Manto, page 1
Translated by Aatish Taseer
RANDOM HOUSE INDIA
Published by Random House India in 2008
Copyright © Estate of Saadat Hasan Manto
Translation and introduction copyright © Aatish Taseer 2008
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EPUB ISBN 9788184002157
For Zafar Moradabadi,
and in memory of my grandfather
Dr MD Taseer
My Name is Radha
The Mice of Shah Daulah
Travellers of the Last Night*
When at the age of twenty one, I went to Lahore to meet my Pakistani father for the first time in my adult life, I was given, in addition to a new Pakistani family, a copy of my grandfather’s poems. It was a blue book, simply published, with flames dancing on the cover. Those flames stood for aatish, fire in Urdu, because the book’s title—and the origin of my name—was aatish kada, fire temple. This picture of the flames was all I could make sense of at the time—the poems were in the Urdu script, of which I knew too little to read even my name. My grandfather had died in 1950 when my father was only six. This book then, both for being my only patrimony and for being written in a script I couldn’t read, was a mysterious gift.
But deeper than these particular circumstances was another mystery: the mystery of why the script should have been unfamiliar to me at all. My mother’s family were Sikhs from what is today Pakistani Punjab; they would have lived no more than a few hundred kilometres from where my father’s family lived; they would have spoken the same languages, namely Punjabi and some Urdu. They came, in 1947, as refugees to Delhi, which along with Lucknow, was the centre of Urdu. So how was it that I, six decades later, having grown up in Delhi, could not read my paternal grandfather’s poems?
‘They stole it! And we also let it go,’ Zafar Moradabadi said mournfully, speaking of Pakistan and Urdu respectively. He was the man with whom I had sat down, four years after receiving my strange patrimony, to conquer its mysteries.
He came to me through the Ghalib Academy, a crumbling, art deco building with pink walls and smelly carpets. Himself a poet, Zafar’s name twice resonated the names of poets before him: Zafar like the poet-king, Bahadur Shah Zafar; Moradabadi, like Jigar Moradabadi, the other, more famous, product of the brass producing town of Moradabad.
Zafar didn’t like coming to me through the Academy. I felt he was embarrassed at having to teach. Even on the telephone, he seemed to want to establish a reason other than need for teaching me.
‘Aatish? Aatish Taseer?’ he asked in his papery voice, ‘But that’s a poet’s name.’
‘Yes, sir. My grandfather was a poet. I want to learn to read his poetry.’
‘Your grandfather was MD Taseer, the poet, and you don’t know Urdu?’
‘Then it appears I have something of a duty to teach you.’
He came to see me a few days later. He had a light, gliding step. He wore a safari suit, a white woollen cap and finely made spectacles. He was of medium height with a slight stoop. His eyes were yellow, his skin dark, he had a pencil thin moustache and sores, black and bleeding, ate away at his scalp.
I saw them when I asked if he would like to take his cap off.
‘I wear it because the wool from my head has come off,’ he said, and laughed throatily. Then, folding away his cap, he revealed his bald head.
‘I can’t take the heat,’ he apologised, when he saw me notice the sores.
He sat there with his hands discreetly by his side. He asked no prying questions, he didn’t look around the flat. I asked him if he would like tea.
‘I don’t normally. My constitution is quite sensitive.’
We started badly. I said I didn’t want to learn to write, only to read.
‘You can’t take a language, break it into pieces, take what you like and leave the rest for the Pakistanis. What if you find you need to write?’
‘But I always write on my computer.’
‘Yes, but what if you’re in a poetry reading and you want to scribble down a couplet.’
‘I can write it in Devanagari.’
His face filled with placid disgust.
‘Then perhaps you should learn Hindi.’
‘My grandfather’s poetry…’
‘I could have it transcribed for you in Devanagari. Problem solved.’
‘Listen, please, I want to read Faiz, Manto, Chughtai…’
‘All available in Devanagari.’
‘I’ll learn to write.’
His face bloomed with affection and concern. ‘You know you have a responsibility. You’re a poet’s grandson; your great-uncle was Faiz; you have a tradition to uphold. I’m not saying that you should write poetry. I would never send you into poetry. It’s finished. Look at how I’ve suffered. I tell my children all the time that poetry is finished. But what’s been done is still there, for you to read and know. You say you want just to read; even that will only come when you can write.’
I offered tea again. He said he didn’t normally drink it, but he would today.
When Sati came in with the tea a few minutes later, Zafar was saying in Urdu that life had forced him to become an intellectual mercenary. Those two words, neither of which I knew, provided us with our first thrill as teacher and student. We stumbled about for a bit, coming up with mental soldier, then I was sure I had it. ‘Think tank!’ We backtracked and gave up. It was only when he explained further that I understood what he had meant.
