Manto’s stories

No other person in Indian English literature is as closely associated and identified with the Partition as Sadat Hasan Manto. He has to his credits a novel, radio plays, essays, film scripts but he is synonymous with the Partition short stories he penned.

Penguin Books has recently come out with a collection of cheaply priced books-Penguin Evergreens. The few books in this collection are mostly (not necessarily) short stories by numerous Indian authors.  It also includes stories by Manto . The collection is titled-‘Toba Tek Singh: Stories by Sadat Hasan Manto, Translation by Khalid Hasan.’ It is quite commendable that Penguin has come out with easily affordable collection of short stories by renowned authors. This will hopefully make the Indian readers take up short stories by Indian writers.

There is a good variety of stories in this collection and are not confined only to the Partition. They deal with many subjects-Partition being one of them, human nature being another subject etc. His most famous stories like Toba Tek Singh, Colder Then Ice, The Dog Of Titwal etc., are included in this collection. Others may not be well known but are equally well written and give a startling glimpse into tender human moments or into the twisted human mind. The great advantage of short stories is that it can capture the boldest, the most essential and deliver it with a bang in a few words which immediately hits the reader. This advantage Manto exploited thoroughly to make his point to the readers. Toba Tek Singh is a brilliant example of how Manto comments on the issues of nationality and the futility of constructing them arbitrarily. Odour captures Randhir’s wistful reminiscences of a girl he met on a rainy day and how the peculiar odour she exuded completely enchanted him and how he searches for that in his bride. The Gift borders on the comic as it narrates the story of Shankar and how he cleverly dupes two prostitutes by giving them gifts that belonged to each other. Bitter Harvest is a poignant story of the manner in which hatred and violence can consume the best of friends leaving only animals raging with vengeance. A Woman For All Seasons is about the vagaries of fame and fate from the point of view of an actress. There are in all fifteen stories that will surely give you a fleeting glimpse of a range of societal mores and characters. These stories depict how Manto wrote about all subjects, all sorts of people-whether the hight, middle, low class etc. There shines an honesty and an ache for humanity in his stories. His approach to writing his not selective as he wrote about everything under the sun be it taboo subjects like sex, prostitution or sensitive topics like the Partition.

This Penguin Evergreen is sure to delight everyone. What may not be delightful is the simplistic translation by Khalid Hasan. It is too banal and often fails to capture the mood and feel of the story with the same bitterness that Manto suffuses them with. The only stories that felt like a good translation were Odour and The Dog Of Titwal. Others had something or the other lacking in them. They didn’t make you sit up and feel shocked. They somehow lulled you into numbness which is not a reaction to be elicited when reading a Manto story. The latter always makes you think and imposes on you a new idea, a new viewpoint that you are compelled to ponder over. This translation fails to do that. The reader will only be able to take a momentary pleasure from them and not a sustained, lingering and fresh perspective. I don’t have any other recommendations to read other translations as I have forgotten the translators’ names of whatever few stories I have read in different collections.  Recently in 2012 a collection, ‘Manto: Selected Short Stories’ was released and it is translated by Aatish Taseer. How good it is is yet to be ascertained. But it is worth giving it a shot.

Despite the translation flaws in ‘Toba Tek Singh: Stories by Sadat Hasan Manto’, it is worth picking it up (and not just because it’s cheap) as it will acquaint any reader with some of Manto’s works and his style of writing. Hopefully, this book will generate more interest in Manto’s writings.

A Princely Read

You know about that saying-Don’t judge something by its size? Well, it’s true of books as well.  Take, ‘The Little Prince’ for example. Anyone can be fooled easily into thinking that it is a mere children’s story by its small size (and even its title for that matter). But no other book can have so many profound yet seemingly simple truths packed into its story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not philosophical neither does it pretend to be so in the guise of a children’s tale. ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine De Saint Exupery is a simple tale of two children and their own ways of looking at the world. And within these different views of the world lie the most obvious truths which often are not visible to grown-ups. (Find out some history about the book if you can).

