Capitalized SAADAT HASAN MANTO, printed against strands of jet black hair that have escaped the floral edge of a burqa, which reveals more than it conceals; arched eyebrows, large and thickly kohl-lined eyes, the partial tantalizing glimpse of painted lips; tongas on either side of the head, complete the picture. The finely detailed illustration, just described, is the cover image of Manto’s Women of Prey: Shikari Auratein. Designed by Jezreel Sarah Nathan.There could not be a more striking and imaginatively etched cover for a book with such a title. The image makes the title come alive, enough to trigger a ripple of excitement even in the casual browser. However, the fare offered within the covers of the book is not exclusively about predatory women. Published in 1955, Shikari Auratein is a collection of seven short stories and two sketches. The translation is by Saba Mahmood Bashir, an academic who teaches translation in Jamia Millia Islamia. For the many readers, for whom the name Manto represents iconic stories like Toba Tek Singh, Khol Do, and Thanda Gosht , the present collection will come as a definite surprise. In her introduction Bashir observes that the stories and sketches together, ‘…show a completely different side of Manto—raunchy, mercilessly funny and gloriously pulpy, even when they end in tragedy’ (p.10-11). It is not an observation that all readers will subscribe to. However, a vignette that she shares in the introduction is fascinating, as it provides an illuminating glimpse of not just Manto’s life, but also that mysterious force called creativity. Apparently, Manto was unable to pass the Urdu language examination, both in school and college, and ended up as a college dropout. This seems amazingly unbelievable, when read against his monumental literary output in that language. The information casually included, is noteworthy, as it provides valuable insight into the reality that academic performance is by no means a foolproof criterion for evaluating an individual’s calibre and potential.
The first story in the collection, ‘Flowers of Divine Mercy’, is quintessentially Manto. The title is the name of a medicine promoted for increased libido by a charlatan, Doctor Rathar. The protagonist Ghulam Rasool, a failed medical student, is nicknamed Doctor Rathar by his friends, for no apparent reason.
However, as the story progresses, the reader recognizes the insidious commonality between the two men. Both deceive, the only difference being those of scale and gravity. While Doctor Rathar is arrested by the police for duping people, the namesake’s carefully executed strategy to trick his wife backfires on him. ‘Womankind’ is a satirical take on the hypocrisy that surrounds the idea of sexual intimacy and foreplay. Ashok goes through a whole gamut of emotions—horror, fear, and titillating thrill, as he watches the porn film that his friend plays for him. However, when he takes it home and runs it for his wife, on his own projector, she is shocked and rushes out of the room, muttering and lamenting. As he sees her lying curled up in bed, her face turned away from him, Ashok feels guilty and ashamed. The events that follow provide an interesting vision of human nature, even as they subvert received patriarchal notions of womanliness and innocence.
‘Three and a Half Annas’ is undeniably one of the most poignant stories in the collection. Here Manto brings into focus the unthinking, normative ideas surrounding crime and punishment. Siddique Rizvi, the narrator of the story is a murderer and a criminal, who turns approver in order to escape the gallows. Rizvi’s monologue-like narrative reveals guilt, bitterness, and helplessness. But what strikes the reader is that it is not his own crime that triggers these emotions, but the memory of a fellow prisoner, a man who has been caught stealing repeatedly: first three and a half annas, then ten rupees, and finally a silver toy, for which he is awarded one year’s rigorous imprisonment. Describing the circumstances that led Phaggu bhangi to steal each time, Rizvi declares, ‘…prison cannot reform a criminal’ (p. 48). The story nudges the reader to view the criminal from Rizvi’s perspective, of the circumstances that force Phaggu bhangi to steal; to satiate hunger or buy medicine for his sick child. The story powerfully highlights the judicial system as a mindless, soulless, inhuman mechanism. That the critique is delivered by a criminal, heightens the irony. ‘The Child’ is yet another heart-wrenching story about how a mother’s conventional mindset, her thoughtless and insensitive reiteration of her daughter’s childless state, pushes the perfectly happy and content young woman over the edge. ‘Gentlemen’s Brush’ offers a finely etched picture of wasted talent and decadent lifestyle, seamlessly woven into the vivid cityscape of Amritsar.