Nasreen Rehman talks about manto, South Asian literature and its translations
The most chosen words fail to sum up the feelings that the work of Saadat Hasan Manto arouses in the depths of a person’s being. Manto, unlike many writers of the 1940s, humanized in his stories women who had a range of qualities; they were animated. One of those women of the world of his stories that stands out is Mozail of his short film Mozail.
“While thinking of Kirpal Kaur, he began to think of Mozail, the Jewish girl who lived in Advani Chambers and whom he had fallen in love with ‘knee-deep’. His first impression of her was that she was really, really crazy. His brown hair was cropped short and looked disheveled. She wore thick, uneven lipstick that lay on her lips like clotted blood. She wore a loose white dress, so low at the neck that you could see three quarters of her large breasts with their pale blue veins. Her thin arms were covered with a thin down.”
Manto presents her through the perspective of Trilochan.
Author Nasreen Rehman, who has translated Manto’s works into English, in a chat with SheThePeople revealed that she first heard of him as a teenager from her beloved friend and mentor, the poet Zehra Nigah.
Rehman recalls a conversation they had about lingerie and to elucidate his point, Zehra Bi, as the author addresses her affectionately, talked about Mozail. “She told me the story of Mozail, a young woman in a new Manto of the same name. I had heard of Manto but never read it,” she admits and says that until then her encounter with Urdu fiction was limited to AR Khatun and Razia Butt’s romantic novel or listening “ of the reformist novels of MP Nazir Ahmed, and the magic dastans of Amir Hamza, and the riveting Fasana-e-Azad ».
Nasreen recalls that before that evening, she had never heard or read any story like Manto’s. Mozail which eventually hooked her on the author, but her books weren’t readily available, she recalls.
Manto, his influence on the author
Speaking about what stood out about her writing, she says: “The quality of Manto’s writing that stands out for me is its readability – it’s the conversational style of his prose and the economy with which, Phatak [immediately]– it takes you to the time and place of the action. We meet his characters as he meets them, and his prose penetrates you.
Nasreen was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and worked as an economist before turning to the humanities and the arts. The author, who is currently director of the National Commission on Forced Marriage (NCFM) in the UK, says she falls in love with the books and comes back to them “as much as I love visiting old friends – not in hungama [chaotic] fashion but in calmer and more intimate encounters”.
“But like Manto, I hate communitarianism and violence. And yes, the pervasive South Asian hypocrisy and inability to discuss sexuality like any other aspect of the human condition. We tend to either make a mountain out of a molehill or sweep these issues out of sight,” she adds, saying the quality of the works of the Urdu literary giant influences her.
Manto mostly written in Urdu, several authors have translated his work into English and his works have become more accessible. Retaining the essence of the author’s choice of words during translation is a difficult task and Rehman does this quite well. However, Manto’s voice doesn’t feel lost in his translation of his work.
As a South Asian, feminist and Marxist from an Urdu and English-speaking family, Nasreen says, she tried to find Manto’s voice and capture his “raw immediacy”.
“A translator brings to the task their own life experience and the two languages they work with,” she says. The author further adds, “In translating Manto, I may have been helped by the fact that both my parents spoke excellent but very different Urdu. My paternal family is from Nabha and speak very urban Punjabi Urdu – very close to the Manto language. On the other hand, my mother’s family speaks very UP Urdu, which can go from chaste urban to a mix of interesting local inflections qasbahs and Awadhi.
In her brief introduction, the author mentions that even before the idea of translating her works came to her, she wrote about the author but after a series of incidents she gave up.
“In the 1970s, I started a novel in which Manto was a character. Alas, someone deemed it worthy of a bonfire and destroyed it. Again, in 1988-89, I started writing a piece called Manto House: the protagonist was called Dushka, named after a dear, fiery and fiery school friend. In another stunning turn of events, my play and at least thirty of my translations of Mira Ji’s poems and a lengthy essay on the poet disappeared from my apartment. I was upset and kind of gave up,” the author recalls.
Rehman, until 2021, was also teaching while working full-time with the NCFM as she juggled between the UK and Pakistan. Clearly, his day is busy. The author admits that she usually works 18 hours and lacks sleep. The author hopes to be able to resume teaching once she submits Volume 2 of Manto’s translations.
Recognize subcontinent translations
Rehman ever since she first read Manto’s works has been captivated by the author. She writes in her university thesis A history of cinema in Lahore around 1919-1947 she relied on her essays and stories that documented film personalities. Rehman says Manto gave him a “frontline view” of the Indian film studio. She noted that her stories forced her to confront, “hideously and horribly,” communalism in South Asia.
“As I wrote mainly about popular cinema, love and gender relations were an important part of what I analyzed. And Manto’s writings take us to the heart of what Ajaz Ahmed has called “cultural of cruelty “that shape systemic communal and gender-based violence in our daily lives, at home and in the worlds of work, commerce and politics,” the author adds.
She also reveals that she translated her work for her thesis and that it was her thesis supervisor, the late Professor CA Bayly, who advised her to publish it. Thus, she had the chance to translate all the works of Manto which will be published in the form of a series of three books. The first volume of the book, which has been published, focuses on the stories of the ancient cities of Bombay and Poona.
In the midst of it all, the author reflects on her decades-long career when asked if she’s been discriminated against and the changes she’s seen over the years. She claims she faced both gender and racial discrimination. “The whole world is a little pear-shaped on that front,” she observes, adding that the battles women thought they had won have resurfaced. “Women face huge challenges but we are fighting back on all fronts – and I haven’t given up hope,” the author remains optimistic.
When asked for his opinion on how things would turn out for literature in translation after author Geetanjali Shree sand tomb received the Booker Prize this year, she notes: “I don’t know where we would be without translated literature. In the English-speaking world, there were deep-seated prejudices against literature in South Asian languages, fueled by Macaulay’s horrible Education minute. It’s good that the West is waking up to the joys of South Asian literary works,” she remarked before signing.
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