Painting the truth

Reviewed by S.G. Jilanee


Saadat Hasan Manto was very popular in his time as a progressive writer. But he wrote in Urdu. Now, Rakhshanda Jalil introduces him to English readers with a collection of 16 of his short stories and three sketches in Naked Voices.

The translator-compiler has left out Manto’s more well known stories such as ‘Kali Shilwar’, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ et al, because, there was much more to Manto than what these stories reflect. Instead she offers ‘as broad-based sampling of Manto’s work as possible.’

Manto was overly obsessed with sex and drinking. He had intimate acquaintance with brothels and the lives of prostitutes and pimps. Likewise he was deeply touched by the terrible suffering of people in the aftermath of Partition. Most of the stories, therefore, revolve round these topics. Yet he was not entirely bereft of a sense of humour and nobler qualities. As he says, he writes on a blackboard with a white chalk and paints the society as it is, in all its nakedness, without attempting to dress it.

Whether unwittingly or by design ‘Bismillah’ is the first story. Here, though, it is not the word which a Muslim starts any activity, but the name given by a Muslim to a Hindu girl left behind in the riots when her family left for India. Zaheer had taken hold of her, given her a Muslim name and forced her into prostitution.

In sharp contrast to ‘Bismillah’ is ‘Sahay’. If the former exposed the worst in man; the latter reveals the best. In this story, perhaps, Manto speaks through Mumtaz to offer a few rare glimpses into his own heart and mind.
Sahay is a staunch Hindu. He runs a brothel. The inmates are both Muslim and Hindu. He opens postal savings bank accounts for each ‘worker’. He marries off one Hindu girl to a Muslim client.

In the riots following Partition, one day he is stabbed in the chest in a Muslim locality. His old friend Mumtaz spots him lying on the pavement, as he happens to pass by and comes by his side. As life oozes out of Sahay, he asks Mumtaz to take ‘the jewelry and 1,200 rupees’ from under his vest, give them to Sultana, — one of the girls in his brothel — and tell her to leave immediately.

Mumtaz is leaving Bombay for Pakistan. Before his three Hindu friends who have come to bid him farewell, he ruminates over the situation and says, ‘Don’t say one lakh Hindus and one lakh Muslims have died; say two lakh human beings have died.’ He argues that ‘Religion, faith, belief, conscience — they live in our soul, not in our body. They can never be destroyed by knives and swords and guns.’

‘By religion, or faith, I mean that other quality that elevates us above our fellow men,’ says Mumtaz and, to illustrate his point he tells the story of Sahay, who was engaged in a ‘most despicable profession, yet his soul was pristine.’

In ‘Naked Voices’ and ‘Coward’ the principal characters fail to take the final plunge, though with different consequences. In the former, Bholu becomes impotent. He cannot go to his wife for fear of prying eyes and ears. In ‘Coward’, Javed, sets out to get a woman in a brothel. But when one of them calls out to him, he runs away. On reaching home his inner voice reassures him; ‘Javed, you have been saved from a very great sin.’ This is a satire on people who hide their cowardice behind a moral visor.

‘Hundred Candle Watt Bulb’ is about a woman robbed of her sleep by her pimp’s exacting demands. Ultimately, she smashes his head with a brick. But it does not appear natural that she should go to sleep beside his corpse.

‘Comfort’ has a touch of humour. A woman is disconsolately crying because a male friend has taken liberty with her, is comforted with the counsel to not cry over spilt milk. ‘By the Roadside’ reveals Manto’s deep knowledge about women as he describes the physical changes, sensations and emotions of a woman during pregnancy and childbirth in the minutest of details.

What Partition did to people is the theme of ‘Sharifan’ and ‘By God’. ‘Sharifan’ is a poignant story about revenge.

 Qasim’s daughter Sharifan has been violated and murdered by a Hindu, so Qasim goes into the house of a Hindu and takes his revenge upon a girl there. Meanwhile the girl’s father comes in, recognises Qasim and asks him what he was doing there. Qasim points to the corpse under the blanket and calls out ‘Sharifan!’ The Hindu lifts the blanket and shouts ‘Bimla!’

‘By God’ is another moving story of an old woman roaming from town to town in the quest of her daughter lost in the Partition’s aftermath.

‘The Maker of Martyrs’ is a fascinating satire on human greed. A Bania migrant from Kathiawar to Karachi, learns that those who die in sudden accidents become martyrs. So, he buys a derelict old compound with 151 tiny rooms and settles 1,000 poor people there collecting two months’ rent in advance. Within three months the building collapsed due to heavy rains making a martyr out of ‘every single one of them’.

‘Loser all the Way’ is a story of how reality bites. A seth offers 10 rupees every night to a prostitute on condition she should switch off her lights. But when Gangubai, points to the lights all around and asks, ‘Can you cause all those lights to be switched off,’ the crestfallen seth answers, ‘No, Gangubai, I can’t.’

‘In the Sketch’, Saadat Hassan, the author reveals himself, while ‘Letter to Uncle Sam’ is a satire on the charge of obscenity leveled against Manto.

But, to derive the most pleasure out of these beautifully translated stories, where even the original sights and sounds are often faithfully reproduced, one must read on.

 Naked voices: Stories and sketches

By Saadat Hasan Manto

Translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil
Roli Books, India
ISBN 978-81-86939-42-0
141pp. Indian Rs295

Copyright © 2009 – Dawn Media Group


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