If you want to read a festschrift with a difference read Manto Saheb. If you want to know how Manto’s contemporaries and fellow writers viewed the maverick in their midst this collection of essays provides multiple mini biographies of a complex, troubled man, one might even say a mad genius. Manto himself has left behind several biographical sketches of his friends and foes — some jewel-bright in their luminosity, others darkly witty or sharply satirical; some are to be found in the evocatively titled Ganjey Farishtey (‘Bald Angels’), others scattered amongst his vast and varied oeuvre and occasionally buried in the forewords he wrote for some of his own books.
Provocative, outrageous, scandalous, occasionally blasphemous, always ready to cock a snook at society, literary norms and most notions of propriety, Manto revelled in being the original enfant terrible of Urdu literature. Seldom shy of airing his views on fellow writers, it is no wonder that those around him thought fit to air theirs as well with varying degrees of frankness, occasionally also with little regard to literary propriety such as Upendranath Ashk’s Manto Mera Dushman (Manto, My Enemy).
Some of the essays included here were written in response to Manto’s ‘first strike’, others spring from deep wells of affection, even love such as Ismat’s tribute to her friend after his death. Krishan Chandar’s elegantly sprawling reflection is by far the most insightful. After a description of Manto’s physical form, he notes: ‘Exasperation clearly writ on a face which reflects a singular kind of sophistication and refinement. An edginess in the voice. A restlessness to write. A kind of bitterness in behaviour. And hasty steps.’
Two personal essays bookend the others by contemporaries: Ibrahim Jalees, Muhammad Tufail, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Balwant Gargi, among others. The first is, appropriately enough by Manto himself writing with an almost schizophrenic detachment about the other Manto, his twin, the one with an ‘erratic mind’, the one who ‘refuses to walk the straight path’.
The last by his nephew, Hamid Jalal, is empathetic yet completely unsentimental. Praise from Ali Sardar Jafri, that eluded Manto while he lived, comes in the form of a bitter-sweet tribute entitled ‘The Foul-mouthed One’.
Translated fluently by Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi, the book would have benefitted with an Introduction and some context.
The ‘Notes on the Contributors’ and occasional footnotes are sketchy at best and, in one instance, contain a gross error for Ali Sardar Jafri did not preside over the first ever Progressive Writers’ Conference; that honour went to Premchand.
Manto Saheb: Friends and Enemies on the Great Maverick; Translated by Vibha Chauhan, Khalid Alvi, Speaking Tiger, ₹499.