Categories
Historical

Bitter Fruit (2009) by Saadat Hasan Manto (Translated by Khalid Hasan) – Book Review

Bitter Fruit (2009) is an English-language compilation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s oeuvre of Urdu writings. It does not comprise of all of his writings but contains an abundance of his short stories, flash fiction, a single play, biographies of famous personalities, autobiographical notes by Manto, and biographical notes dedicated to him by his friends and family.

Before starting the review I’d like to mention that Khalid Hasan’s translation skills are awesome. I have read translations of Russian and Polish literature but they are usually off point, but Hasan’s interpretations hit the mark every time. I didn’t find any part confusing nor did I feel the quality of the translated work, whether fictional or non-fictional, drop at any point.

I’d also like to add that this not my first review of a Manto-related work. I have previously reviewed the Nandita Das directed and Nawazuddin Siddiqui starring 2018 biopic Manto. You can read my review of it here.

The book kicks off with Manto’s short stories. I am not certain whether these are all of Manto’s works seeing that he had produced twenty-two collections of short stories during his lifetime. Most of them take place either just before, during, or right after the Partition. Although, I liked almost all of the stories, I have still made a list of the ones which I favored the most (in order of preference):

  1. Toba Tek Singh
  2. Colder Than Ice (Thanda Gosht)
  3. A Man of God
  4. Doing God’s Work
  5. The Last Salute
  6. The Return (Khol Do)
  7. Free for All
  8. The Gift (Kali Shalwar)
  9. Odour
  10. The New Constitution.

The above are my top ten favorites out of the total fifty-one tales. I also felt that some stories were repetitive in nature in the sense that the theme of Partition overshadowed the tone of a minority of the narratives. I am also not sure how many of the stories were semi-biographical as I found at least two stories, Siraj and Baba Gopi Nath, with Manto. The Supplication is a story where Manto is not depicted as an individual but later on when I came upon the autobiographical notes, I found out that Manto had experienced what one of the main characters went through in that story. Thus, it could be possible that the stories in which Manto was not a figure might’ve had semibiographical elements in it.

I am also glad that Manto’s best-known works such as Toba Tek Singh, Colder Than Ice (translation of Thanda Gosht), The Return (translation of Khol Do), The Gift (translation of Kali Shalwar), and Odour (Boo) show up in the top-twenty order of the short-stories’ table of contents. The Gift shows up after the first ten stories but it nevertheless is part of the foremost lineup. Toba Tek Singh is the second story though it should be the first as it is perhaps Manto’s best-known story, and in my opinion, his finest piece of fiction. What I disliked about the translated versions were their titles. Colder Than Ice and Odour do justice to their original namesakes, however, The Return and The Gift are far cries from their actual names. Thus, I think it would have been a better idea to have written the Urdu titles alongside the English ones.

The most unimpressive story was A Strange Tale as Manto tried his best at taking a more literary approach to this yarn compared to his other stories but instead of being awed by it I was left confused. Other stories which were letdowns include Green Sandals and Night Whispers.

The following segment is Drama which contains one play by Manto titled In This Vortex. In my viewpoint, this script played out like an average HUM TV drama. The story was predictable though the dialogues were good and the ending was unforeseeable.

What follows the Drama section is Sketches. These are works of flash fiction comprising of tales ranging from one sentence to a few paragraphs in length. I loved all of them and they actually came across as superior to their longer counterparts. It was difficult to choose which ones I favored the most but the best were Losing Proposition and Pathanistan. Again, this section was perfect showcasing Manto’s prowess at saying so much in so little words.

The next section is Portraits. Here, the only biographical account which was not Manto’s was the first entry, Jinnah Sahib, which is a retelling by one of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s former drivers about his time spent under the late Founder of Pakistan. The other biographical entries are Manto’s own accounts and include entries about his famous friends such as Ashok Kumar and Shyam, his mentor Bari Alag, other renowned celebrities such as Nargis, Kuldip Kaur, and Nur Jehan, and many more. All of the parts in Portraits were absorbing which led to my newly found awareness of Manto’s talent for non-fiction writing.