‘I gave birth,’ he said, ‘to seven PhDs before I was born, and since my own birth, I have given birth to two more. It’s dishonest, I know. I take money to write people’s theses for them, undeserving people. It’s wrong, I know. But I only ever did it from need. I feel that makes it less wrong.’
‘How did you start doing it?’
‘I used to work as an accountant,’ he replied, ‘but that slipped away from me. The accounts were computerised. I needed money badly. I even had a breakdown, you know?’
‘What kind of breakdown?’
‘A nervous breakdown. I was lucky—a south Indian doctor helped me. Only he knew what it was. Without him, I wouldn’t be here today. There was a threat of my brain haemorrhaging.’
‘Can that happen from a nervous breakdown?’
‘Yes, my head used to become so hot, my wife couldn’t touch it.’
I began to think of his sores differently.
‘He used to tell me, “You have to stop thinking.” I said, “Doctor saab, it is my nature. Can you order a flower to stop giving off its scent? It is God given.” ’
He shook lightly with inaudible laughter, finishing in a wheeze.
‘At that point,’ he said, ‘a PhD candidate came to me. He had a famously s
‘Did the professor like it?’
‘He said it was the best thing he’d read in twenty years of advising. After that, word spread,’ he added bitterly. ‘Would you like a cigarette?’
‘Yes,’ I replied though I wasn’t really a smoker, ‘but outside.’
We smoked a Win cigarette on the balcony. There, overlooking heavy Delhi trees, he brought up money.
‘I can’t take less than five thousand,’ he said, taking back the blue and white packet.
My face became hot with shame, but I said nothing. Neither his sores nor his haggard face could have expressed his poverty more extremely. He wanted five thousand rupees for two–three hours, five days a week. I had just paid twice that amount at Barbarian gym. I didn’t know how to say I wanted to give him more. I didn’t want to upset his calculations. So we settled at five thousand a month and Zafar began to come every day to teach me Urdu, from three to six.
Zafar had become a poet and moved to Delhi in the days when it was still possible to do so. Making a living as a poet was never easy, but in the early seventies there was still an Urdu literary culture, there were publishers, there were well attended discussions and readings and most of all, there were still poets. And for many, there was the Bombay screen where men like Sahir Ludhianvi and Shakeel Badayuni, to name only a few, were able to supplement their income as song writers. It was a time when, Zafar recalled, horse carriages would run along the stretch of road that connected the Red Fort to Fatehpuri. The road itself, now treeless, was then lined with many shade-giving trees.
In the four decades that passed, from the time when Zafar moved to Delhi to the time when he started teaching me Urdu, he saw that world, the world in which it was still feasible to be an Urdu poet, die around him. The movies changed, the literary gatherings became fewer and less well attended, Urdu publishing sank, India stopped producing major poets at all, and even the city Zafar had moved to, the city that had nurtured men like Mir, Ghalib, Momin and Dagh, turned to slum. Zafar blamed a part of this decay on what he saw as the artificial claim by Pakistan on Urdu. Urdu was not the natural language of any part of what would become the territory of Pakistan; with its many Persian and Arabic borrowings, it was imported as a way for the new state to realise its Islamic aims; and it was possible to see this as co-opting high culture from one place and transplanting it to another. Zafar knew that Pakistan, as a secular state for Indian Muslims, would have always had to do cultural acrobatics of this kind. What he could less easily forgive was secular India, in response, he felt, Sanskritising Hindi and letting Urdu sink. But Zafar was only half right.
He was the first to admit that Urdu in India hadn’t really sunk; its literary culture, like with many Indian languages in the post Independence years, had declined, but as a language, it dominated television and cinema; it was still understood, still spoken. The Indian state had tried, and continues to try, putting forward a Sanskritised Hindi—prompting the actor Johnny Walker to remark, ‘They [news broadcasters] should not announce “Ab Hindi mein samachar suniye” [Now, we’ll hear the news in Hindi], but “Ab samachar mein Hindi suniye” [Now, we’ll hear some Hindi in the news]’—but Bollywood, and later television, put up a far more robust front for the language to remain what it was. And it is that language of Bombay cinema, with its heavy Urdu influence, in which a traveller is a musafir, not a yatri, and a conspiracy, a saazish, not a shadyantra, that endures as the language of undivided north India, understood effortlessly on both sides of the Indian and Pakistani borders. So when I pressed Zafar about what he had meant, he confessed that it was a question of lippi or script: what had stood between me and my grandfather’s poetry. Zafar felt that it would have been possible to retain the Arabic–Persian script for this hybrid language, even after Independence. But the question of script had become heavy with religious and political sentiment—often related to liturgical texts—long before Independence, and I couldn’t imagine Hindu majority India accepting the Arabic–Persian script for its main national language. Zafar’s own passion for his script was an indicator of corresponding passions in Sikhs and Hindus for theirs. And later, he confessed, using the word mizaaj, which is disposition, temperament and taste, ‘One’s mizaaj is contained in one’s script.’
