Saadat Hasan Manto is a writer the South Asian reviewer or commentator attempts with trepidation. Usually approached in anthologies of Partition literature where the brutality and violence of being human are expected, there is temptation to wash one hands of him by reading Toba Tek Singh, his most well-known story about the exchange of inmates of mental asylums between the newly independent India and Pakistan and thereby, along with maybe a couple more, tick the box.
It is only with the arrival of a full volume of freshly-translated short stories that one begins to place him outside Partition and see him anew: as a chronicler of Bombay, as a creator of astonishing women characters, as a mirror to the horror of religion as an idea, and above all, as a writer concerned more with representing society than with indulging himself with aesthetic illusions.
Intense is the way to describe The Dog of Tithwal, a new volume of Manto’s selected stories newly translated by Khalid Hasan and Muhammad Umar Memon, full of characters caught up in abominable or tragic circumstances, victims to greed and religion. The collection may best be approached via two outstanding stories, the title story and “Mozail”. Both are portrayals of violence, one is depicted in the pathetic killing of a dog and the other through a heart-rending suicide/killing of a woman. Mad men or animals or women who become symbols of sanity and sacrificial beings in light of the bloodbath around them.
The title story begins:
The soldiers had been entrenched in their positions for several weeks, but there was little, if any, fighting, except for the dozen rounds they ritually exchanged every day… The soldiers seemed to be getting tired of this indecisive war where nothing much ever happened. Their positions were quite impregnable. The two hills on which they were placed faced each other and were about the same height, so no one side had an advantage. Down below in the valley, a stream zigzagged furiously on its stony bed like a snake.
A dog makes an appearance; the soldiers on both the sides of the border begin to have fun with him. Their interaction with the dog borders on the tragicomic:
The dog went to Harnam Singh, who produced a cracker from his kitbag and threw it on the ground. The dog sniffed at it and was about to eat it, when Harnam Singh snatched it away … ‘Wait, you could be a Pakistani dog.’
They laughed. Banta Singh patted the animal and said to Harnam Singh, ‘Jamadar sahib, Jhun Jhun is an Indian dog.’
‘Prove your identity,’ Harnam Singh ordered the dog, who began to wag his tail.
‘This is no proof of identity. All dogs can wag their tails,’ Harnam Singh said.
‘He is only a poor refugee,’ Banta Singh said, playing with his tail.
Harnam Singh threw the dog a cracker, which he caught in mid-air. ‘Even dogs will now have to decide if they are Indian or Pakistani,’ one of the soldiers observed.
As the dog begins to come and go, both Indian and Pakistani soldiers claim the dog as their own. Soon, it gets caught in the firing between the enemies:
It soon became a game between the two soldiers, with the dog running round in circles in a state of great terror. Both Himmat Khan and Harnam Singh were laughing boisterously. The dog began to run towards Harnam Singh, who abused him loudly and fired. The bullet caught him in the leg. He yelped, turned around and began to run towards Himmat Khan, only to meet more fire, which was only meant to scare him. ‘Be a brave boy. If you are injured, don’t let that stand between you and your duty. Go, go, go,’ the Pakistani shouted.
The dog turned. One of his legs was now quite useless. He began to drag himself towards Harnam Singh, who picked up his rifle, aimed carefully and shot him dead.
Subedar Himmat Khan sighed, ‘The poor bugger has been martyred.’
Jamadar Harnam Singh ran his hand over the still-hot barrel of his rifle and muttered, ‘He died a dog’s death.’
“Dying a dog’s death” is a Hindustani idiom that means “dying a horrible death”. The “dogness” of the situation is not in the death but in the way it comes to be killed. It is the soldiers with their deranged firing that come close to “dogworthiness”.
A similar round of violence is the setting of “Mozail”, a story about a seemingly unrequited love. Amid news of communal riots in Punjab, Tarlochan, a Sikh man, thinks about his first love Mozail, a Jewish woman he met in Bombay as he moved here a few years ago. She comes across as a whimsical, cruel woman toying with his feelings—going around with him but also dismissing him while showering other men with her attention.
One day when she was in one of her high and happy moods, he took her in his arms and asked,’ Mozail, don’t you love me?’
Mozail freed herself, sat down in a chair, gazed intently at her dress, then raised her big Jewish eyes, batted her thick eyelashes and said, ‘I cannot love a Sikh.’
‘You always make fun of me. You make fun of my love,’ he said in an angry voice.
She got up, swung her brown head of hair from side to side and said
coquettishly, ‘If you shave off your beard and let down your long hair which you keep under your turban, I promise you many men will wink at you suggestively, because you’re really quite handsome.’
