One of the great risks in reviewing a translated work is the tendency to believe that one is reading the author in his or her original language. I forget too often how much is lost in translation and if what I am reading is the author’s voice or the translator’s (or both). This, however, is not an issue with Bombay Stories, the translated collection of Urdu short stories by the late Saadat Hasan Manto.
Both translators, Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, are renowned for their knowledge of Hindi and Urdu, respectively. They also come from different literary traditions; Reeck is a poet, who writes in Hindi and English, while Ahmad, an Urdu scholar and translator. They are also both contributors to the online, bilingual, literary journal, Pratilipi. The result is a mesmerizing collection of writing from a South Asian writer, dead for almost 60 years, whose works have never really reached a wide audience – until now.
Bombay Stories consists of 14 of Manto’s works. I can only imagine that the process of choosing which stories to include was daunting because Manto was one of the most prolific writers of his generation. Before his premature death in 1955 at the age of 42, he had penned hundreds of stories in Urdu, as well as essays, screenplays and radio dramas. This particular collection is set in Bombay (now Mumbai), India’s sprawling megalopolis and capital of the world’s most prolific film industry, and consists of stories that read like the true exploits of Manto, who wrote for the screen and bounced around from studio to studio; indeed, the reader doesn’t know if he is reading fact or fiction.
His writing also recalls a different era and a time when there was no Pakistan – just British India. Truth be told, even labeling Manto a “Pakistani writer” would be a disservice because he was born in Lahore when it was just a city in the state of Punjab. From that perspective, Bombay Stories provides a wonderful glimpse into the time before the “Partition”, i.e., India’s 15 August 1947 independence from England and the creation of an independent Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Manto, a Muslim, wrote honestly about Muslims in Bombay, but at great peril. He was labeled an outcast, drunkard and worse still, a “kafir” or disbeliever, for his frank depictions of Muslim life in Bombay and the carnival of sins – drug addiction, prostitution, alcoholism, adultery, etc. Yet Manto was no Charles Bukowski with a tendency to excoriate the perils of the female flesh, nor Alifa Rifaat, who wrote frankly about female desire and lust; he created his own world where women were not victims, but aggressors, and capable of playing someone more than just being played. Indeed, more so than Bombay, the physical setting; the film industry, which forms the backdrop; or the religious leanings of his characters, women, form the foundation of all of the stories in this collection.
In story after story, Manto writes frankly and unabashedly about women and their bodies, perceptions of them and how they perceive themselves, and their roles as matriarchs, wives, lovers, and objects of adoration and rage. From the story of the innocent Sarita whose mother is forcing her into a career of prostitution (“Ten Rupees”) to the Jewish girl who sacrifices herself to save a Sikh man during Muslim-Sikh riots (“Mozelle”) to the prostitute with pride who refuses to be shamed by a customer (“The Insult”), Manto painted the women of Bombay in a way that few South Asian writers have been able to since.
My favorite story in this collection, “Siraj”, focuses on the complex relationship between the pimp Dhundhu; the prostitute Siraj and the author, Manto (or his doppelganger). All the characters are Muslim and this particular story, more so than others, highlighted to me the complex and dangerous game that Manto played with religion and culture. When the author asks Dhundhu if he loves Siraj, the latter reacts with shock and says, “I swear on the Koran that I’ve never had any of those dirty thoughts.” Later, Manto meets Siraj and offers her a drink, but she insists on having a joint. Wrote Manto,
I got her a joint, and she smoked it like a real addict. When she looked at me again, her eyes had lost their effect, and her face seemed like a ransacked empire, a ravaged country. There was a sense of desolation in everything about her, but what had brought it about? She seemed like a city attacked by invaders, a city so new that its walls, built up to only a yard in height, were left in incomplete ruins.
Bombay Stories is an incredible book and a compelling argument to Saadat Hasan Manto’s credibility as a giant in Indian/Pakistani literature. While his own life was consumed by depression and ended through slow, alcoholic suicide, he was an iconoclast and light years ahead of his time.
In the story “Janaki”, Manto wrote, “There are two types of people in the world – those who understand pain from their own suffering and those who see the suffering of others and guess what pain is.” Saadat Hasan Manto clearly understood pain through his own suffering, but his legacy is of a man who left behind a body of work so generous and so representative of an enormous talent that we should thank God (or Allah) that He gave us the chance to be touched in such a profound way.