I haven’t posted on Urdu literature as yet so let me begin with Saadat Hasan Manto. Born to Kashmiri parents in 1912 in Ludhiana, Punjab, British India, Manto is one of South Asia’s greatest short story writers. Naked Voices: Stories and Sketches translated by literary historian Rakhshanda Jalil is an excellent introduction to the author. It is published by Delhi-based Roli Books (@RoliBooksIndia, @RoliBooks).
Manto lived an impetuous and impertinent youth and would have continued on the path of dissipation had he not met an editor who introduced him to figures like Chekhov, Gorky, Oscar Wilde, Guy de Maupassant and Victor Hugo, and also the possibility of writing for a living. In 1935, Manto moved to Bombay and landed a job as an editor. “The glamour and gaiety of the city’s high society,” writes Jalil, “as also the grit and grime of its underbelly, provided ample fodder for man of Manto’s disposition.” In 1948, Manto migrated to Pakistan and lived there for the next seven years. An alcoholic, he died in 1955 in Lahore in poverty.
In his short stories, he presented an original and utterly convincing portrayal of human fallibility. He wrote about all sorts of men: writers, filmmakers, photographers, social workers, villagers, office-goers, washermen, pimps, shopkeepers, and exposed the reality of exploitation, greed, double standards, corruption, lust, every form of vice and venality. Added to many of these narratives, of course, is the tragedy and chaos of the Partition. In his defence, Manto would say, “People say I write with a black pen, but I never write on a black board with a black chalk. I always use a white chalk so that the blackness of the board is clearly visible.”
Going through some of the tales in the Naked Voices collection, I found a young girl being forced into prostitution, an abandoned baby, a widow being taken advantage of, Hindus and Muslims quarrelling away…situations that were dark and depressing, but I wouldn’t say they were devoid of light.
The title story “Naked Voices” is worth mentioning. Manto presents a community of poor—and gossipy—workers (hawkers, tinsmiths, etc.) living in a large building with many servant quarters. Couples/families are crammed together, separated only by flimsy curtains of sack cloth. How do you consummate your marriage in this situation? How do you balance your instinct for privacy with your instinct for sex? – that is the chief dilemma. This particular story ends with frustration turning into misunderstanding turning into madness. It makes us consider a scenario which many of us who live shielded from the outside world in comfortable independent homes would have trouble imagining fully. Check out an excerpt:
He had begun to sleep behind the curtain four days before the wedding. The first night he lay there and thought of his wife-to-be he became drenched in sweat. The voices began to echo in his ears – voices that wouldn’t let him sleep and would make the strangest of thoughts race through his head.
‘Will we also produce the same sounds?…Will the people around us listen to our sounds?…Will they also stay awake all night long because our voices will not let them sleep?…What if someone were to peer?’
Poor Bholu grew even more agitated. Only one worry niggled away at him: is a sack cloth any sort of curtain at all?
There are people scattered in every direction; the smallest rustle can be heard in the still of the night. How do people live such naked lives? There is only one roof; the wife lies on one cot, the husband on the other. Countless eyes and ears are wide open in every direction. Even if they can’t see in the dark, they can hear everything. The smallest sound can make an entire picture come to life…What can the sack curtain do? The moment the sun comes up, everything is laid bare…There is Kallan pumping his wife’s breasts…There in that corner lies his brother Gama. His tehmad is undone and lying crumpled in one corner. You can see the exposed stomach of Shanda, the sweetmaker Eidu’s unmarried daughter, peering through a gap in the sack curtain.
Other editions of Manto’s writings: Bombay Stories, Manto: Selected Short Stories, Mottled Dawn, Kingdom’s End: Selected Stories and Stars from Another Sky: The Bombay Film World in the 1940s. An article on the author: Saadat Hasan Manto: ‘He anticipated where Pakistan would go’ (Guardian).