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Books: Manto, the King of Kahani

Reviewed by Murali Kamma Email Reviewed by Murali Kamma
November 2021
Books: Manto, the King of Kahani

Few fiction writers have captured the trauma of India’s partition as powerfully as Saadat Hasan Manto, called “the undisputed master of the modern Indian short story” by Salman Rushdie. The Dog of Tithwal is a notable and wide-ranging collection of Manto’s stories.

The bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 is quickly fading from living memory, just like the horrors of World War Two that preceded it. But the events have been carefully documented, and as long as people read books, watch films and go to museums, this grim history won’t be forgotten.

The Dog of Tithwal (Archipelago Books), a celebrated Urdu author’s collection of stories in English translation, is a case in point.

In a tragically short but astonishingly productive life, Manto straddled the split between India (where he was born and mostly lived) and Pakistan (where he succumbed to alcoholism at the age of 42). “There are stories here with an impressionistic interiority and ruefulness reminiscent of Chekhov,” as the poet Vijay Seshadri points out in his preface. Besides Chekhov, who was 44 when he died, Manto has been compared to Poe, Maupassant—whose work he loved—and Gogol.

In the title story, bored Indian and Pakistani soldiers face each other in a pointless war—and when a dog appears on the scene, both sides become suspicious and engage in a surreal back-and-forth with the hapless animal. It’s amusing for the soldiers but not for the dog, which is called Jhun Jhun by the Indians and Shun Shun by the Pakistanis, as if they were code words. And the ending, despite the farce, is inevitably chilling. “Even dogs will now have to decide if they are Indian or Pakistani,” one soldier says. The well-known “Toba Tek Sigh,” in which the two newly independent nations agree to exchange “lunatics,” covers the same territory—or non-territory. Singh, who insists on going back to his village, ends up in a strip of no-man’s-land that could also be called, to borrow Gary Shteyngart’s title, Absurdistan.

Manto writes boldly yet concisely, as seen in these crisp translations, and his ability to create vivid characters is matched by a knack for building cinematic momentum. The endings often come like a punch in the midriff. But even stories that start matter-of-factly can deliver a blow. “The Return,” which opens with the arrival of a train, has this as the second sentence: “Many had been killed on the way, a lot more injured and countless lost.”

While Manto personally experienced the turmoil of division, he is not confined to that topic. He writes just as penetratingly about revolutionaries, prostitutes and pimps, soldiers, tongawalas and walis, thugs and wastrels. If he’s a little melodramatic at times, it could be explained by Manto’s involvement with South Asia’s nascent film industry. Sometimes, in fact, the drunken shenanigans of filmwalas in his fiction come across as thinly disguised reports.

Manto is devastatingly clear-eyed when he takes on religious fervor and hypocrisy. In a tale (“For Freedom’s Sake”) set during a turbulent time in Amritsar, the narrator says, “Nigar was a woman, not a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Christian, but a woman.” Nevertheless, as seen in stories like “I’m No Good For You!” and “Two-Nation Theory,” love frequently cannot transcend barriers, even though a character in the latter story declares, “All is right in the religion of love.”

An equal-opportunity offender, Manto spares no sect. In “Babu Gopi Nath,” the main character tells the narrator, “There are only two places where my heart finds peace: prostitutes’ kothas and saints’ shrines.” Why? “Because both establishments are an illusion.”

Although Manto belonged to a conservative milieu and era, he wrote frankly about sex, which got him into trouble more than once. Known to be supremely confident of his literary talent, he was also fearless. And he was ahead of his time when writing about women. Following a tongawala’s untimely death from tuberculosis (“License”), his young widow takes over his horse and buggy to make a living, only to be met with hostility—and worse: “People were either trying to marry her or rape her or rob her. When she went outside, she was met with ugly stares.” She realizes, with a sinking feeling, that only one profession is open to her.

In “Ram Khilavan,” which has autobiographical elements, a dhobi becomes teary when he realizes that the esteemed narrator, whose clothes he washes, is moving away. But the narrator, having escaped a mob’s fury, has no time for tears. The same could be said about the gimlet-eyed author of this splendid collection.

Murali Kamma is an occasional contributor to New York Journal of Books, where this review also appears.

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