Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Read Manto’s fiction to grasp Indianness

Thirty years ago, Debonair published a translation of Bu. It was the story of a man in Bombay, likely in Bandra, intoxicated by the odour of a peasant girl’s armpits. I was about 13 then and came across it in a copy of the magazine I had borrowed from my father’s room. I noticed the title, I think it was translated as “Odour", between those photographs and began to read. It was the most intelligent, mature thing. It was Indian in a way that nothing else I had read in English till then had been. Those who are familiar with it know, it was electrifying. As my friend from Lahore might say: Meri to battiyan udd gayi (I was stunned).

I could be mistaken but this is the moment and the story that made Saadat Hasan Manto famous in India again, all those years after he felt forced to leave it. This translation began his revival.

Twenty years after that, Naseeruddin Shah staged Manto-Ismat Haazir Hain, performances based on the stories of Ismat Chughtai and Manto. I saw it, perhaps on its debut, at St Andrew’s auditorium in Bandra. My friend from Surat and room-mate from Baroda (now Vadodara), Ankur Vikal, played Randhir, the man in Bu. Ankur was masculine and magnificent in the monologue, and made the story come alive. He told me that when he does Bu, he notices couples begin turning against one another in the audience. The woman becoming irritated at, and perhaps angered by, the man. So powerful and primal is Manto’s writing.

Around the same time, I went to Lahore to spend a few days with a friend, no longer alive, who was a retired colonel from Pervez Musharraf’s batch in the military academy at Kakul.

He asked me what I wanted to do in Lahore. One was to meet a writer of immense distinction, whom I had followed for many years as a model. I met him the evening I landed. The other thing I asked was whether we could meet Manto’s family.

Sure, said Iftikhar, and made a phone call. It is remarkable how Pakistan’s upper class know one another. When someone visiting from Lahore wants me to take them to Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan, it’s always embarrassing to say one cannot.

Anyway, we went the next evening to have tea with Nighat, Manto’s eldest daughter. She was married to a Gujarati, Bashir Patel, and lived in Lahore. In fact in the same place, Laxmi Mansions, that Manto had been given as refugee property. It was an elegant place, like an old flat in south Bombay, in a quiet lane just off the Mall Road. There was a popular tak-tak joint outside, called Goonga Kababwala, which is a touch I think Manto would have liked.

The other thing about the place, I learnt later, was that Mani Shankar Aiyar was born in Laxmi Mansions before Partition. I wonder if it was the same flat the Aiyars vacated that Manto got.

We spoke to Nighat and Bashir, who were warm and invited us again the next day. I took a photograph of Nighat polishing her father’s name on a brass plate outside the house, which was published by the Hindustan Times. Nighat said something that staggered me. Till the 1980s, she said, Manto’s daughters didn’t know their father had been such a famous writer.

It was only around that time that people began again to speak about him. I suspect, as I said, that it was the publishing of Bu by Debonair that did it. Till then, translated literature wasn’t popular, and with good reason. There is nothing in Gujarati literature that I would recommend as something that would explain Gujarat, leave alone India, to the outsider. All of it, from K.M. Munshi to Umashankar Joshi, is insular and frankly unreadable.

This cannot be said of Manto. To read him in fiction is to grasp Indianness, if not India.

When Salman Rushdie picked Indian writing for an anthology to celebrate 50 years of independence, he was attacked for his bigotry. He selected only English writing save one writer in translation, Manto. He rejected the other “vernacular" writers as not being up to the standard. I think he was quite right to do this, at least from the perspective of Gujarati.

The Manto story that appears in that anthology, called Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing, is Toba Tek Singh. This is the absurdist masterpiece that is the best commentary on Partition in any language.

It is very good, as good, in fact, as Bu.

How good a writer is Manto in non-fiction? This is interesting because non-fiction requires different skills, those of analysis and knowledge rather than experience and intuition. Both require observation, but in non-fiction this is essential not incidental. It is more masculine than fiction. It is only the rare writer—V.S. Naipaul, Leo Tolstoy—who can do both well.

I’m interested because I’ve been working on Manto’s non-fiction, translating a thousand words
every morning before the singing teacher arrives.

Manto’s appeal here is what writers would call their angle of attack. His subjects are unusual. I don’t think he was familiar with Michel de Montaigne, but he has that same eclecticism. These are the titles of some of Manto’s essays. On molesting girls (an amazing 4,500-word essay I finished this morning that prompted me to write this column), “Naak ki Qismein (On the Types of Noses)", “Log Apne Aap Ko Madhhosh Kyon Karte Hain? (Why People Get Drunk)", on numbers, on potholes, etc.

In his essays he sometimes brings in the details—the Jewish neighbourhood in Nagpada, the characteristics of Parsi girls—that make him the short story writer he is. I am so glad his daughters have agreed for me to translate these pieces.

In his fiction writing, Manto is unapproachable, magnificent. As a non-fiction writer I can identify with him though at 43, I’m a year older than he was when he died. Like me he works from home, writing for newspapers to make a living, so far as that is possible in India.

Like me he enjoys having “just the one", though for some reason he prefers beer.

Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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