Sunday, August 02, 2009

Innocence and intrigue in a bygone age

Saadat Hasan Manto is most well known for his Partition-era magnum opus, “Toba Tek Singh”. However, like many other writers albratrossed by just one of their several outstanding works, Manto's other short stories have been confined to relative obscurity. This is a travesty since all of them combine his atypical wit with a stark tendency to unveil double standards.

Aatish Taseer brings forth several of Manto’s little-known gems in a fine new translation. Since Manto, before moving to Lahore, was a film journalist in Bombay, not a few of the stories in this collection are based in the city of dreams, especially what can be called an early prototype of today's Bollywood. While technical finesse may be a distant destination, scandal is very much the order of the day. In "My Name is Radha", a wildly popular superstar, known in the industry as the epitome of high morals (he even addresses his co-stars as "sisters") is shown by Manto's acerbic narrator to have feet of clay.

Manto's world is a curious mix of innocence and intrigue, so that Hindus and Muslims in his stories are friends and well-wishers, still untouched by the poison of Partition. In such a politically fecund setting, Manto yet manages to throw the human element in sharp relief, showcasing the warts-and-all mortal lurking inside the seemingly divine. "For Freedom" is about a Muslim freedom fighter who, in the thrill of the moment at the historic Jallianwalan Bagh, forswears sex and pledges at his wedding to not have "slave children" unless India gains independence. The story is clearly a dig at Mahatma Gandhi, who appears as a high-minded Babaji here. Narrated over many years by a friend of the freedom fighter, it a scathing attack on the pulls of self-righteousness and the havoc it can unleash.

For a writer of his time, there is a strong feminist streak running through these works. Manto’s women are sharply etched characters who persevere with their choices, at times to tragic consequences. In “Licence”, a woman must resort to selling her body because it is easier to get a licence for that than one for driving her dead husband’s horse carriage.

Manto's brilliant touch is visible in all these stories, hop as they do from a moment of child-like, unadulterated joy to the sudden onset of tragedy. Rooted in a certain setting, these stories nevertheless whisper to us across time and space.

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