Reviewed by Amanda Sarasien
It is tempting to view Saadat Hasan Manto and his work as representative of India at a pivotal moment in its history: The Bombay Stories are shot through with such vivid detail as to seem firmly rooted to their setting, Bombay of the 1930s and ’40s, and it is no surprise that they have become paradigmatic of what Matt Reeck, in his superbly thorough translator’s note, calls the “sub-genre” of “Bombay fiction” (277). Indeed, they do stand as a rather tantalizing window into a subcontinent on the verge of independence, India as a roiling gallimaufry of races, religions and socioeconomic classes thrown together by the chaos of urbanization. Nevertheless, to pigeonhole him solely within the confines of this geographic and historical context risks exoticizing an author who stands among the great innovators of world modernism and even of postmodernism. Bombay Stories, a book of Manto’s most celebrated stories recently collected and translated by Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, will, in fact, leave readers with one foot planted in a perhaps unfamiliar cultural context, while the other foot wanders across centuries and continents, playfully treading that fine line between traditional and modern, individual and collective, to alight upon an enduring universality.
Saadat Hasan Manto was born in 1912 in what is now the state of Punjab, to a Muslim family, but was raised primarily in Amritsar, where he received education in the language for which he would later become an emblematic writer, Urdu. His mentorship with Abdul Bari Alig, editor at the newspaper Equality, would prove crucial, giving the young Manto his first experiences with literature, as translator of works by Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde, and Maxim Gorky, and inspiring in the budding author a passionate concern for social issues. In 1935 he accepted a job in Bombay as editor of the film newspaper The Painter. While working as editor at various film publications, he began writing stories and radio plays. His first film credit coincided with India’s foray into color film; Manto wrote the script for the country’s first feature-length color film, Village Girl. The 1947 partition and subsequent Hindu-Muslim hostilities brought Manto to Lahore, where he died in 1955, after a long bout with depression and alcoholism, overhung with a nostalgia for his years in Bombay (247-72).
This varied background points to a writer keenly aware of Bombay as multicultural mecca, as nexus between India’s colonial past and industrial future. The gritty realism and overt sensuality of Manto’s stories is evoked through an unadorned, colloquial voice which the translators succeed in capturing without dating the material or artificially contemporizing it, in passages such as:
Then I would tell her about the young men and women who become Communist as a way to meet the opposite sex. I would tell her how half the boys who join the Movement are, simply put, horny, and how they stare at the girl initiates with eyes filled with centuries of unrequited desire. I would tell her how most of the girls are rebellious daughters of fat-cat industrialists who read some introductory books then become active members just in order to stave off boredom. And I would tell her how some of these girls become mired in debauchery when they lose all respect for social and moral norms and become the sex toys of our national ‘leaders’. (“Rude,” 127-8)
Thus, Reeck and Ahmad’s feat imbues the prose with a simultaneously modern yet timeless quality, allowing the quirky characters – pimps, prostitutes, gangsters, film directors, and wealthy dilettantes – to speak for themselves.
It is this cast of characters, culled from every stratum of Indian society, which makes Manto’s stories so memorable – and controversial. As Reeck notes, not only did Manto clash with fellow members of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, who emphasized social activism through their writing, but his work ran afoul of anti-obscenity laws, resulting in five trials and eventual acquittal (269-73). By focusing on characters who often emerge as types rather than three-dimensional individuals, Manto captures society from its least pleasant angles, thereby accomplishing his social critique indirectly. Rather than imagining a utopia, investing the base with a certain, perhaps artificial, nobility, these stories employ an almost documentary filmic eye to depict the side effects of Bombay’s sudden surge in population, its overnight transformation into modern cosmopolis. No doubt, these stories remain shocking, even by today’s standards, giving readers a more dramatic perspective on issues such as poverty, industrial exploitation, abortion, urban overcrowding, inter-religious tension, misogyny, and prostitution, which remain problematic in contemporary cultures worldwide. The critical eye is therefore turned back, allowing us to see our own society in a new light.
While his characters may fascinate, thereby distinguishing his particular brand of fiction, I found Manto’s narrative technique of greatest interest, for it blends a centuries-long tradition of storytelling with modern devices, creating a style altogether ahead of its time. Clearly the author’s experience in Bombay’s film industry was influential. Not only are the stories structurally cinematic – featuring a narrative propelled by “scene-changes,” that is, the action is broken up by characters entering and exiting a static setting – but visual detail is prized and the dialogue leaps off the page, often seeming to take over the narrative. Yet, behind the camera, this thoroughly modern apparatus which gazes upon the action of each story, there is that perennial questioning of the storyteller’s authority which recalls India’s tale-telling tradition. Many of the stories open with the narrator’s explanation for how he came to hear of the events he is about to relate, as if defending his account against the skepticism of an audience present before him. Or, the story is interrupted by asides which lift the veil of illusion, calling attention to the architecture of the text and the author as that skilled craftsman behind the fiction. While such an intrusion reflects a long history of narrative as performance, it can also be viewed as an innovative foray into the postmodern, as Reeck points out, particularly when the reader encounters – as so often happens in these stories – the Manto character who is relating the stories and may or may not correspond to the author himself (278). Like The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, this Manto narrator/character is a bystander, again evoking the movie camera, an eye simultaneously participant yet at a distance from the action he attempts to judge: permitting the other characters to steal the show, sweeping him – and us – up in their fast-paced modern world.
A standout story in this altogether outstanding collection is “Barren,” which at first glance seems straightforward, a simple account relayed by an intimate acquaintance in that manner which punctuates our daily life. Only once the reader begins to deconstruct the many layers of narration does she come to appreciate the authorial dexterity involved in creating such a complex, metafictive conceit: a mendacious storyteller’s “gift” of his own sad tale – the personal narrative he peddled was, all along, a lie, but one so convincing as to kill its inventor from a broken heart – to the text’s narrator (a writer) as material. In the vein of a Calvino plot, the story disorients by throwing into question the storyteller’s fidelity. Even the narrator, a kind of scribe, cannot be trusted, for he concedes his omission of certain details he feels certain will not interest the reader. Yet, in a nod to the past, “Barren” is infused with a romantic sensibility, depicting the author as a tragic figure who has sacrificed himself for his art. As the storyteller, “Naim” (his alias), explains by letter, just before his death:
“I thought – I mean, while I told the story – I thought it was completely true! […] I felt I had loved Zahra and she had truly died. You’ll be even more surprised to hear that as the days passed, the story seemed more and more real, and Zahra’s laughter began to echo in my ears. I started to feel her warm breath. Each part of the story came to life, and thus I…I dug my own grave.” (44)
Indeed, Manto understood the storyteller’s sacrifice personally. For this reason, his work, so impossible to situate within his own time, continues to transcend boundaries today. Translators’ sage decisions in winnowing Manto’s extensive body of work will give readers a rich introduction to an often overlooked author, for every story merits further study as a paragon of the short-story form. The text might have been enhanced by more extensive discussion of the difficulties that Manto’s style posed for the translators, particularly for readers unfamiliar with the Urdu language. Nevertheless, the book includes a glossary of Urdu words carried over into the English, which contextualizes the prose without excessively foreignizing it. Thus, Manto’s work takes its place within the larger tradition of Indian literature, while also remaining nimble, able to leap across barriers and thrill readers of every generation and cultural background.
Manto, Saadat Hasan. Bombay Stories. Trans. Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad. New York: Vintage International-Random House, 2014.