Yaar, I just picked up a book with this c-o-r-u-scating black-n-white cover. What? Why are you gawping at me like that? Are you going to toss the old cliché: don’t judge a book...? Far from it. I just nicked a volume from my books editor because I was drooling over the cover. It has a lovely crop of a desiccated fruit. Though it takes the cue literally from a story title —
— it makes the point. It’s a best of Manto. This is too much only! Mine is also a bunch of Mantos.
This one too takes the title from one of the shorts — Naked Voices — but, thankfully, it’s not literal. The black-n-white of two grimy hands crossed in contemplation speak of a man engaged with life, a man who has roughed it out, and yet is one who could kick back and look at it all from a distance. Best of all, the hardback doesn’t promise to be the best of anything. Tell me, what’s wrong with our publishers? Why is it Manto season again? Is it the centenary of the author’s circumcision, or what? Keep it down, yaar! Remember Manto died in 1957 at age 43... But maybe he’s in all over again. I recently heard a cocktail dress cooing in a faux accent: ‘Ahh Manto, ooh Manto.’ All she seemed to have read is ‘Toba Tek Singh’.
Who would have thought a twisted wretch like Manto would end up as fashion accessory? You should’ve flung at her the immortal lines of the deranged Toba: ‘Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the daal of the laltain.’ But hold on. Why do you say ‘a twisted wretch’? [Furrowed brow, followed by knowing smile] You’ve read ‘Manto on Manto’, the Borgesian alter-ego account, haven’t you? Yah. [Sheepish smile, followed by furrowed brow] But yaar, in my collection it’s called ‘Saadat Hasan’.
Wonder if either Saadat Hasan or Manto ever read Borges. Well, some of his alter ego’s claims — like never having read the Russian classics, or his relationship with his family — were pure projections. He was kind to his extended family, and had read the Russian classics passed on by his friend and East India Company historian, Bari Alig. And like Borges, Manto was a collector of the obscure.
Only, he was almost always drunk after shifting to Pakistan. No, this stuff isn’t there in my Rakhshanda Jalil translation. But you’re right: the man was so anti-everything that he probably would have seceded from a country he himself founded. Given that most of us get an entry into Manto’s world through ‘Toba Tek Singh’ or ‘The Dog of Titwal’, we do not pay heed to so much of his other work.
I think some of his coming-of-age stories would rank among the best. Masood’s confusion over his first sexual sensations in ‘A Wet Afternoon’, the dithering of Sheela’s unnamed lover in ‘On the Balcony’, or Momin’s growing obsession with ‘The Blouse. Wasn’t ‘A Wet Afternoon’ banned? [Chuckle] Yes, it’s one of his three stories that were deemed ‘obscene’ by the British. And then he had trouble in Pakistan with ‘Colder than Ice’, which talks about making love to a corpse. In his ‘Letter to Uncle Sam’ he sarcastically congratulates Erskine Caldwell, who was being charged with obscenity at the same time in the US for God’s Little Acre.
When he calls Uncle Sam the ‘King of Nudity’, you can almost see him making faces and sticking out his black tongue. And have you read his sketches of various personalities? No yaar, there are only 16 stories and three conversations in the book I have. Ah, here’s where a ‘best of ’ comes of use. He paints a masterful sketch of Jinnah through conversations with his driver.
Then there’s one on Ashok Kumar, the actor with whom he worked closely at Bombay Talkies. He shows how ‘a person made of chocolate’, streets behind Devika Rani in acting composure, came into his own. The only story in my book that almost creates a non-fictional portrait — of Jallianwala Bagh — is ‘A Day in 1919’. The level to which the sisters of one of the dead, Thiala Kanjar, have to stoop to pay his memory ‘respect’.
Er, we two started sounding all gushy, haven’t we? Yes, and sounding more like the cocktail dress. Well, are you going to review the book? Nyah. I hope the editor forgets about it. If you ask me, I haven’t even read all the stories. But if he asked, I’d say in a propah accent: ‘What’s the point of reviewing the retranslated reissue of so many old stories pitched in such varying registers?’
Imagine if someone were to translate this conversation into English and publish it — wouldn’t that be silly?