Manto – Selected Short Stories (#12 of 26)

Reading Manto was an important milestone for a while now on the journey to reading more Indian literature and learning more about your country than the Occidental world. I’d first found out about Manto through Aakar Patel’s columns on the weekends. I’d seen a rendition of Toba Tek Singh in college which I totally did not understand.  I’d then blamed it on my poor Hindi vocabulary. Today I’m not sure. And then Gyan Prakash sang many a paean to Manto and Ismat Chugtai his academic magnum-opus Mumbai Fables (yes, that of the Bombay Velvet fame).

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I really don’t know what to say about the Manto translation I read which is titled ‘Manto: Selected Short Stories’ and is translated by Aatish Taseer (s/o Tavleen Singh of Durbar fame lest I forget).  If I can be entirely honest, the part that is likely to stay with me longer than the others is the initial part of it where Taseer speaks about his attempts to learn Urdu, how he found a teacher, the relationship they shared. It seemed contemporary, contextual and relatable.

But what about the short stories? They’re simple, they look at human emotions and they could easily with a few alterations fit seamlessly into the Mumbai of today. But at the cost of sounding sacrilegious, I missed an X-factor – something to pull me into it and want me to continue to read it or invest myself in each of the stories. Of course there would be stuff lost in translation, and maybe it’s just that…but apart from the one story about characters on a film-shoot (My Name is Radha) – which in itself was a bit anti-climactic, but that’s another thing – I wasn’t sucked in. The new, authentic me is trying to be bold enough to say that.

I enjoyed the characters in Ram Khilavan as well – the story about the Dhobi.  Toba Tek Singh, the Dog of Tithwal are deep tales with a message underneath – surely an intelligent metaphor to drive home many points which can’t be stated directly. But as a story in the simplest, most visceral form – I couldn’t get out of textbook mode because you seem to know that there’s an underlying message, a metaphor which you mustn’t miss.

Ten Rupees (about a young girl whose mother ‘pimps’ her for 10 bucks, but who couldn’t care less because she gets to sit in a car), Blouse (about adolescent fantasies at a tailoring outlet), Khaled Mian (about a man who has a prophecy that his son is going to pass away), License (about a coachman and his wife who isn’t allowed to ferry passengers), The Mice of Shah Daulah (about a child who is given away to a performing circus and whose mother wants him back), For Freedom (about what a freedom fighters motivations morph into down the line) and Smell (about a fantasy for a Marathi girl) all probably have an underlying message or meaning as well. Until you ‘get’ that or have a CliffNotes for Manto, there’s only so much you can revel in the Mumbai of the 1930’s and 1940’s. I’m glad I read it for sure. And it wasn’t a waste of time or anything remotely like that. But I honestly don’t think had someone given me the book without the famous name on the cover, I would have given it too much thought. I would very much like to read this again in 10 years time. And see if I have a different appreciation of this taste then.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★

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