Portraits is followed by a very unique section titled Letters to Uncle Sam. There are a total of nine letters which Manto had written to America in a literary sense but these had never been published during his lifetime. All of them are entertaining to read and show Manto’s wide knowledge of international politics which would could not have been ascertained by reading the works preceding this segment.

The penultimate section is Manto on Manto which contains four entries namely To My Readers, A Day in Court, Manto on Manto, and Manto’s Epitaph. These are also worth reading and again prove that Manto was as talented a writer of non-fiction as he was of fiction.

The last section is Appendixes which includes three entries—Uncle Manto by Hamid Jalal, Manto Family Conversations, and Friends of Manto Reminisce about Him. I always wondered what Manto’s close associates thought about him and his writings and I was pleased that the translator included these insightful notes. Manto’s nephew Hamid Jalal’s thoughts, both before and after his uncle’s death, were thought-provoking and showcased his own skill as a writer.

To end with, Bitter Fruit is probably the ultimate collection of fictional and non-fictional works by Saadat Hasan Manto. Not of all the book’s contents are excellent but the majority of them are, and for a 700-plus page book, that’s more than enough motivation to have a go at it. Manto might not have been as celebrated when he was alive as he is now, but it is amazing that his legacy has left such an everlasting imprint on the literary world—and I am certain there is no other Urdu writer who has written so freely on taboo subjects (in the case of Pakistan) such as rape, sex, prostitution, drinking, etc.

Categories
Historical

Train to Pakistan (1956) by Khushwant Singh – Book Review

Khushwant Singh is rumored to be one of the greatest English-language authors of Indian origin—and this book proves it. It is a tragedy that he is no longer with us, but just like any other intellectual, his ideas have lived on.

Train to Pakistan is considered one of his signature works. It’s a fictional tale set on the backdrop of the non-fictional separation of Pakistan and India that took place in 1947; the Partition.

This is how the blurb on Oxford University Press’s edition reads:

‘THE FACT IS, BOTH SIDES KILLED. BOTH SHOT AND STABBED AND SPEARED AND CLUBBED. BOTH TORTURED. BOTH RAPED.’

It is the summer of 1947. But Partition does not mean much to the Sikhs and the Muslims of Mano Majra, a village on the border of India and Pakistan. Then, a local moneylender is murdered, and suspicion falls on Juggut Singh, the village gangster who is in love with a Muslim girl. When a train arrives, carrying the bodies of dead Sikhs, the village is transformed into a battlefield, and neither the magistrate nor the police are able to stem the rising tide of violence. Amidst conflicting loyalties, it is left to Juggut Singh to redeem himself and reclaim peace for his villa.

I have to admit that sometimes when you read the description of a book, you don’t get what you bargained for, similar to when you watch an awesome trailer of a lackluster movie. Yet, Train to Pakistan complemented its blurb word-by-word.

The descriptions are vivid; there’s an unparalleled attention to detail relative to both the beauty of South Asia and also the horrors that occurred during the period of division.

What I adored most was how Singh didn’t sugarcoat anything. His storytelling was hardcore in the sense that no party was spared from his yarn. The Hindus, the Muslims, and the Sikhs; all were shown in a similar light and there was no bias whatsoever. I think that history buffs will find this make-believe novel more realistic than the versions of the Partition told in various Pakistan Studies syllabuses.

His writing style does share some of Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif’s trademarks, i.e., dark humor and a preference for satire. The story includes the perfect blend of comedy and tragedy—and after you’ve finished reading it—you’ll be left with a bittersweet taste in your mouth.

The characters are also well-created and the best aspect was that every major individual shared an equal amount of space in the novel. Juggut Singh is the main character but other figures, no matter how small their role in the primary plot, are superbly constructed and you’d wish the novel had been at least 300 pages long as opposed to the 260 pages of the OUP version.

To end with, Train to Pakistan is brilliant in every sense of the word. Its finale is breath-taking, and the overall plot is unpredictable; which I find is a rare aspect for works penned by non-Native authors of the English language.

