Manto: Fifteen Stories has been published by Rajkamal Prakashan, which contains selected stories of Manto chosen by Indian actor and film director Nandita Das. This collection includes some of the best and boldest of Manto’s stories with memorable characters that portray the reality of the partition period and the prostitution racket of Mumbai of the 1950s, then known as Bombay. Manto is considered as one of the most controversial writers of twentieth-century Indian literature. He is one of the best Urdu short story writers. His prostitution and partition stories were based on a form of social issue realistic fiction that took India by storm, especially after his death. Most Indian or Indian-born novels, novellas, and short story writers tend to write bold pieces almost by habit. This was not possible in Manto’s time, and indeed Manto suffered for his bold fiction. However, it would not be wrong to state that it is because of the bravery of Manto and other such writers of the twentieth century that today, Indian writers write the way they do. Manto’s legacy of short stories has had a lasting impact. This collection of fifteen stories in a decent enough translation encourages non-English readers to read Manto in English. This book of short stories selected by Nandita Das was published simultaneously with her film on Manto. In the Foreword to the book, Nandita Das professes her love for Manto’s short stories.
Most of the stories mentioned in this collection are prostitution or sex-trade chronicles. They are the stories of the men and women in the prostitution business who eked out a living by working in the red-light district. Most of these stories also appear in other collections of Manto’s short stories. Nandita Das has preferred to refer to the stories in their original Urdu or Hindi titles to accurately identify the stories and their importance in creating a name for this unconventional realistic writer of the mid-twentieth century India. The partition stories are fewer, namely ‘Mozelle’, ‘The Dog of Tetwal’, ‘Toba Tek Singh’, and ‘Sahay’. From these, ‘The Dog of Tetwal’ is the contemporary and almost modern take of the partition armies of newly independent India and the relations between India and Pakistan. The killing of the dog in the story just because of the deep-seated but futile hatred between Indian and Pakistan is very emotive and can leave one unsettled. We get a similar feeling of unquiet on reading Manto’s classic short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ about the regionalism and the metaphorical insanity of the whole partition scenario of 1947. In all his partition stories, Manto tries to highlight the unity between the two countries and the fact that indeed, there should be no enmity at all between two brother communities who had in previous years, especially during the extremist phase of the Congress as well as the Gandhian phase, had worked side by side trying to gain independence for India. The story ‘A Hundred Candle-Power Bulb’ is a mix of prostitution and partition showcasing that even in times of communal riots, the sex trade continues with pimps trading their prized possession: their prostitutes.
The other stories of Manto selected by Nandita Das for this series are the stories on prostitution. Stories like ‘Khushiya’, ‘Hatak’, ‘Thanda Gosht’, ‘Kali Shalwar’, ‘Sadak Kinare’, are brave, bold, and unique. The main protagonists were the most oppressed women, the prostitutes. ‘Hatak’ or ‘The Insult’ is incredibly graphic for its time as well as ‘Khushiya’. They describe the tired, naked bodies of prostitutes, their comfort with the pimps, their naivety, and the hard work they put into their work. After reading these stories of Manto, there is no doubt that he was trying to humanize the prostitutes of the red-light district and trying to create awareness about their conditions. The stories are like slices of life, full of vigor, and can never be dated. The relationship between the pimps and their prostitutes is what Manto focuses on in his prose, highlighting the fact that even pimps can fall in love with their prostitutes. Sexuality and sexual motifs are the highlights of Manto’s literature. His plots are seamed around a deep character analysis of his protagonists, which goes deeper than R.K. Narayan or Premchand and is very distinctive to the point of perfection. But Manto’s prostitution stories are not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. He speaks about the facts of such a trade, sometimes putting himself as a writer into the very plot of the stories he is narrating. Most of his stories are in the third person narrative like ‘Dus Rupaye’ while very few are in the first-person narrative like ‘Mammad Bhai’. No one can ignore the pain of the prostitutes and their longings both for love and acceptance. Some of these young and middle-aged women are real professionals who revere that they can earn their daily bread through their prostitution and even keep little temple altars in their huts, which are well decorated. They pray to the gods before beginning a new day. That in itself is something unbelievably emotive that tends to bring the reader to question their preconceived notions about women who sell their bodies for a living.
The stories chosen by Nandita Das are exceptionally brilliant, which deal more with respect we should have for the people working in the red-light district. In ‘Khushiya’, we are confronted with a pimp scandalized by the love of one of his prostitutes who does not mind being seen naked by him. This is even though they have never had sexual relations with each other. The pimp named Khushiya then treats the trust and comfort of the prostitute as an insult to his manhood and decides to revenge himself upon the innocent woman. This brings to our minds the comfort level prostitutes have with their pimps and that their relationship is as ‘sacred’ as any other professional relationship. The prostitute named Kanta in this story is treating her pimp with respect, but the social customs of the day dictate that she should not have shown her naked body to her pimp. The idea of the pimp as one’s own or being a member of Kanta’s family is not treated well by the affronted and scandalized Khushiya.
