Saadat Hasan Manto: Selected Stories

(Translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan; first published 2007)

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) is widely acclaimed as one of the best short story writers of Urdu. He broke away from traditional story writing (epitomized by Maulvi Nazir Ahmad) and laid the foundation of progressive fiction in Urdu. His genius lay in writing about topics which were hitherto considered social taboos in Indo-Pakistani society. His stories mostly revolve around characters previously thought as too “unimportant” for pristine literature, such as prostitutes, pimps, thieves, tonga-walas, sewage-cleaners and generally about women under male patriarchy. Socioeconomic inequality and brutal criticisms of the nobility and supposedly respectable people are some of the currents running through his fiction.

Psychoanalysis is the defining theme of his stories. He links it with the study of human behaviour especially of acts of mass insanity in times of unrest. Further, he is credited with the creation of a particular subgenre exclusive to the Subcontinental literature. Partition literature, as it is popularly called, stories and novels revolving around the human tragedy of the partition of the Subcontinent into India and Pakistan in the wake of Independence from British rule, is a rich and diverse subgenre, with new writings still being produced. The other major theme is his insistence on writing openly about sex lives of his characters; openly enough that he was dragged to the court under British obscenity laws.

I have read Manto in original Urdu since my teenage and have always enjoyed the simplicity of his language and spontaneity of his characters. This is the first time I have read translations in English. This collection boasts some of his most important stories, including “Toba Tek Singh”, translated variously as “The Lunatic Asylum”, and “Exchange of Lunatics”. Sometimes it goes by its original name, since Toba Tek Singh is the name of the main protagonist as well as a small city in the Punjab, now in Pakistan.

“Toba Tek Singh” is the story set in an insane asylum or madhouse. After the partition of British India and the creation of independent India and Pakistan the governments of both countries decided that, just as they had exchanged populations, civil servants and military assets, they ought to exchange clinically insane interned in their respective jail-like madhouses. So Muslim inmates from India were to be shifted to Pakistan and Hindu/Sikh inmates were supposed to move to Indian madhouses.

The story gives a harrowing account of the unrest that ensued in the madhouse of Lahore whose Hindu and Sikh inmates didn’t want to be separated from their Muslim friends. In the confusion that followed, the people who were supposedly insane behaved most sensibly and those who were sane resorted to utter madness. It’s a scathing critique on the ethic of mass scale population exchanges that followed the partition of the Indian Subcontinent, which, at that time, in 1947, was the biggest ever population exchange ever in the world.  It’s an excellent story. Other stories I particularly like are “The Return”, “A Woman’s Life”, “A Man of God”, “The Last Salute” and “The Blouse”.

“The Return”, sometimes translated to the effect of its literal Urdu title as “Open it” (Khol Do) is a story of a Muslim girl who escapes with her father to Pakistan when the rest of her family is killed in partition riots. They are separated from each other on their way to the safety of Pakistan. Her father, upon reaching his dream country, enlists the help of Pakistani volunteers who are keeping guard at the new borders and are also in the process of retrieving stranded Muslims in Indian Punjab which, by now, has become a cauldron of riots. They finally retrieve and bring the girl back to Pakistan, but only after she has been kept in confinement and raped several times by the same men who were supposed to protect her. The father, upon seeing his daughter alive, jumps in utter joy and thanks the paramilitary volunteers without realising what has happened.

A note on the translation: I am not impressed with the quality of the translation. Khalid Hasan, the translator, is otherwise a fine translator but I feel that he hasn’t truly captured the essence of the linguistic style of Manto in English. In fact, reading some stories, Manto sounds like a language disaster. He comes off as having his hand on the social pulse but fails to articulate it in good language. Is it perhaps because the simplicity and spontaneity of Manto is best suited to Urdu and not fully translatable into English? I can’t say. There is another translation of a selection of Manto’s stories by Aatish Taseer, the son of the assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer. I am going to read it for comparative purposes as soon as I get the book. Despite, I will give 4/5 to this collection. It’s available on AMAZON.

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