Zafar’s charge that Urdu had been falsely claimed by Pakistan also needed qualification. It was true that Urdu was not the natural language of the land that was to be Pakistan, but a great majority of the demand for the new state, and later the immigration, came from Urdu speaking India. More importantly, Urdu had come as an import to Punjab well before Independence and Punjab, by the early twentieth century, in men like Allama Iqbal and later Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was producing its great modern poets. It was into this flowering of Urdu in Punjab that my grandfather was born in 1902. And it was ten years later, into that still youthful age, when the first war had not yet begun, when Gandhi was still to return to India, when Jallianwala Bagh was just a public garden, that Saadat Hasan Manto was born. By the time he was dead in 1955, only forty two years later, there had been another war, an independence movement and a partition that left Manto in one country and Bombay, the city he wrote most about, in another. He had first gone there as a young man; he worked in its film industry through the thirties and forties; he left for Lahore soon after Partition when Hindu–Muslim violence erupted in the city. Though born in the Ludhiana district, and at times in his life, a resident of Amritsar, Delhi and Lahore, it was Bombay he loved and never got over.
And it was some six months into my lessons with Zafar that, when newly reading in Urdu and hungry for prose, I read my first Manto story about Bombay. The affection that had grown between Zafar and I softened his insistence on teaching me to write. I’d mastered the script’s meaningful single and double dots and mysterious elisions, but if I confused the dot for an ‘n’ with the dot for a ‘b’, Zafar would croak irritably that if I’d followed his advice and learned to write first, none of this would have been a problem. He brought me an Indian edition of Manto’s stories, but it was badly printed and the glue stank. When I sent for a Pakistani edition, he took offence. If ever he found an error in the printing, a crucial dot missing, he’d say, ‘The Pakistanis have stolen it.’
The story we began with was ‘Ten Rupees’. It is a story about a girl in a Bombay chawl, called Sarita, who is still under fifteen and young for her age when her mother and a procurer called Kishori send her into prostitution. But Sarita is unaware of these circumstances because she is blinded by a great love. Sarita loves cars so much that her dealings with men become just another occasion for her to ride in a motor car, to feel the blasts of wind and to see the trees around her race; she hardly knows she’s a prostitute. And this innocence in the foreground, with the squalor of the chawl and Sarita’s trade in the background, become the lines on which the story’s tension is cast. The narrative is set around a day in the country that Sarita spends with three young clients from Hyderabad.
In the main market, a yellow car was parked outside a long factory wall, near a small board that read, ‘It is forbidden to urinate here.’ Inside, the three young Hyderabadi men waiting for Kishori held their handkerchiefs to their noses. They would have liked to park the car ahead somewhere, but the factory wall was long and the stench of urine drifted down its entire stretch.
Sarita appears a few minutes later in a blue georgette sari. There’s some initial awkwardness, but as the car picks up speed, her excitement takes over. Soon she and the Hyderabadi boys are driving fast through the countryside, singing Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar songs and composing duets.
The car stopped. Sarita opened the door, jumped out and began to run along the shore. Kafayat and Shahab ran behind her. In the open air, on the edge of the vast ocean, with the great palms rising up from the wet sand, Sarita didn’t know what it was that she wanted. She wished she could melt into the sky; spread through the ocean; fly so high that she could see the palm canopies from above; for all the wetness of the shore to seep from the sand into her feet and then… and then for that same racing engine, that same speed, those blasts of wind, the car honking—she was very happy.
This is the climax of ‘Ten Rupees’: the sudden view of the sea; the chill at close of day; and the abandon of a young prostitute who cannot express her situation. Manto, as if relishing what might seem like an anticlimax, bends the narrative around something as ordinary as a ten rupee note, which Sarita accepts in a moment of excitement from one of the boys, but returns at the end of the story. ‘“This… why should I take this money?” she replied and ran off, leaving Kafayat still staring at the limp note.’
When I finished ‘Ten Rupees’, I knew that something about the quality of its detail, and the oblique gaze of the narrator, the story of a chawl and a prostitute told through a girl’s love of cars, had altered my life as a reader. If before, I had read looking for language and rhythms that I liked, I was reading now to understand how a writer like Manto could evoke his world with a single detail; I was reading to see how he engaged his material so that a narrative seemed to spring naturally from it, a narrative that not only didn’t rely on ornate writing and description, but would have been obscured by it. So affecting was the experience that I wondered why I hadn’t grown up reading Manto. The answer, I discovered, was that he wasn’t taught widely in schools; and though his language would easily have been understood by the average north Indian reader, he was locked into Urdu curriculums; Devanagari editions of his stories were hard to come by and English translations of his writing dense and bland; he had either been forgotten in India, or disowned. Feeling I knew why, and feeling also that India had too few writers of his calibre—either with the richness and breadth of his material or the simplicity of his prose—to allow any to leave for Pakistan, I sat down to do the first translation of ‘Ten Rupees’.