[2014-06-07] “Selected Stories”

“Selected Stories” is a collection of short stories written by one of the most famous Urdu writers of the Indian sub-continent Saadat Hasan Manto as translated by Khalid Hasan. This collection brings together some of his best-known stories, especially the kind of stories that made him (in)famous - the travails of ordinary people during the particularly bloody partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan and the stirrings of sexual desire in conflict with a prudish society.

Manto was a prolific writer, supposedly writing an entire story in a single stretch without revisiting it later. This collection seems to reflect it, as it is a mixed-bag in terms of quality, in my opinion. Some of the stories are good and justifiably famous (like “Toba Tek Singh”, “Odor”, “Khushia”, etc.), while some left me wondering why they were originally published in the first place, let alone then translated and included in this particular compilation. Perhaps they read better in the original Urdu.

The stories seem to lose quite a bit in the translation from Urdu to English. The language seems a little stilted at times and somewhat alien as English prose throughout. I found myself trying to repeatedly guess what the original Urdu sentence might have been. In hindsight, I would have been better off reading a Hindi translation of these stories. I realize that translation is a very difficult job, especially across languages as distantly-related as Urdu and English (I probably would have done a much worse job of it, were I to take a stab at it). I am thankful that such translations bring writers like Manto to a much wider audience than they would have reached in their original.

I liked the simplicity of the stories and the refrain from showing off literary techniques. Manto says it like it is and writes about ordinary people and their lives. Most of us living in India can relate to the characters and the situations in these stories. As a collection of short and simple stories, this is the kind of book you can randomly pick and immerse yourself in for a while without worrying about losing continuity.

As an aside, Manto was tried six times for obscenity in his stories, both before and after the independence from British rule. Reading these stories now, a modern reader would wonder what the fuss was all about, since they appear particulary tame by modern standards. It is a sad reminder of how prudish our society was just a few decades back (and still is in many unfortunate ways).

Other Posts from 2014