BENGALURU: He was chewing on his paan, slowly and thinking. Thick jets of sticky, tobacco-mixed gob was swishing in his mouth. He felt as if his teeth were grinding his thoughts and blending them with his saliva.Maybe that was why he didn’t wish to spit out the gob of chewed-up paan.’’
Muhammad Umar Memon’s translation of the essential Manto succeeds in achieving one thing. In animating the bead of sweat, the drop of saliva, the gob of tobacco and the taste of chewed up thoughts, the awry seams of threadbare lives, the itch of a Mange eaten dog, the smell of lust, the stench of hovels and the urgency of everything that was both sublime and putrid and part of Saadat Hasan Manto’s understanding of life and death. If there is any South Asian writer who understood the darkness and effulgence of the human spirit, it was Manto. As a writer, he was, as Suketu Mehta had noted once, or as Manto himself had observed, someone who "chased filth and not fragrance. Someone who chose dark labyrinths over the bright sun, the naked and the shameless over the modest, the bitter over the sweet, slush over clear brooks, tears over laughter.’’ Manto was, without seeming to be, one of the most empathetic writers ever because he looked where no one did. In the heart and soul of women dismissed as whores. In the anger and frustration and defeatism of female acting aspirants in the 40s being exploited or suppressed by men.
In Partition’s rape victims whose violation remains invisible to us till one of them is brought to a hospital a few inches away from death and meekly opens the string of her salwar and pushes it down automatically when the doctor looks at a closed window and says, “Open.”
Memon picks stories from many of Manto’s collections for My Name is Radha (The Essential Manto) and his translation for most parts recreates the horror and the terrifying ordinariness of fringe lives. The grimy pathos of a sex worker’s life (Saugandhi) is brought home to us when we see her sprawled on her bed, “her bare arms splayed out like a bow-shaped rib of a kite that has come loose from its dew-drenched paper. The grainy flesh visible in her right armpit had acquired a blusih tint from frequent shaving and looked like a graft from the skin of a freshly plucked chicken.” This is Manto, translated or not. Not missing a thing. Consuming his characters body and soul and blood and pith till not just he but we are them. And so when Saugandhi prays to her gods, hides her money under a bed post and then in a fit of rage, kicks out a pretend lover with whom she fakes domesticity once in a while, we know why her world has come crashing down. It is because, even on a night when she was wearing her best saree and make up, a refined client was repelled by her. Her pride, for want of a better word, is wounded. Or perhaps her humanity is.
The book despite a few moments that don’t really get where Manto reached with his pen, brings to you the flesh and blood fervour of women like Neelam/ Radha who breaks past the reserve of an idealised star.
The man, a cross between Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar is dealing with his own demons by faking a filial bond with her while Manto, the eternal observer is watching the cat and mouse game between the two on a film set. The end of this almost primitive struggle between a woman who has been scorned with extreme kindness and a man who refuses to be tempted, is neither predictable, nor conclusive. But yes, the vamp Neelam finds a moment in this madness that connects her to truth and so she whispers at the end of it all, “My name is Radha.” Or was, we presume.
Manto died at the age of 43 but his stories are not just about his time or ours. They are about the stuff of pain, violation, loss and ugliness and a grain of mirth hidden even in tragedy. And so translations like this one will stay relevant, especially now when story telling is dispassionate and bloodless.