On 9th December I attended the Times Literary Carnival. My only attractions there were Gulzar, Manu Joseph and Debdutta Patnaik. Other authors though not my favorites hold a respectable place. The Sunday morning event was about Manto with speakers like Aatish Tasser who have translated short stories of Manto, Javed Akhtar the poet and lyricist and Prasoon Joshi as moderator... I went there for Manto and I was pleasantly surprised when Gulzar made an appearance as one of the panelist.
The session was a lot of fun with Gulzar sahib’s Hindustani dialect and poetry, Javed Akhtar’s anecdotes and reciting of Manto. Prasoon seemed less of a fan of Manto but more like someone who has done his homework before the presentation reading from his notes mostly. Aatish Taseer came around as a novice. Surprisingly he chose to speak in English sighting discomfort, instead of Hindustani or Urdu though he has translated Urdu writings of Manto. Also like in his book he again criticized Khalid Ahmed’s (saying “not to speak ill of the dead”) translation of Manto which I found very unprofessional and distasteful. I just wish he had more respect for a fellow translator.
But Gulzar and Javed Akhtar’s prowess in poetry and literature was excellent and something that all Manto fans hoped for. There renditions of Manto’s lines, short stories and anecdotes from life were apt and powerful adding a lot of substance and applause to the discussion. Even when Javed Akhtar mentioned as simple as his discomfort with the Sofa saying ‘Problem with Sofa is if you lie on your back you seem arrogant and if you bend in front you look as if eager for a job’ the audience laughed with him.
The session started with Prasoon Joshi reciting some beautiful lines of Saddat Hassan Manto. Aatish Taseer spoke next about translations, citing that even Manto started as a translator for Maupassant’s stories and how translations can be literal like ‘Khol do’ became ‘Open it’. Javed Akhtar mentioned the similarities in sensibilities of both the authors. How translations can never be literal and a translator brings his own interpretation to it but not at the cost of the meaning. Gulzar said one chooses a writer as per one’s own likes and sensibility (he used a beautiful Urdu word called ‘Mizzazz’). But still some essence of the original is definitely lost during translation like a perfume being transferred from one bottle to another loses some of its fragrance or how Ishwar Sayin became Singh.
Javed Akhtar said that translation helps break the barriers of languages. For that matter “Brevity has never been a national virtue” and if you remove complete paras or chapters from a novel no one will notice. But Manto was crisp and economic with words. He did not waste words and had a sharp focus through the story with a great climax at the end. Gulzar said one could not remove a single phrase (he used a beautiful Urdu word called ‘Jumla’) from Manto’s story as it would move the foundation of story. He even had one para short stories. In the beginning these were highly criticized. But the beauty of it was that the way you can quote Shaiyri, same way you could quote Manto’s story. Manto always said that I am not trying to make you laugh but I am trying to laugh at you. Aatish says even in difficult times like partition he never lost his sense of humor.
Prasoon Joshi next referred Manto’s alcoholism - was it an escape or fuel for creativity. Javed Akhtar pointed that Psychiatry says if you want to be creative then you are not a normal person. Desire for creation comes from a sense of incomplete. So creative people are generally abnormal. But like a lion is an animal but not all animals are not lions, similarly not all abnormal are creative. Also Urdu poetry and poets have glorified drinking since ages. So somehow drinking has become a virtue. But no one writes out of drinking and it's a very serious work. It’s only a myth that drinking can lead you to an idea. You drink simply because you enjoy it.
Next Prasoon Joshi said that Manto’s significant work is post partition where he challenges orthodox . But then he also used to write Bismillah on the paper before he started writing and he also chose to move to Pakistan after partition. Were there two Manto’s one liberal and the other not so liberal? Javed Akhtar said that one shouldn't read too much into it. I am an atheist but certain things like ‘Allah knows’ or ‘God forbids’ are part of a language and one’s bringing up turning into a habit. Manto did not move to Pakistan because of ideological choices but out of personal security. One should judge him from his work not as Saddat Hassan - the man.
Gulzar said Manto left because he was becoming a problem for his friends. How long he could be a burden on them and he was told ‘Aap filhal ' to nikal jayein’ (For now you should leave). It happened to thousand others too who hoped to return back to their earlier homes and life once things became better. Manto’s behavior was always straight and direct (he used a beautiful Urdu word called ‘Bebak’). ‘Woh haddi pe marte the ki maas nazar nahin aata tha’ (he used to hit on the bone that you would not feel the skin).
Javed Akhtar narrated a story when a publisher asked Manto if he can write something about Ahmed - the writer. Manto declined saying that Ahmed did not drink, did not go to brothel, did not have any bad habits, how many times will I write that Ahmed is a very nice person. Progressive writers did promote many writers but Manto stayed on fringess of the movement being owned and disowned at different times. The reason could be that the group was shy of sexually explicit writing. But Manto wrote what he felt like. Ismat Chugtai also wrote about lesbianism for which there was not even a word at that time. Leftists, though liberals but ultimately were Puritans. Gulzar said fringes could also be defined that progressive were Communists where you write about farmers and labor as downtrodden. But Manto responded in anger that you think prostitutes are not downtrodden, about whom he wrote.
Prasoon Joshi says that Manto lived and shared his fundamental beliefs in each story which is not what a writer should do because then he loses his objectivity - like in Memoirs of Geisha there were good and bad geisha, similarly there are good and bad prostitutes. Aatish quoted Ismat Chugtai’s description of Manto and said both Manto and Ismat did not sympathize as they felt it is humiliating and against human dignity.
Prasoon then asked why Manto has become so contextual now. He narrated an incident when he was 15 and had picked his book in the library, his father had told him this is not for you and not to read it. Now Manto and his stories have become a wave. Javed Akhtar answers that middle class in its economic gain left some of its baggage on platform like literature and art and now it is trying to revive it from the sense of loss i.e. why there are new and more literary festivals in the past few years. Also in today’s times Morality has more elbow room now, so Manto has become more acceptable. Gulzar said that there has been a cultural change. Manto was always out of the box and ahead of those and even today’s times.
Prasoon next talked about Manto’s choice of language, he narrated Manto’s lines wrongly which Gulzar corrected ‘Jab Punjabi Urdu bolta hai to woh jhooth bol raha hai’(When a Punjabi speaks Urdu, he is lying). Then they laughed about how Punjabis are so busy that they call ‘Fursat’ as ‘Furstt’ and ‘Mohabbhat’ as ‘Muhabt’. The session ended with Javed Akhtar reading Manto’s Short Story ‘Ram Khilavan’.