Literary Text As A Historical Artefact: Review Of The Book ‘Bitter Fruit’

November 3, 2010 at 9:15 AMNov (Literature)

Bitter Fruit- the very best of Sadat Hassan Manto
Edited and Translated by Khalid Hassan
Published by: Penguin Books India 2008.
Price: Rs 599/-

Hayden White in his landmark essay The Historical Text as Literary Artefact argues that history is any other narrative like literature. True, it appears and also the reverse of it, that is, literary text is a historical artefact, especially when reading a writer like Sadat Hassan Manto.

BITTER FRUIT is the new collection of Sadat Hassan Manto which shelters his short stories, drama, sketches, portraits, letters and few pieces he has written on himself. Translated and edited by Khalid Hassan who earlier had published some short stories and sketches of Manto in a collection titled MOTTLED DAWN, now extends the collection by translating the letters, drama, ‘Manto on Manto’ and also adds the portraits earlier published under the title STARS FROM THE OTHER SKY and compiles this new collection BITTER FRUIT.

Divided into seven parts the collection begins with fifty short stories of Manto which includes his much discussed ‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Colder than Ice’, ‘The Return’ and ‘The Dog of Titwal’. The central theme of almost all his short stories being Indo-Pak partition, mainly depict two kinds of mad people: one, driven mad because of displacement from their habitat and the other mad in love for humanity who go out of their way for friends and their loved ones. Probably, it’s because of the second kind of madness that the world keeps going despite of all the violence that it holds in its womb.

Lesser known side of Manto is that of a play writer. The only play (drama) included in this collection is ‘In this Vortex’ which though has no direct reference to partition, has the archetype of being torn apart.

Ashish Nady who revisited and studied partition says that most of the partition victims never voiced out their experiences and discussed it till the seventies. But Manto being an exception to his generation, was quick in voicing out the trauma of the troubled times and encapsulating it in words. So quick that he took shelter in what is now called as sketches because they are not big enough to be called short stories, which would make a quick read too. 32 such sketches are included in the book which not just shows the strength of language but also makes us realise that Ashish Nandy is true when he says that people died out of trauma and not illness during partition.

The portraits sketched by Manto are mainly of that of the stars of the then Bollywood, with whom he was closely associated during his stay in Bombay writing scripts for Bollywood. These portraits like his short story reflect the era in which it is set. In his portraits of Shyam and Ashok Kumar we can see both kind of madness which his short stories depict.

The book as proceeds starts moving into the inner world of Manto and unfolds the mind which gave birth to such historical, literary artefacts. The letters he wrote to Uncle Sam, who was settled in America, shows the political stand of Manto, his friends, foes and his lighter side too. His direct attacks on American policy, Pakistani fundamentalists and communists, again makes a historical document and commentary.

‘Manto on Manto’ includes three pieces by Manto about himself and his art and the epitaph he wrote for himself. In the article ‘Manto on Manto’ the archetype of being torn apart gets repeated when Sadat Hassan starts narrating the story of Manto, as though he is torn into two and one side of him speaks of the other side.

Khalid Hassan in his introduction says he had to re-translate some of the short stories for this collection because critics said they were not sincere when it appeared in the previous collection MOTTLED DAWN. He says it’s this criticism which made him come up with this new collection. But does literature get translated only for literary reasons? Or does it get triggered by cultural, political and historical necessities? Manto and his short stories become relevant during the increasing communal tension of our times and also act as a historical record of Indo-Pak partition and the violence that followed it.

Reading the book BITTER FRUIT is like walking naked feet on a blood bathed street. The writings are an extension of real life trauma and revealing them is its intension. It’s the same trauma which is the inner tension of almost all of Manto’s writings. BITTER FRUIT leaves back bitterness in the hearts of the readers and will make them wonder what Manto wonders in the Epitaph he wrote for himself- “Here lies Sadat Hassan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and mysteries of short story writing… under tons of earth he lies, wondering who of the two is the greater short story writer: God or he

12 June 2009

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