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“A Distaste for Dogmas” 

(The TLS, March 2014) 

A Distaste for Dogmas 
The Times Literary Supplement, March 14, 2014 
On Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories 
Vintage Books, 2014 

by Hirsh Sawhney 

The Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto wrote penetrative short stories about India’s tragic Partition in 1947, an event defined by mass murder, rape and forced migration. Though Manto was born a Muslim, these stories are distinctly nonpartisan, indicting individuals from all of South Asia’s political groups and religious communities, and also British imperialists, whose hasty flight from the subcontinent had cataclysmic consequences. Some of these tales, such as the well-known “Toba Tek Singh”, use satire to convey the political absurdity of Partition, which turned friends and neighbours into enemies overnight, whereas stories such as “Cold Meat” tackle the brutality head-on. In this latter tale, which prompted the postcolonial Pakistani government to prosecute Manto for obscenity, a Sikh man returns home after several days of looting and murdering. The sight of his voluptuous wife arouses him, and he tries to make love to her. But he can’t get an erection. His sexually frustrated wife grows suspicious that he’s been cheating, and stabs him. While the man bleeds to death, he admits to having raped a girl during the chaos, but his confession doesn’t end there: it transpires that this beautiful girl was actually a corpse and that the man inadvertently committed an act of necrophilia. 

Though Manto’s stark Partition stories are his most celebrated and frequently anthologized, he wrote prolifically and worked in a variety of genres during his short life. Between his birth in undivided India in 1912 and his death in 1955 in Pakistan, he churned out hundreds of short stories, radio plays and screenplays, and translated various European authors, including Victor Hugo, into Urdu. Towards the end of his life, disillusioned with Partition and in and out of a mental asylum for his alcoholism, he wrote a series of “Letters to Uncle Sam”, farcical yet astute essays about international politics and post-war neoimperialism. 

Manto grew up in Amritsar and was a boy during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, when hundreds of non-violent protesters against the colonial government were murdered – an event that had a huge impact on him. He was deeply anti-colonial as a young writer, and his experiences with censorship doubtless hardened these sentiments. The British Indian government threw him in jail for his allegedly incendiary translation of an Oscar Wilde play, and later prosecuted him for obscenity because of his bold sexual aesthetics. In Bombay Stories, the newly translated anthology of Manto’s short fiction, the author’s resentment of colonial rule is discernible in the background. 

The protagonist of “Smell” laments being barred from British-only brothels because of his skin colour, and in “Janaki”, the narrator deplores the paucity of penicillin in India compared to its abundance in England and America. But what is more apparent in this collection is Manto’s distaste for dogmas of any kind. He tells the tale of a strait-laced middle-class Muslim who reviles prostitution but then impregnates a prostitute and contemplates murdering their child. He depicts a Marxist feminist succumbing to her own lascivious desires even though she has recently uttered a moralistic diatribe against sex workers. 

These tales were written over the course of more than a decade, both before and after Partition, and are collected here, newly translated, in a single volume for the first time. Not all of them are perfectly crafted. Manto rarely edited his work and his writing sometimes suffers for it. But these stories contain memorable characters and plots, and they unveil difficult social and psychological truths about life in the modern world. Manto casts a spotlight on Bombay’s darker corners, neighbourhoods “dotted with garbage heaps that served as an open toilet”. His Bombay is highly cosmopolitan, inhabited by individuals who revere Marlene Dietrich’s Hollywood beauty as well as the great Urdu poet Ghalib. Some are boozehound writers trying to make their way in the city’s nascent film industry, and a fictionalized version of Manto himself makes several cameo appearances. In such first person narratives, the author lapses into playful, self-referential musings on the art of storytelling. 

