"Manto was more Nagpada than Colaba"
Saadat Hasan Manto's writing have engaged generations . This recent compilation, Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, offers Mumbai readers in particular, a kalaeidoscopic look at his works centred on the city. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Matt Reeck
For Manto, Mumbai’s (then Bombay) streetscape played an integral part in the richness of his stories; while translating his works, did you notice a gradual growth, or was it situation specific?
It’s an interesting phenomenon how setting and ambiance work in Manto. Certainly there is a sense that setting is important in these stories, and yet it isn’t really true that Manto gives great descriptions of places. Generally, they are quite fleeting. Instead of commending him for the depth of his descriptions, in these stories at least, he uses specific nouns (things or places) that in time have become symbolic of Bombay, and through these things an Iranian restaurant, the train, a cinema hall, a chawl he places the reader squarely in the city without having to give extended descriptions.
In almost every story of Bombay Stories, there are characters that provide an insight into his life; how did you ensure this element was reflected in the translation as well?
The way that many of these stories do give some sense of insight into his life and yet these details ultimately can’t be used as factual evidence does make them fascinating. But this doesn’t impact translation; it’s more a question of biography and scholarship.
How much of background research did you do before you took up this project? Were you able to visit the areas in the city that find their way in its writings as also the areas he lived in?
I stayed in Nagpada in 1998 for a month. Then I hadn’t read Manto. Several years later, when I read Manto for the first time, I found stories that mentioned many of the places that were familiar to me (and that I’d liked) from that month in the city. I saw how in another way Manto was a kindred spirit: he, like me, was more Nagpada than Colaba.
What did Manto and his works mean to you before this project? How much did this idea change after you wrapped it up?
As this project stretches back some years, Manto has been a part of my life for a while. In truth, his work is now muddled with my own experiences of India and Pakistan, my desire to translate, and so much else that it is difficult to separate things clearly. I don’t see a time when I won’t be translating or writing about him. But certainly before I started this, I never thought that would be true!
Of his two stays in the city, which one do you believe, witnessed his flourishing as a writer, and why?
Both. Or neither. Manto always wrote a lot. He was writing interesting things from a young age. So both. Or, if you think about how much money he made, you could argue that he was never flourishing, and, indeed, his complaints about his indigence are as legendary as his stories. It must also be pointed out that he wrote many of these stories after moving to Pakistan. So, in a sense, it wasn’t until he left for good that he realised how good the city had been for him.
Do you believe that Manto’s style of writing earthy and simple, yet multi-layered, continues to connect with today’s reader?
Yes. This has been my overwhelming experience: that a good translation will make him readable anywhere.
Ten Rupees, Pages 23-25
Kifayat stopped the car. Sarita got out and set off running down the beach, and Kifayat and Shahab joined her. She ran upon the wet sand by the tall palm trees that rose along the ocean's open vista, and she wondered what it was she wanted-she wanted to fade into the horizon, dissolve into the water, and soar so high into the sky that the palm trees stood beneath her; she wanted to absorb the sand’s moisture through her feet, and...and...the car, the speed, the lash of the rushing air...she felt transported.
The three young men from Hyderabad sat down on the wet sand and began to drink beer, but then Sarita grabbed a bottle from Kifayat and said, ‘Wait, let me pour you some.’ Sarita poured so quickly that the beer’s head rose over the glass’s edge, and this pleased her extraordinarily. She dipped her finger into the beer and licked off the foam, but it was very bitter and she immediately puckered her lips. Kifayat and Shahab burst out laughing. When he couldn’t stop, Kifayat had to look away to calm himself, and then he saw that Anwar too was laughing.
They had six bottles-some they poured quickly so that the head overflowed their glasses and its foam disappeared into the sand, and some they actually managed to drink. Sarita kept singing, and once when Anwar looked at her, he imagined that she was made of beer. The damp sea breeze was glistening on her dark cheeks. She was very happy, and now Anwar was too. He wished that the ocean’s water would change into beer, and then he would dive in with Sarita. Sarita picked up two empty bottles and banged them against each other. They clanged loudly, and she burst out laughing, and everyone followed suit.
‘Let’s go for a drive,’ she suggested to Kifayat. They left the bottles right there on the wet sand and raced ahead to the car to their seats. Kifayat started the engine and off they went. Soon the wind was rushing over them and Sarita’s long hair streamed up, over her head. They began to sing. The car sped, lurching down the road, and Sarita kept singing where she sat in the back seat between Anwar, who was dozing, and Shahab. Mischievously, she started to run her fingers through Shahab’s hair, yet the only effect of this was that it lulled him to sleep. Sarita turned back to look at Anwar, and when she saw that he was still sleeping, she jumped into the front seat and whispered to Kifayat, ‘I’ve put your friends to sleep. Now it’s your turn.’
Kifayat smiled. ‘Then who’ll drive?’
‘The car will drive itself,’ Sarita answered, smiling. The two lost track of time as they talked with each other, and before they realized it, they found themselves back in the bazaar where Kishori had ushered Sarita into the car. When they got to the factory wall with the ‘NO URINATING’ sign, Sarita said, ‘Okay, stop here.’
Extracted from Bombay Stories by Manto (Random House India)