When Master Abdul Ghani praised Manto for his story ‘Hatak’ and cleared his debt as a mark of respect for the man who had written the story, Krishan Chandar notes that Manto became sad and furious. Manto, he writes, was displeased and depressed and cried out, ‘Saala! He believes that Hatak is my good story, Hatak? Hatak is one of my worst stories.’ The toughest job for any editor or compiler of Manto’s short stories is at the level of selection—which stories to include and which to leave. The job has become more vexing in these times when everyone is claiming a piece of Manto depending on their requirement. There is a specific type of Manto that is celebrated in academia, the one who writes about Partition and violence. Then there is Manto who is a favourite of publishers, the one who writes on controversial issues that can easily be marketed. There is also a Manto who flashes in private elite gathering of artists, one who writes about sexuality with ease and fearlessness.
People who are bent upon slicing Manto and prepare a recipe of their choice forget that Manto is all of these. It is here that Astish Taseer’s Manto: Selected Short Stories comes as a relief. Taseer’s Manto emerges as an important collection with the finest selection from the whole corpus of Manto’s writing. The selection of stories does not pigeonhole Manto into a specific colour. It offers a wide array of colours that Manto loves to play with. This small potent collection of twelve stories celebrates every hue of Manto as well as his dark shades. These stories touch almost every major theme that one finds in Manto’s stories. While ‘Toba Tek Singh’ depicts the insanity of Partition within a mental asylum, ‘Ten Rupees’ depicts the innocence of Sarita within a predatory sexual tension. While ‘Khalid Mian’ painfully depicts a father’s emotions for his dying child, ‘Blouse’ deals with the first sexual awakenings of an adolescent child. All these stories deal with one or the other major preoccupations of Manto.
Taseer in his introduction is highly critical of Khalid Hasan’s English translation of Manto’s ‘Bitter Fruit’. According to Taseer, Hasan is ‘guilty of the greatest crime any translator can commit, the crime of trying to improve upon the writer.’ And this is something that Taseer has masterfully avoided in his translation and most of the time he goes for a literal translation of the words and sentences originally in Urdu. By doing that Taseer is successfully able to transfer the Urdu temperament in English, something that Zafar Moradabadi, his teacher and guide for Urdu language had cautioned him: ‘One’s mizaaj [temperament] is contained in ones’s script.’ Taseer achieves this for example when he translates ‘motor car’ as motor car. The word ‘motor car’ in Urdu and Indian culture has a deep cultural significance and Taseer does not deliberately improve and sanitize it in his English translation. When Sarita sings the film songs, Taseer does not shy away from letting the English language imitate Hindi/Urdu form of singing—world becomes ‘worrrrrrld’. But this is not the case everywhere. Taseer has failed to do this in ‘Ram Khilavan’. Manto has brilliantly shown the innocence of Ram Khilavan through his accent and language structure. When Ram Khilavan speaks in Manto’s original, the Mumbai lower-class colour of language is dominant. He pronounces the name as ‘Saaid Shaleem Baalishter’ but Taseer simply translates it as ‘Saeed Salim barrister’. But overall Taseer has been successful in capturing the essence of Urdu in a foreign language.
Taseer’s introduction to the collection entitled ‘Travellers of the Last Night’ is a loose translation of ‘Aakhir e Shab Kay Humsafar’, a line from Faiz’s poem Shaam-e-Firaq and it serves as a brilliant background to these English translations of Urdu stories. Taseer shows the decay of the Urdu language through the concerns and preoccupations of Zafar Moradabadi to whom the book is dedicated along with his grandfather Dr. M.D. Taseer. Zafar has an acute post-Partition political sense of Urdu language. The way Taseer describes Zafar’s Delhi reminds one of Anita Desai’s Nur and his Chandni Chowk in the novel In Custody. Zafar’s proclamation, ‘I’m not saying you should write poetry. I would never send you into poetry. It’s finished’ echoes Nur’s lament ‘Urdu poetry? . . . How can there be Urdu poetry when there is no Urdu language left? It is dead, finished. The defeat of the Moghuls by the British threw a noose over its head, and the defeat of the British by the Hindi-wallahs tightened it. So now you see its corpse lying here, waiting to be buried.’
No one should be reminded of Desai’s Nur while reading about Zafar Moradabadi as it blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, but if it does, then it serves to show the sorry state of affairs that surrounds Urdu language. Zafar Moradabadi’s vocation (other than being a poet) as a ghostwriter of PhD theses for mere survival is enough to indicate the condition of an Urdu poet and Urdu language. Unlike Desai’s Nur, Zafar is hopeful that Urdu as a language still dominates Indian Television and Cinema, and can manage to survive. This is ironical in the sense that the very movie is still presented as a ‘Hindi Feature Film’ and most of the movies never display their title in Urdu script. In the same way, Taseer’s positive proposition that ‘In Pakistan, Manto’s world, crowded with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims would feel very foreign. It is only in India, still plural, not symmetrically Hindu, that it continues to have relevance’ is ironic given the situation of India in 2017. The relevance of Taseer’s collection is not because of ‘still plural’ India but because of the fact that this ‘still plural’ India is spirally descending into a mob-lynching India. What this collection reminds us is that when madness runs amok in public spaces, sanity can be found within people like Toba Tek Singh. Even when Kishori, the pimp from ‘Ten Rupees’ brings in three customers, innocence can be found in people like Sarita. When politics becomes a synonym for violence, even people like Ram Khilavan can lose their innocence. Apart from being a good introduction to Manto’s world, the collection with its varied range of themes also emerges as a cautionary reminder for the present times.
Muzaffar Karim completed his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is an Assistant Professor in South Campus, Kashmir University. Among other courses, he teaches Shakespeare, Indian Writing in English, and Modern English Poetry. He also writes poetry and short stories that have appeared in various newspapers and journals like Muse India. He is a regular blogger at http://muzaffar-askesis.blogspot.in