Like the story ‘Khushiya’, we notice that the other stories of Manto are equally unique, and they question the social norms of a society that is not used to the free sexual promiscuity of women. In the partition story ‘Mozelle’, the Jewish girl and her free behavior arouse desire in the heart of her Sikh lover. However, he still is uncertain whether she could be subjugated by him and therefore be a good wife. The Sikh lover describes Mozelle, the Jewish girl, to be too free, sexually perverse, and a person who does not conventionally do anything. Mozelle even ridicules the Sikh individual’s religion and caste signs, making the lover want to marry a conventional and simple Sikh girl. Mozelle, the Jewish girl, however at the end of the narrative, shows that she was more deserving of the Sikh lover’s love than anyone else because she in a very unconventional way sacrificed her life during the riots for the sake of the union of her former lover with his simple Sikh girl. We realize that throughout the central core of the story, Manto was describing Mozelle as a lewd and promiscuous woman, almost worse than a prostitute. But that was only his ploy to surprise the reader later with the sacrifice she makes. Indeed, the world is meant for more unconventional individuals like Mozelle and Kanta to live, laugh, and love. Together with several other prime characters in Manto’s short stories, they need to change the world through their non-dichotomous behavior.
But ‘Mozelle’ was a partition story. Coming back to the prostitution stories, the story of ‘Dus Rupaye’ or ‘Ten Rupees’ tells us the story of the child prostitute Sarita who everyone thinks is unaware of the sexual relationships between her customers and herself. She surprises everyone, especially the three rich men who take her out for a whole day to have sex. Because she did not have any sex with them throughout the whole day, she returns their ten rupees indicating to the astonished men and readers that she was more aware of what the young men had come for. The story adds that Sarita, who was beginning her prostitution career, could not understand why men had to do filthy things with her. Still, she was a dutiful enough daughter to her pimp mother and Kishori, her dealer, to go out with anyone they brought for her. There is also a strong hint in ‘Dus Rupaye’ that probably Sarita was not used in the outing by the three young men. Instead, the three young men were used by Sarita to have a good time on the beach, and so she returns the ten rupees to them. In ‘The Black Shalwar’ or ‘Kali Shalwar’, the prostitute who had come to the city to do business is used by Shankar, a fraud who tries to use lonely prostitutes to gain their affection and money. The fact that he uses them without remorse is starkly portrayed by the fact that he merely exchanged the prostitutes’ goods in the same area among each other. The prostitute newly arrived in the city named Sultana realizes that Shankar is more crooked than the white Europeans who came to sleep with her. He is worse because he betrays the women’s trust in the sex trade, who he terms are his ‘friends’.
The descriptions of the settings in Manto’s prostitution stories are more detailed than his partition stories. His partition stories are more plot-driven, like the peasant stories of the greatest short-story writer of the pre-independence era, Premchand. However, Manto’s prostitution stories are more detailed. Through his descriptions of the hovels, huts, or poor homes of the prostitutes, we get a multi-sensual understanding about their lives and habits. This is especially seen in the story ‘Hatak’ or ‘The Insult’, where the hovel of the poor prostitute named Saugandhi is described using various visual, auditory, olfactory descriptions that give us the taste of what it meant to work in that place. The brave act of an existential nature which forces Saugandhi to break her ties with relationships, emotions, and the strings attached to men is wonderfully portrayed by the way she flings the photographs of her many lovers away. Her break with the past is painful to see and, at the same time, liberating. When you read about the fleshiness of Saugandhi’s body, her huge breasts in her blouse filled with silver coins and the swollen blue-purple flash near her breast, which hurts her badly, one feels that Saugandhi is no more just a character in the short story but someone whom every woman who has undergone severe stress to make two ends meet can identify with.
There are only a few partition stories in this book. But they emphasize that unity should be encouraged among Hindus and Muslims and people of other faiths in the common landmass of India and Pakistan. Manto was dead against the communal riots in India just before the partition and even during the partition process. Like most writers of that period who were politically inclined, he saw the futility of the violence and how the violence would not end until peace was restored in the hearts and minds of the people involved in the 1947 riots during the partition. Like most sane writers of that era, Manto realized and prophesized that the communalism of the partition period would taint the relationship between Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims for a long time to come. He has been proven right to have been an anti-partitionist in a certain sense. ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is the classic short story penned by Manto that highlights the evils of the partition and how people who lived in harmony with Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs alike could never comprehend the need for a partition. In the story, ‘Sahay’, you read that the riots had divided bosom friends and had set them against each other. The unprecedented killings, rapes, lootings, and damage to property during the partition are portrayed in ‘Mozelle’, ‘Sahay’ and ‘A Hundred Candle Power Bulb’.
These and many more of these stories are good reasons you should read this book. The translations from the original Hindi and Urdu texts are done decently. They can be used by non-English readers who wish to read Manto’s stories. There is room for improvement where the translations are concerned, but they can still be used by those readers who have read Manto in Urdu or Hindi and now want to read him in English. I recommend the book to all such readers. I will also be reviewing and analyzing more of Manto’s literature, especially these short stories in the coming weeks. I hope to read, study and explore more of Manto’s short story collections in book form in the coming days.
I enjoyed reading and reviewing Manto: Fifteen Stories, selected by Nandita Das. I have not seen the film directed by her on Manto because I don’t particularly appreciate watching movies. I prefer to read, write and teach. However, that does not mean I don’t read books about Bollywood and its films; just that I don’t like watching the movies! If you want to know more about my bizarre bookish life, check out my memoirs Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai or The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra. I hope to read and review more books by Manto shortly.
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