The Little Prince’ is narrated by an unnamed child who has apparently crashed into the Sahara Desert. There he meets the little prince and they converse with each other about each other’s planets and other things which reveal their thoughts and beliefs as well-like that the narrator likes to draw but was discouraged by grown-ups who never understood them, that the little prince liked to see sunsets and never let go of a question once he asked them or that he came from a very tiny planet etc.  During these conversations, the narrator tries to fix his crashed air plane so that he can go back home. He narrates this story six years after this particular crash occurred.

Every page, every chapter will have some sort of wisdom embedded in it which somehow slips us grown-ups by. Most of these wisdoms are told simply and directly which is why they are so memorable. Quoting all of them is nigh impossible. So I will let you explore them on your own.

A unique aspect about ‘The Little Prince’ is that it is simple, direct and curt. The writing and the conversations imitate the simple, to the point behaviour of children. This directness is precisely why it’s refreshing and why it is easy to make one’s point and make the reader understand it well. It hits the reader directly as a result and that’s why these simple statements are so enlightening. There is no unnecessary beating around the bush.

I read a translation by Irene Testot-Ferry which I got from Flipkart for quite a good bargain  The translation seemed good. Since I have nothing to compare it to, I can’t be a good judge of it. Do share if you have read a brilliant translation of ‘The Little Prince‘ or if you have read it originally in French

This book is a treasure which you can open just about at any page and then read it to elicit a new way of understanding and perhaps to lighten up your bad mood. It makes you look at things in an uncomplicated manner.  You as a reader can find several layers of meaning lying hidden beneath the seemingly childish talks of the child protagonists of ‘The Little Prince.’ From them, I sincerely hope that you can take away something that can be useful in your life because this is one book that you cannot fail to learn something from-however simple or obvious it might be.

The Little Prince’ is a story one in a million which can carve a special place in your heart, a story all should read and learn from.

The Games People Play

Mumbai-a city you can have a love-hate relationship with, a city in which people think dreams are built (do they ever think that they are shattered there too?), a city fast moving, on the go, a whirling vortex that will push you into anonymity at times. Yet still we all live, die, dream and enjoy and curse in this bunch of islands reclaimed together to assume the shape of a city. ‘Sacred Games‘ by Vikram Chandra  is wholly enmeshed with this whirling vortex of a city whose one claim to fame is being the commercial capital of India. The story focuses on Sartaj Singh, a lone Sikh inspector in Mumbai police and in his forties, who gets an anonymous tip off on Ganesh Gaitonde, a dreaded Hindu don of Mumbai who any respectful inspector would kill to catch and get a promotion. Similarly Singh sees a window of opportunity in this tip off and soon gets to Gaitonde’s shelter from where he chats with Singh through the intercom telling him a winded tale of the start of his criminal life. Sartaj is unable to convince him to surrender and so eventually bulldozes the place and much to his chagrin finds Gaitonde and an unknown women dead already. Thereafter, the book weaves its way in a parallel of Sartaj’s investigation into Gaitonde (after Gaitonde’s death, the Indian intelligence comes to investigate this mysterious presence of the gangster in Mumbai and how he might have posed a threat to national security. Sartaj is recruited to help in the investigation) and Gaitonde’s narration of his life to Sartaj. The latter is rather eerie as it feels like the dead is speaking directly to Sartaj. Within these parallel stories lie countless number of subplots-Katekar’s (Sartaj’s partner) life and death, Katekar’s wife and his two sons, Sartaj’s other numerous investigations such as the case of blackmailing of Kamala Pandey, Sartaj’s mother’s ponderous moods, the Partition and how it affected Sartaj’s mother’s family, Senior inspector-Parulkar’s tactics to stay on the job, Jojo’s dreams of becoming an actress and several more. There are chapters in the novel called insets which can become novellas and short stories in themselves. These insets are related most often to the subplots like Sartaj’s mother’s sister, Navneet, being lost in Partition. Gaitonde’s life story reveals the grim underbelly of Mumbai’s mafia and how much of the city functions only because of them and the fighting between Gaitonde’s Hindu gangster company with the Muslim Suleiman Isa’s company seems faintly reminiscent of real life fighting between Dawood Ibrahim and Arun Gawli in Mumbai. Vikram Chandra has himself said that he did meet up real life ‘bhais’ in Mumbai and perhaps a lot of it is inspired by real life itself. We can only speculate and guess. What we can be sure of is that from this epic novel you can definitely get a lot of excitement and entertainment and thoughts to ponder over.

