to English speakers has learnt. English can sometimes require too many words.
Just read Taseer’s translation of the first two sentences of Toba Tek Singh. “Two or three years after Partition, the governments of India and Pakistan decided that just as there had been a cordial exchange of prisoners, there should now be a similar exchange of lunatics. That is to say, Muslim lunatics housed in Indian asylums should be repatriated to Pakistan and Sikh and Hindu lunatics, in turn, handed over to India.” Here is Manto’s Urdu, transliterated for the benefit of bilingual readers: “Batwaarey ke do-teen saal baad Pakistan aur Hindustan ki hukumaton ko khayaal aaya ke akhlaaki qaidiyon ki tarah paaghalon ka bhi tabaadla hona chahiye, yaani jo musalmaan paagal Hindustan ke paagalkhaanon mein hain, unhe Pakistan pahuncha diya jaaye aur jo Hindu aur Sikh Pakistan ke paagalkhaanon mein hain, unhe Hindustan ke havaaley kar diya jaaye.”
What is fluid and colloquial in the original becomes repetitive, even a little turgid, in its English translation. This is not to take away from Taseer’s achievement: Just knowing that the translations have been made with care to retain the original intent of Manto’s sentences is a relief, and Taseer’s literary intelligence does much to help bring out much of Manto’s own. His choice of stories, which avoids popular power-hitters like Muzail, Mummy and Thanda Gosht (which Taseer merely refers to in the introduction, using the literal translation Cold Flesh), is excellent. It covers the axiomatic Partition narrative by putting Toba Tek Singh up front, but also makes space for stories like the much-litigated Bu (Smell), which occasioned one of six obscenity trials for Manto, and some great ones relatively overlooked by translators, like Ten Rupees and Ram Khilavan. In Manto’s 100th year, every new encounter with his work continues to be a revelation.