Most of the characters here are in some way connected to prostitution, a profession that proliferated in the lawless, ramshackle slums around Bombay’s textile factories at the time. The eponymous protagonist of “Khushiya”, for example, is a pimp who spends his evenings chewing paan near an auto supply shop. One night, he is perturbed after an interaction with Kanta, one of his prostitutes. When he went to check on Kanta earlier in the day, she answered the door naked and blithely invited him in for tea (“What’s the big deal? It’s just my Khushiya”). Mulling it over, Khushiya is unnerved by this brazen display, not least because she felt she could make it without eliciting a reaction from him. “She should have been a little ashamed!” he thinks. “She should have blushed a little!” He comes to the conclusion that “his masculine dignity had been affronted”, and rushes away from his street corner to put Kanta in her place. 

“Khushiya” is emblematic of Manto’s work in that it is an anecdotal and ruminative character-driven sketch that gives rise to an unexpected and suspenseful climax. It demonstrates how repressed feelings of desire and culpability can drive individuals to viciousness. And it gives a good example of Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad’s dynamic translations. Throughout this collection, the pair preserve Manto’s quirks, and even his flaws. In some cases, they imbue his descriptive imagery with a gracefulness that is absent from some previous translations: Kanta’s body “was as tight as hide stretched taut across a drumhead” (formerly, “Her skin was taut like skin over a drum”). Dialogue and interior thoughts are rendered into a contemporary idiomatic English. For example, the Urdu expression “Isme harz hi kya hai”– literally, “what is the problem with that?” – becomes “What’s the big deal?” In a previous translation, the phrase, “par uska ek roan bhi na kampkampaya tha” – literally, “that not a single one of her hairs quivered” – appeared as “but [Kanta] had not shown the least nervousness”. Reeck and Ahmad give it a sleeker and more colloquial edge: “but she didn’t so much as bat an eyelash”.


Like “Khushiya”, the atmospheric story “Smell” explores the impact of lust and longing on a person’s psyche. The protagonist here, the upper-class Randhir, can’t get over a passionate tryst he once had with a worker from a nearby rope factory. He remains beguiled by the scent of this woman’s body, which was “like the pleasing aroma that dirt gives off after you sprinkle it with water” and “as real and old as the story of men and women itself”. Such descriptions have prompted some critics to label Manto an exoticizer of poverty and women, or a misogynist, and a few of his stories certainly contain simplistic or stereotypical descriptions of women. His female characters nag, or play the coquette, and they are often dependent on men for their redemption. But Manto is just as mocking of men. Though he undoubtedly internalized some of the prejudices of his era, his work seeks to expose society’s rigid gender and class boundaries, and his female characters are often empowered and transgressive. Some of his women drink and smoke pot while others vocalize their sexual needs. In “Mozelle”, a sexually voracious Jewish woman is a vamp. But she is also courageous, and it is her rejection of traditional values that enables her to protect a conservative Sikh couple from deadly communal violence. Manto’s forward-looking views on gender are evident in this book’s appendix, which contains some of his polemical non fiction essays. In one of these, he objects to the fact that “men control society and take advantage of their power”. A woman, on the other hand, “no longer remains a woman if she succumbs even once to a youthful desire or some other impulse . . . . She’s viewed with contempt and hatred, and doors close for her that would remain open for men”. 

Saugandhi from “The Insult” is one of this collection’s most fully realized female characters. She is a prostitute who lives in a room with a parrot and a dog and sleeps with mid-level Indian officials employed by the colonial government. She is friendly and generous, using her earnings to aid a recently widowed neighbour. Her favourite customer is Madho, a police constable whose dreamy ideas brighten up her days. But Madho is a fraud. He extracts money from Saugandhi instead of paying for her services. One night, Saugandhi gets dolled up to meet a rich client who sizes her up and rejects her: “She felt as though someone was pressing his thumb against her ribs, as you press your thumb into a sheep or goat to see if there is any meat beneath the hair”. Saugandhi’s distress pushes her to end things with Madho, a seemingly empowering action, but at the end of the story, she remains isolated and trapped. There can be no easy redemption for this poverty-stricken character in such a stratified and oppressive world. 

Stories like this offer an unflinching look at the disparities that defined Manto’s India. Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad’s inspired new translations reaffirm the timelessness of Manto’s prose and revitalize it for a new generation of English-language readers.


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