Much has been written and said about Manto—a great deal against him than in favour of him,” wrote the tormented Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto about himself. “An intelligent person would be hard pressed to reach any sensible conclusion on the basis of these reports.”
But, as both state and society had appeared to reach a conclusion about this incorrigible provocateur and egotist—he was prosecuted repeatedly for obscenity by both the governments of British India and later that of Pakistan, and eked out a precarious livelihood on the margins of establishment cultural life—one might surmise that the hidden meaning of this passage is that there are not many intelligent people around.
Naked Voices: IndiaInk, 142 pages, Rs295.
But it would be just as easy to interpret these remarks as Manto engaged in his favourite activity, which was embellishing the myth of Manto: his talent, his mercurial and decadent nature, his rejection of polite society, his love of alcohol, and his appreciation of the nobility within the hearts of the fallen and the depraved. In this, he was quite successful. To an extent greater than perhaps any 20th century Indian writer other than moral visionaries such as Gandhi and Tagore, we read Manto the writer with a picture of Manto the man always in mind.
Familiar themes and emphases appear in Naked Voices, Rakhshanda Jalil’s new translations of some of Manto’s stories and sketches. There is the banter of men and women as they probe each other’s weaknesses, the always close-at-hand heat of lust, the violence latent in human nature that is brought to a boil by violence in society, the perverse ebb and flow of cycles of retribution in the nightmare world of Partition, and the absurdity of religious demarcations in the higher light of our common humanity.
Everything that is distinctive in Manto comes together in one of the stories in this collection called Sahay. A group of friends is splitting up after partition. The lone Muslim among them, Mumtaz, is heading for Pakistan, even though it is “a country that would remain a stranger to him no matter how hard he tried”.
Escorted by his comrades to the ship, Mumtaz stares at the horizon for a long time. Finally, taking the hand of one friend, he says, “It’s only an illusion—this meeting of sea and sky—but what a delightful illusion this union is, isn’t it?” In this metaphor, the people of undivided India, too, are being told that they have been living “an illusion”. The story returns over and over to the question of what moral relationship Hindus and Muslims, messily divided now into Indians and Pakistanis, bear to each other on the levels of self, community and nation. The story also sounds, through Mumtaz, what we may take as Manto’s own view of true religion, which is something higher and better “than the sort of thing in which ninety-nine per cent of us are trapped”.
While Jalil’s translations are adequate, the quality of the material she has chosen from Manto’s immense oeuvre varies. The timing of the release of Naked Voices is also not propitious, coming only a couple of months after the release of Bitter Fruit, a 700-page omnibus edition of Manto translated by Khalid Hasan and published by Penguin. Bitter Fruit contains at least 50 stories, a selection of Manto’s prose sketches, the only stage play Manto wrote, some autobiographical essays and family reminiscences, and a delightful collection of Manto’s portraits of luminaries of the Mumbai film world of the 1930s and 1940s. Even so, there is some material in Naked Voices that is not present in the larger anthology, suggesting that there is still more to Manto that we do not know.
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