It’s such a pleasure when stories in an under-translated and under-read language come out, and it’s such a treat when they turn out to be as good as Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories. Translated from Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, the 14 stories in this collection should introduce a new generation of readers who crave stories from other parts of the world to this highly prolific and controversial writer who died at the age of 42.
What makes the collection so exciting to read is the edginess that drips off every page: sex, drugs, prostitution; all of these things happen in Manto’s Bombay in the last days of British rule. What makes these stories shine, however, is the exemplary translation job done by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad. These things combine to make Bombay Stories one of the best translated collections of fiction I’ve read in this young year.
There’s dirt, and there are vibrant colors; love and violence, humor and sadness. Some of Manto’s work could be considered borderline misogynistic, like the ex-girlfriend in “Peerun,” who we’re led to believe is basically a witch that has placed a curse on Brij Mohan, causing him to lose his job anytime she resurfaces in his life; but a closer reading shows that isn’t the case. The men, like the lazy Brij Mohan, are to blame for their problems. “Ten Rupees,” the story of a young prostitute spending a day with her johns, might sound like a risque topic, but the story has the air of a Godard film, where something illegal or illicit is taking place, but there’s a feeling of carefree innocence running throughout the characters day. They’re just people living life in a different place and time; one that lives and breathes in a way very few stories, translated or not, don’t.