Nasreen Rehman’s translations of Manto and the unbearable times : The Tribune India

Nasreen Rehman’s translations of Manto and the unbearable times

Nasreen Rehman’s translations of Manto and the unbearable times

The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto: VOlume I — bombay and poona Translated by Nasreen Rehman. Aleph. Pages 560. Rs 999

Book Title: The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto: VOlume I — bombay and poona

Author: Nasreen Rehman.

Rohit Mahajan

Saadat Hasan Manto is the leading chronicler and interpreter of the trauma of Partition. His stories about the savagery that enveloped India of the time were shocking and harrowing. The fact that people were shocked is amazing, because the truths they were actually witnessing in those mad times were even more shocking.

Manto’s candour shocked people.

What’s more amazing is that people were more repulsed and disgusted by Manto’s choice of words than the fictionalised truths they described.

But well before the madness of 1947, Manto’s writing had shocked people. He wrote with candour and directness, not shying away from taboo subjects. He’s credited with removing the façade of decorous words behind which sexuality lay hidden in Urdu literature. It was a shock to the system, and even before Independence he was charged with obscenity, in 1944 and 1946, when he was arrested, along with another non-conformist, Ismat Chughtai.

Manto’s stories represented a threat to the repressed mores of the era.

But he merely put into words what he saw and heard, calling body parts by their names, not hiding desire and longing and passion under the veneer of stylised Urdu.

This collection is part of an ambitious project, the first volume of his complete work. The three collections are selected on the basis of their geographical location — in two, the action takes place in pre-Partition India, the third will have the stories that are located in Pakistan.

In the 54 stories and two essays in this collection, the action takes place in Bombay and Poona, where Manto worked in the film industry as a writer from the late 1930s until 1948, when he left for Pakistan.

This collection represents a valuable chunk of fictionalised history of the times, touching the lives of the studio owners and filmstars and those on the fringes of film production — the extras, the wannabe actors and actresses and writers. Studios are often on the verge of ruination, the owners are rapacious and wily, and those low on the food chain — struggling actors or writers, Manto and his ilk — are short-changed and exploited, living on credit and borrowing or lending small sums of money.

The women in the stories are central figures, and indeed Manto is celebrated for creating strong female characters. Even those among them who are at the fringes of society or dependent on a patriarchal system — the unnamed sex worker in the Burmese Girl or Shanti in the story of that name, or Radha in My Name is Radha or the free-spirited Jewish girl in Mozelle — are strong characters who don’t lack female agency. Their treatment by men in Manto’s telling suggests something akin to misogyny; it’s not exactly misogyny, for the men do desire them, but it’s clear that for them, the women are replaceable, with little or no regret. Manto questions the hypocrisy of the times, the moral and ethical values that suffocate the lives of both men and women; he is also aware of the exploitative nature of patriarchy and societal institutions that repress women and their sexuality — yet, in these stories, they are playthings for men. The sex worker in the Burmese Girl is likeable, quiet and pitiably servile, cooking and caring for the men for days, but she must remain unnamed — the men don’t really care.

Indeed, Nasreen Rehman writes in an illuminating note on Manto:

Saadat’s nephew Hamid Jalal writes that in family discussions, Manto always revealed himself as ‘...conservative and almost a reactionary on issues like women’s education and mixed social gatherings’.

Is Manto a misogynist? Or is he showing the world as it is, warts and all? These questions are not new, and we have to be content with what he himself said: ‘If you are unfamiliar with our times, then read my short stories. If you find my stories unbearable, it means our times are unbearable.’

Manto is not for the squeamish, and censored versions of his stories reveal more about the translator than Manto.

In My Name is Radha, a chunk is missing. In Aatish Taseer’s translation, published in 2008, it’s been rendered thus:

This only raised more questions in my mind. Why was it necessary to establish these intimacies? A brother and sister’s relationship was something apart; why call all women your sisters as if you were putting up a ‘Road Closed’ or ‘It Is Forbidden to Urinate Here’ sign?

If you weren’t planning on having a sexual relationship with a woman, why make an announcement? If no thought of a woman other than your wife could enter your mind, why run an advertisement about it? I couldn’t understand it and this upset me.

Those who have read and loved Manto in his original Urdu would be very curious about this excision — and wonder about what else might be missing.

You could also quibble over whether ‘zabardast’ should translate to ‘astonishing’, as Rehman has done, or ‘fierce’ (Aatish Taseer) or ‘formidable’ (Muhammad Umar Memon’s translation); whether ‘garam-mijaz’ ought to be ‘passionate’ (Rehman) or ‘hot-tempered’ (Taseer and Memon); whether ‘mazboot lehza’ should be ‘courteously’ (Rehman) or ‘firm voice’ (Taseer) or ‘firm manner’ (Memon). The differences are not insignificant, not even subtle, and they raise questions about the ability, intention or bias of the translator: What else could have been misinterpreted in translation?