Sacred Games‘ is a massive book-900 pages long-quite daunting to look at and even more difficult to hold for long and if you are one of those who bought a hardback copy (like me) my utmost sympathies. But the size shouldn’t mislead you. The book is very engaging, eloquent and epic in every sense. It is difficult to categorize this novel-it is a mesh of a Bollywood film (and can be adapted into one as well given Bollywood’s penchant for action), thriller, detective novel, city novel etc. Pinpointing to one exact genre is next to impossible because of the sprawling nature of the book’s story which covers such a wide range of subjects and is written in multifarious styles that could be from any genre. ‘Sacred Games‘ is a wholly Indian book, a completely Bombay/Mumbai book reflecting Indian moods, issues, problems, daily existence, language. There is a generous sprinkling of Hindi terms, Bombay Hindi, Hinglish and Marathi too which could be hard for a foreigner or even an Indian unfamiliar with the special mix of Bombay languages to understand. On the author’s website, you can find a glossary for the novel which may or may not be useful. Click here to get it.   A little background knowledge about the 80s’ and the 90s’ scenario in India would also help in better understanding as Chandra routinely refers to actual events though he never names them explicitly such as the Partition, the Indo-China war of the 60s’, the Bombay riots of 1993 etc. The book is definitely for a true Mumbai inhabitant, one who will immediately recognize these events, feel a connection with the persistent smoke, traffic, noise and the islands of peace of the city, one who will know about the criminal underbelly of the glitzy city.

The detailing of ‘Sacred Games‘ is splendid. Chandra has done a fabulous job to string together vastly different lives/characters and put them together in the story thus creating a rich, multifaceted tapestry of Mumbai and its many quirks. Sartaj Singh is one of his best creations. He gives the inspector a humane personality which most mainstream portrayals of policemen lack. They tend to demonize them and constantly depict them as cruel,lecherous and sadistic in their behavior (which may be true of some but generalisation is always a dangerous thing to do). Gaitonde is suffused with a very Godfatheresque aura having the same paternalistic outlook towards his people and business as Don Corleone did.

The plot, the writing, the variety are all very fine and good but what eludes the book is any challenges on the author’s part. Vikram Chandra simply spins a yarn and puts it down in a 900 page book which is thrilling nonetheless but there is none of Chandra’s own opinions reflecting through in the novel. ‘Sacred Games‘ is too realist, doesn’t challenge anything. It only states that yes-the city is and will always be ruled by mafia-police-ministers nexus, women will forever be seen as sex objects, Bollywood will always be a dreamland etc. Catherine Belsey, a famous British Marxist feminist critic once asserted that realism only legitimised the actual society and their authors never challenged the several practices of the society: they only depicted it as it was. This is true of ‘Sacred Games‘ as well and the most damning of the ‘realist’ depictions are the inferior status of women in Indian society. The novel is very male centric and women are either only whores or depicted as dispensable dependable objects. There is a tacit subtext of the novel that women only exist to please men’s needs, to do their duty (Sartaj’s mother’s assertion that it is her right to feel happy in being alone after her husband’s death because she has done her duty is rather badly misogynistic. It implies that happiness only comes for women after they have been dutiful all their lives) for society i.e. to get married and procreate and take dowry with them. There are hardly any major, strong women characters barring Anjali Mathur, Mary and Jojo Mascarenhas and Iffat Bibi. This stereotyping fails to do anything except assert the ‘real’ world and does not challenge it. Moreover, there is a sense that Chandra seems biased against the Muslim community. It is a delicate thing to write about Muslim-Hindu mafia or the Partition but it shouldn’t have to hold fingers against a particular religious group. Manto wrote on the most sensitive topics around the Partition but he showed the inhumanity of it all rather than blaming either Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus.

Taken together, ‘Sacred Games‘ can be quite a task to read, but take the book one chapter at a time then there won’t be any problems in finishing this epic novel at all.