Write angle Ziya Us Salam

Story of a story-teller

Saadat Hasan Manto with his wife Safia and sister-in-law Zakia Photo Courtesy Manto family archives.   | Photo Credit: Manto Family Archives

Like religion, Manto never goes out of fashion. He lived for less than 43 years; penned 22 collections of short stories, a novel, five collections of radio plays and three collections of essays. While doing all of this besides scripting films, he was tried no less than six times on charges of obscenity, three times in India, three times in Pakistan post Partition; the equality among the cases merely proving that on either side of the border people took note of Manto. Manto mattered. Whether one liked him, followed him, as in the case of religion, or hated him, as in the case of the relationship of the faithful with Satan, the truth was there was nobody who could ignore Manto. It has remained the same, around 60 years after he breathed his last in Lahore. An icon for some, an iconoclast for vast multitudes, Manto stays in circulation.

Every now and then, there is an English translation of his works. A few years ago Aatish Taseer tried his hand at capturing his genius. More recently, Aakar Patel invested his works with his rare ability to paint with words. Then there been a relatively low profile “Toba Tek Singh Stories” with translation by noted writer-translator Khalid Hasan. The 149-page Penguin publication comes with 15 stories, each more beguiling than the other. Each translator though can only try; Manto refuses to be the prisoner of a lesser mortal's interpretation. You can take what you want of Manto; except that Manto refuses to give himself away.

From his formidable trove, one gem stays with me, and indeed countless others. It is a short story that communicates more than many comprehensive novels. The lines are all beautiful and cruel, as only beauty can be. The sentences are short; as only the witty or the wise ones can manage. The focus is relentless; a rare gift Manto was blessed with.

For the gullible he would oft appear to be like a tourist, taking in view from far and close. The discerning will understand that he is merely focusing on conveying multiple meanings through a single work. Like the well populated lanes of an old city, every man one comes across is a character; every character has a story. Even banality of life can be a story by itself. In “Toba Tek Singh”, he manages to communicate with words, with lines, between the lines. Usually, a short story develops with characters many of whom are soon short-changed for the protagonist. Manto though avoids such a luxury with relish, investing each character with such meaning that a first-timer is lulled into a belief that it is the main character.

Such finesse, each inmate of lunatic asylum could as well have been chiselled out by a sculptor. Yet accuracy and simplicity of expression is the least of the merits of the story. Its soul comes from the words of mad, sad people of the asylum. And in their own bewildering ways, the men expose the wrongs of our society, our polity. Thereby they raise what could have been a scathing account of a human tragedy to a political comment independent of expedience.

Sample this from Hasan’s translation: “Some said there was this man by the name Muhammad Ali Jinnah, or the Quaid-e-Azam who had set up a separate country for Muslims called Pakistan. As to where Pakistan was located, the inmates knew nothing. That was why both the mad and the partially mad were unable to decide whether they were now in India or in Pakistan. If they were in India, where on earth was Pakistan? And if they were in Pakistan then how come that until only the other day it was India?”

Later while talking of the exchange of asylum inmates between India and Pakistan, he pencils in the portrayal of Bishen Singh/Toba Tek Singh with such restrain, such care that he could as well be rocking a baby to sleep. Two instances stand out; the first communicates the enduring humanity amidst escalating crisis. Talking of Fazal Din who has come to see Bishen one last time before the exchange of Hindu-Sikh--Muslim inmates, he writes, “Fazal Din placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder and said, ‘...All your family is well and has gone to India safely. I did what I could to help. You daughter Roop Kaur...’ – he hesitated – ‘She is safe too...in India.”

The second? It leaves you dumb, speechless. Better let Manto express it all: “There, behind barbed wire, on one side lay India and behind more barbed wire, on the other side lay Pakistan. In between on a bit of earth, which had no name lay Toba Tek Singh.”

They killed each other in the name of religion in 1947. They kill today too. Religion never goes out of fashion. And Manto?

(The writer is a senior literary critic)

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 8:31:56 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Ziya_Us_Salam/Story-of-a-story-teller/article14428065.ece

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