When Tarlochan does shave his beard and hair off—a sacrilege for a Sikh—she seems to have vanished with another lover. However, beneath all this recklessness, Mozail is a clear-headed woman who sees things in measures beyond those of religion. Here’s Mozail speaking classic Manto on religion:
Once she said to him, ‘You’re a Sikh and I know that you wear some ridiculous shorts under your trousers because that is the Sikh religious requirement, but I think it’s rubbish that religion should be kept tucked under one’s trousers.’
Mozail’s contempt for things that seem religious helps Tarlochan rescue his beloved, Kirpal Kaur, a devout Sikh woman for whom he has begun to grow his hair back. She asks him to take his turban off as they enter a Muslim neighborhood but he refuses. At the end, Mozail gives Kirpal her own dress so that she is mistaken for a Jew and left alone. Naked, Mozail runs to attract the rioting mob’s attention so that the girl can get away safely. And then:
She slipped and came crashing down, head first. Tarlochan stopped and turned. Blood was pouring out of her mouth and nose and ears. The men who were trying to break into the flat had also gathered round her in a circle, forgetting temporarily what they were there for. They were staring at her naked, bruised body.
Tarlochan bent over her. ‘Mozail, Mozail.’
She opened her eyes and smiled. Tarlochan undid his turban and covered her with it. She smiled again and winked at him…
Then she looked at Tarlochan and pushed aside the turban with which he had tried to cover her nakedness.
‘Take away this rag of your religion. I don’t need it.’
Her arm fell limply on her bare breasts and she said no more.
The relationship between appearance and religion, as Tarlochan has been used to seeing it, is turned on its head; a change of clothes saves a life; and as it turns out, religion emerges as a garb one can do without. Religion is an appearance one can also deceive with and be deceived by.
Manto’s body of work is full of such moments exposing the futility of proving one’s nationality and religion. But several stories included in this latest volume put together by Hasan and Memon are also relevant for the way they help the readers appreciate Manto’s unique vision of the times he lived in and described. “Mozail”, for example, is a portrayal of Bombay that also, however, resembles the Bombay of riots in recent memory:
‘Yaar, you are unduly worried. I have seen many such riots here. This is not Amritsar or Lahore: it is Bombay. You have only been here four years; I have lived here for twelve, a full twelve years.’ God knows what Naranjan thought Bombay was. To him it was a city which would recover from the effects of riots by itself, in case they ever were to take place. He behaved as if he had some magic formula, or a fairy-tale castle that could come to no harm. As for Tarlochan, he could see quite clearly in the cool morning air that this mohalla was not safe. He was even mentally prepared to read in the morning papers that Kirpal Kaur and her parents had been killed.
Mumbai is hailed as a resilient and cosmopolitan city in popular media, a model the whole of India could perhaps emulate—as if the recent communal incidents were an aberration in an otherwise peaceful city. Despite these stories having been written in the mid-20th century, Manto’s Bombay is a reality check to these rosy assumptions about the city and its history.
“Mozail”, a story of courage shown by a woman in saving another life and in ridiculing what men hold to be sacred, is just one of several stories about strong, unusual women who try to fight the prison of patriarchy. They emerge as neither typical nor as goddesses, for Manto writes about times in which this could not have been possible, but they leave their mark. “License”, in which Nesti trying to work as a coach driver after her husband dies, ends like this:
Nesti said, ‘Sir, then take my horse and coach as well, but please tell me why women can’t drive coaches. Women can grind mills and fill their stomachs. Women can carry rubble in baskets on their heads and make a living. Women can work in mines, sifting through pieces of coal to earn their daily bread. Why can’t I drive a coach? I know nothing else. The horse and carriage were my husband’s, why can’t I use them? How will I make ends meet? Milord, please have mercy. Why do you stop me from hard, honest labour? What am I to do? Tell me.’
The officer replied: ‘Go to the bazaar and find yourself a spot. You’re sure to make more that way.’
Hearing this, the real Nesti, the person within, was reduced to ashes. ‘Yes sir,’ she answered softly and left.
She sold the horse and carriage for whatever she could get and went straight to Abu’s grave. For a moment, she stood next to it in silence. Her eyes were completely dry, like the blaze after a shower, robbing the earth of all its moisture. Her lips parted and she addressed the grave, ‘Abu, your Nesti died today in the committee office.’
With this, she went away. The next day she submitted her application. She was given a licence to sell her body.
The Dog of Tithwal arouses too much anger at humanity’s irredeemable stubbornness to be comfortable or appealing. At a story a day, however, the volume is a guide to sanity, critical living in harmony with oneself and with others.