Categories
Action Historical Science-Fiction

Superman: Red Son (2011) by Mark Millar – Graphic-Novel Review

I’m not only a comic-book enthusiast—but a junkie. I’ve watched majority of the Marvel, DC and other comic-book film adaptations known to man. In fact, I’ve watched all of the X-Men movies at least a dozen times or more (Apocalypse doesn’t count). So I knew somewhere along the line I would start reading the source material. Though, I wasn’t sure I had the experience required to review it, but as the saying goes: “There’s a first time for everything.”

I chose to read 2003’s Superman: Red Son written by Mark Millar because firstly, Superman is my 2nd favorite superhero (1st is undoubtedly Wolverine) and secondly, the recommendation was made by my cousin (who also happens to be an up-and-coming writer), Abdullah Riaz. So, I had no hesitation in picking up a copy. Furthermore, I’m up-to-date with The CW’s Smallville, The Flash and Supergirl. So, I pretty much enjoy unconventional storylines, especially those that are comic-book related.

The premise is pretty simple: What if Superman had been brought up in the Soviet Union? The plot follows an announcement in America some years after WW2’s conclusion that the Soviet Union has a weapon more powerful than a hydrogen bomb AKA Superman. It turns out that in this version, Superman’s ship lands in a Ukrainian collective farm rather than touching down in Smallville, Kansas.

Another special factor about this mini-series is that it features alternate renditions of DC legends. Batman is the most interesting who harbors a vendetta against an associate of Superman, Pyotr Roslov (a variant of Pete Ross), for killing his parents. Batman—saw this coming—also sees Superman as a threat to humanity, and will stop (not kill) the alien at any cost. Wonder Woman is showcased as an ally to Superman. Lex Luthor is depicted as a mad scientist just like in the canonical tales. Jimmy Olsen is an agent. And the most astonishing development is that Lois is Lois Luthor; married to Lex. But she still harbors strong feelings for the Man of Steel.

Here, we have two men of steel; Joseph Stalin is showcased as the leader of both Superman and the SU. There’s also a surprise illustration of John F. Kennedy thrown into the mix. Thus, one positive aspect is the subliminal commentary on both the Cold War and its aftermath, and I bet history/political science lovers will adore this story told in only three issues.

The second favorable quality is the style of the drawings and illustrations. They really make characters like Superman and Batman look totally distinct from their original counterparts, even though these caped crusaders debuted to the world almost a century ago.

Thirdly, the personalities of the main characters. No matter which country’s side you are on, Superman’s moral compass is still pointed in the right direction since his universal debut. He doesn’t kill unless it’s the last option, and Lex Luthor’s competitive nature is thrown in to make an equilibrium between right and wrong (which is to be expected). Politics and morality make up the two major themes in this Elseworlds imprint.

Last but not the least, the conclusion after the ending. I thought the story had ended when all was said and done, but the epilogue blew my mind. It sorta reminded me of The Killing Joke’s finale, although here I’m mentioning the animation’s closure, and not the graphic novel’s finishing twist. Although, they might both be the same.

However, there is one flaw throughout the issues, and that is predictability. Maybe it was because I’ve seen so many of DC’s television shows that I caught wind of the upcoming climaxes before they occurred on the next page. This was primarily due to my years of being acquainted with both of DC’s good guys and bad guys’ traits. I knew what some individuals were about to do before they took the subsequent action. Still, for noobs to the DC comic-verse (those who haven’t viewed the depictions in other mediums), the entire length of the story would come as completely unforeseeable.

Also, I’d like to congratulate all the artists who were involved in depicting several decades of world history in just a trio of issues. Without the character and layout designs to match the scope of Millar’s imagination, the plot wouldn’t have lived up to the hype.

In the end, Mark Millar was quoted as saying that he got the idea for Red Son when he was reading Superman #300 as a six-year old kid, due to living in the shadow of the Cold War. It was undoubtedly wonderful for Millar’s childhood concept to be expressed in the most beloved mediums of American art. Superman: Red Son is recommended to all superhero fans who don’t mind an uncanny take on many of the globe’s most famous fictional icons.