While social realism’s fiction should center on oppressed characters, the reader is meant not only to become acquainted with such characters but to see them overcome their obstacles. Social realism is meant to provide social redress. An oppressed character is meant to become a model for oppressed people to see routes out of their misery.
We can look to Chughad to see that Manto’s goals are far from those of social realism. From this volume, Aftab Ahmad and I have translated “Babu Gopi Nath” and “Janaki.” In the first, the main character is not, I would argue, the title character but Zinat. Zinat is an anomaly in Manto’s work as she is a prostitute who isn’t willful. In fact, she has a sad-sack personality: woebegone, spiritless and passive. In the end, she marries a rich man, but this is hardly a sign of her redemption or triumph. Manto laughs at her wedding because he finds the supposed sanctity of the ceremony ludicrous. We see that marriage itself is a symbol of what she really wants and what Babu Gopi Nath wants for her—society’s respect. But Manto’s laughter shows she still doesn’t have it, not even from one of those closest to her.
“Janaki” also does not follow a program of social redress. Janaki is an attractive young woman come from Peshawar with aspirations to enter the film world. Her course into this world is full of hardship: she loses the support of her former lover, Aziz; her honor is belittled by Narayan (when he teases her about her bra size); Sayid, her first Bombay lover, cruelly turns his back on her; she falls from a commuter train, injuring herself; and she falls so ill with a fever and bronchitis that she is on the brink of death.
Yet, despite all this, she doesn’t reject this world and its suffering. Rather, in the story’s last scene, Manto finds her sleeping with Narayan. Though Manto vouches for Narayan’s character, and in fact Narayan is the one who nurses Janaki back to health, Janaki has not made a conscious, informed choice about entering into this new world where women are readily exploited, but she seems rather to have simply fallen into it, or to have fallen prey to its disputable charms.
Here are some excerpts from Matt Reeck’s translation of "Janaki":
It was the beginning of the racing season in Pune when Aziz wrote from Peshawar, “I’m sending Janaki, an acquaintance of mine. Get her into a film company in Pune or Bombay. You know enough people. I hope it won’t be too difficult for you.”
It wasn’t a question of being difficult, but the problem was I had never done anything like that before. Usually the men who take girls to film companies are pimps or their like, men who plan to live off the girls if they can get a job. As you can imagine I worried a lot about this, but then I thought, “Aziz is an old friend. Who knows why he trusts me so much, but I don’t want to disappoint him.” I was also reassured by the thought that the film world is always looking for young women. So what was there to fret about? Even without my help, Janaki would be able to get a job in some film company or other.
Four days later Janaki arrived, and after such a long journey—from Peshawar to Bombay, and then from Bombay to Pune. As the train arrived, I started to walk along the platform because she would have to pick me out of the crowd. I didn’t have to go far because a woman holding my photo descended from the second-class compartment. Her back was to me. Standing on her tiptoes, she started looking through the crowd. I approached her.
“You’re probably looking for me,” I said.
She sat down in a chair.
“What’s the problem?”
When she smiled, her sharp lips became thinner. Now they opened. Again she wanted to say something but couldn’t find the courage. She got up, picked up my pack of cigarettes, took one out and lit it.
“Please forgive me, but I just can’t quit.”
I learned later that she didn’t just smoke but smoked with a vengeance. She held the cigarette in her fingers like a man and took a deep drag. In fact, she inhaled so deeply that her daily habit was the same as a normal person’s smoking seventy-five cigarettes.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong?”
Annoyed, she pounded her foot on the floor like a young girl.
“Hai, Allah! How can I tell you?” she asked. Then she smiled. Her teeth were extraordinarily clean and shiny. She sat down, and trying to avoid my gaze, she said, “The problem is that I’m fifteen or twenty days late and I’m scared that …”
Until then I hadn’t understood, but when she stopped so abruptly I thought I finally knew what was going on.
“This happens often,” I said.
She took another deep drag and blew out the smoke in a thick rush.
“No,” she said, “I’m talking about something else. I’m afraid I’m pregnant.”
“Ah!” I exclaimed.
She took a final drag and then stubbed out the cigarette in the saucer. “If I am, it’ll be a big problem,” she went on. “This happened once in Peshawar, but Aziz Sahib brought some medicine from a doctor friend, and then everything was okay.”
“You don’t like kids?”
She smiled. “Sure, I like them. But who wants to go through the trouble of raising them?”
“You know it’s a crime to have an abortion.”
She became pensive. In a voice full of sadness, she said, “Aziz Sahib said this too, but, Saadat Sahib, my question is, how is it a crime? It’s a personal matter, and the people who make the laws know an abortion is very painful. Is it really a serious crime?”
I couldn’t help laughing. “You’re a strange woman, Janaki.”
Janaki also laughed. “Aziz Sahib says so too.”
As she laughed, tears came to her eyes. I have noticed that when sincere people laugh, they always cry. She opened her bag, took out a handkerchief, and wiped away her tears. Then in an innocent manner, she asked, “Saadat Sahib, tell me, is what I’m saying interesting?”
Matt Reeck is a poet and translator based in Brooklyn. His poetry is forthcoming in Ahsahta Press' anthology The Arcadia Project, and translations are forthcoming in Two Lines, eXchanges, and The Brooklyn Rail's best-of-fiction anthology. This fall will see the release of the first issue of his magazine Staging Ground. Along with co-translator Aftab Ahmad, he has prepared a manuscript of Manto's Bombay fiction titled, Bombay Stories.
For the complete text of this translation, see: