5 October 2014

Book Review: Manto Ventriloquized

I reviewed Aakar Patel's translation of some of Manto's commentary, for BL Ink.

A translation of Manto’s non-fiction unveils more of his sharp wit, but takes too many liberties with his prose.

Saadat Hasan Manto is one of those writers you can read when you’re 18 and feel very clever. And you can read him again when you’re 35 and feel very stupid. You can read him for sickening truths about subcontinental violence, and for illuminating an urban everyday, from the hellholes of impoverished prostitutes to Nargis’ drawing room.
Despite all the years I’ve been reading him and my best intentions, almost all my reading of Manto thus far has been in English. This is not entirely out of choice. Manto, born in 1912 in a village in Punjab, wrote in a language which I understand entirely if someone reads it out to me, but which I cannot myself read. Because Manto wrote in a script which most literate North Indians in his time would have used — my own maternal grandmother, born about a decade after Manto in a village in Uttar Pradesh, received her first lessons in Urdu — but which the India I grew up in had rejected. One of the happiest things about Aakar Patel’s selection of essays has been finding that Manto — as I imagined but did not know — had seen fit to hold up the Hindu-Urdu issue for his special brand of ridicule. In the little piece called ‘Hindi Aur Urdu’, he abandoned ‘serious’ debate on the subject in favour of a fictitious conversation between one Munshi Narayan Prasad and one Mirza Mohammad Iqbal about the respective virtues of a soda and a lemon drink.
I have tried to learn the Urdu script, but never had the discipline. So I came to this book all admiration for Aakar Patel, who has not just read Manto, but has translated him. But these translations feel dry and unsatisfying. Some of this dissatisfaction arises from the stiltedness that can plague translated prose. Sentences that were idiomatic and quirky in Hindustani can feel laboured and roundabout in English; brevity can appear as abruptness.
This is what seems to have happened with some of Why I Write. I say this because I have read some Manto in Devanagari, and have some sense of his style: ostensibly meandering, but in fact tightly coiled.
Patel strives to recreate Manto’s deliberate casualness, but ends up with such unidiomatic writing as the following: “That I don’t watch films must particularly shock those who know me as a writer of films. What sort of man, they must wonder, writes them but doesn’t watch them? ‘Did he not also,’ they will think, ‘act in a movie?’ yes, he did. Bugger has spent a decade in the industry but he says... “I don’t watch movies.” Must be pretending to be an eccentric. That isn’t true either. Let me tell you what the deal is. It’s all make-believe. That is what has put me off the thing entirely.”
Not just that, Patel seems to think it perfectly alright to chop off chunks from Manto’s prose, shearing sentences, even paragraphs at will. Compare the excerpt above to another translation of the same section, from Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad’s Bombay Stories (2012): “If those people who know me as a film writer hear that I no longer watch movies, they’ll be especially surprised. They’ll wonder why a man who writes screenplays, writes dialogue, and almost even acted in one film (moreover who has spent about 10 years in the film industry doing this and that), why this man no longer watches films. Without a doubt, they’ll think I’m lying. But, dear readers, God forbid that! If I’m lying, let some actress come on Judgement Day to seek amends. I’m telling you the truth. It was lies and only lies that made me sick of the movies. If this is a lie, let me go to hell. But it’s not — I really don’t watch movies any more.”
Thus having robbed Manto’s prose of most rhetorical flourish, not to mention fun references like the actress on Judgement Day, Patel goes further: he changes the essay’s name! The excerpt is from ‘Main Film Kyon Nahi Dekhta’, translated in Bombay Stories as ‘Why I Don’t Go to the Movies’. But Patel calls it ‘Why I Can’t Stand Bollywood’, which makes no sense, given that Manto’s objection is to the make-believe common to all cinema. But Patel insists on putting the word ‘Bollywood’ into Manto’s mouth on every possible occasion: “Manto loved Bollywood”, “What Bollywood must do”, and so on. This use of the film industry’s specific post-liberalisation avatar to designate Manto’s 1940s film world is the worst kind of anachronism. There are several such irritants: like changing the aforementioned title ‘Hindi Aur Urdu’ into ‘Hindu or Urdu’.
In his introduction, Patel acknowledges that he may have “edited, clipped, trimmed and rewritten” more than he should have, but that “Manto will forgive me”. Well, Manto isn’t around to say if he will, but his readers might not.
Having got these various bones of contention out of the way, let me say that Why I Write provides access to several pieces of commentary — many of them newspaper columns — that did not otherwise exist in English translation. Particularly valuable is the sense one gets of Manto’s political opinions — his endearing use of “Gandhiji” even when he’s making fun of the great man’s injunctions for a desexualised public life, or his scathing critiques of Pakistan in registers that range from irony (‘God is Gracious in Pakistan’) to soul-searching (‘News of a Killing’). The essays also map Manto’s transformation — most revealing is his early 1940s sarcasm about Westernised institutions like clubs and dancing and bars, which is transmuted in a post-1947 piece to sarcasm about the lack of them. In sum, I’m glad that this book exists, but I do hope the next time Aakar Patel translates something, he will rein in his desire to rewrite.

Published in the Hindu Business Line.

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