As Real as Real Can Get: Reading James Joyce’s Dubliners

Every avid reader is often consumed by a sense of guilt. Guilt at their inability to finish a seminal piece of literature. This could be due to different situations. Perhaps at that moment, the book was too lengthy. Maybe it needed more patience. Or, you couldn’t comprehend the societal and historical context. This happened when I attempted reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. A milestone whose cultural and linguistic nuances I failed to grasp. Moreover, to keep Googling for the meaning of every second sentence was tedious. It extracted the joy out of reading. So, to go easy but not be deprived of Joyce’s genius, I opted for Dubliners. Equally rich but comparatively more accessible, this collection of short stories describes the Irish life in the early years of the 20th century, chronicling routine existence, love, politics, sexuality and coming-of-age.

Dubliners captured the socio-political and economic zeitgeist, intricately weaving the currents in the experiences, actions and language of the characters. It was published in 1914, a time caught in poverty, Irish nationalism, and Modernism. Oppressive colonial domination by the British government in Westminster had resulted in destitution, widespread squalor, and repression of indigenous culture. The Celtic Renaissance was working towards renewing nation’s cultural identity and brining Irish folklore, authors, and literature to the forefront. Modernism was itching to grow. The style was gathering momentum and ultimately, Ulysses would become its magnum opus. This was the hotbed of change in which the book was embedded.

Every story in Dubliners is a study of society, survival and even grammar! Since it isn’t possible to discuss each, I’ll share certain observations about the ones that for me, made an overwhelming impact in terms of the themes they address, the realities they reflect, the variations in form and the atmosphere they weave around the reader.

The Sisters is about an unnamed boy whose mentor, Reverend James Flynn has died. In the mourning house, the sisters of the deceased describe the priest’s increasingly insane and distorted actions and his involvement in Church scandals. The death kickstarts Dubliners and its consistent commentary on themes such as paralysis, indecision, and demise (both literal and metaphorical). Instead of sadness, the boy feels free. This is an allusion to the suppression of the Irish by the British government and the Roman Catholic church, the latter embodied by Reverend Flynn and his influence over the boy. An interesting aspect is the author’s deft inclusion of ellipses (). This method is used liberally, a powerful way of conveying human distraction and the act of zoning out in midst of a conversation.

Two Gallants reveals the dead-end Irish existence. Lenehan and Corley are scheming men who trick girls into stealing from their employers and giving them money. On a particular evening, they plan to dupe a housekeeper. While Corley is the chief strategist and executor, Lenehan is eager to catch a glimpse of the woman. They are competitive, each fearing that the other will cut them out of the plan. As Corley enjoys his date, Lenehan is left feeling lonely. Eating a meal of beer and peas, he longs for a stable job and a happy home. He is more reflective than Corley but ultimately, both are crude and desperate for easy money. They have little prospects and are worried about betrayal, representing a generation of Irish youth who have been disappointed by delayed Independence. Well, there’s nothing gallant about these two!

According to me, A Little Cloud was the most relatable of the lot. It speaks of a reunion of old friends. Little Chandler is a timid clerk, burdened by his cyclical and deadpan existence. Once an aspiring poet, he has long abandoned his creative persuasions. On the other hand, Gallagher is flamboyant, well-travelled and a powerful man in the London Press. As the evening progresses, Chandler is disheartened listening to his friend’s extravagant (yet superficial) adventures and blames his inability to write on the pathetic condition of Dublin and his claustrophobic marital life. Interestingly, he spends more time thinking about poetry and fame than translating his wild passions into actions. When Chandler returns home, he loses his temper and berates his infant. As his wife soothes the sobbing baby, Chandler is utterly remorseful.

The Clay is fascinating on account of its unassuming nature. At the first go, it appears to be about nothing. It describes an evening in the life of an unmarried maid named Maria. She spends Hallows’ Eve with the family of boys she used to care for as a governess. Maria is docile, compassionate, and loved. They play a game where a blindfolded participant must place their hand in one of the three saucers on the table. Each contained a different element that carries a specific meaning. In her first try, Maria places her hand in the saucer containing clay. She cannot discern what it is and is asked her to choose another plate. This time, she touches the prayer book and they guess that she will soon join the convent. The evening continues. It is only when you delve deeper that you realise in Irish tradition, clay is a symbol of death. The family listens to Maria sing and convinced of her ill-fate, do not interrupt when she repeats the same stanza twice.

Technically, Dubliners is an assemblage of short, seemingly unconnected, tales of survival in Ireland. However, my experience is more complex. This isn’t a novel. But the episodic structure is more interconnected than one would assume. Themes frequently mirror one another. An idea that finds infant expression in one story is taken to its logical conclusion in the next. Let’s observe A Little Cloud and Counterparts. Both are about frustrated men who vent their anger on innocent family members. While Little Chandler shouts at his infant son, Farrington from Counterparts mercilessly hits his boy after a bad day where he is humiliated at work and social circle. They don’t do much to alleviate their position. However, it takes them no time to project their failures onto children who have nothing to do with it. I felt that the final half of Counterparts is the most chilling part of the collection. As Farrington beats his son, the child cries and promises to say a prayer for his father if he stops hitting him.

Death penetrates Dubliners like a sharp knife cutting through the cake. Apart from actual deaths such as those of Reverend Flynn, Charles Parnell, Eveline’s mother and Mrs Sinico, characters suffer spiritual deaths. This is signified by the morally ambiguous ways they make money, ethical corruption and an invisible, endless loop of failure that encircles their life.

An Encounter follows the journey of a young boy who meets an old man whose speech is full of discomforting sexual innuendos. Whether it’s the conmen in Two Gallants or the party workers in Ivy Day in the Committee Room, the broader objective is to make a quick buck san feeling, integrity or passion. Dubliners have no glossy lacquer. The filth, scarcity, and unappealing lives of the characters tend to dampen the reader’s temperament. Was progress so stunted? Were lives that meaningless? Was there nothing to celebrate? 

To be honest, yes. These are tales of domination, exploitation, and futility. Neither are they adventurous. No story promises glorious adventures or unimaginable twists. These are the most accurate geographical and emotional description of the city from those turbulent times. Down to the pubs visited by the characters and the songs they sing, they are real. The sadness, politics, planning and plotting, marriages and affairs – hauntingly accurate.

Moscow, Mania, the Master and His Margarita!

In the literary circles of erstwhile Soviet Union, a famous proverb postulated, “Manuscripts don’t burn.”  The phrase celebrates the permanency of art and the defiance of Russian authors when faced with institutionalised censorship. Writers memorised material, refrained from penning down their ideas, printed secret carbon copies and sent microfilm versions of their work to foreign publishers. The powerful maxim can be traced to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, one of the 20th century’s unforgettable lessons in magical realism. Simultaneously, the novel stands testament to the condition of Soviet writers, courtesy of the systematic oppression executed by Glavlit, the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press.

The Master and Margarita was born and disseminated through endless struggles. Bulgakov started writing in 1928. Two years later, disillusioned with being a storyteller in such a repressive regime, he burnt the manuscript. His apartment had been raided, diaries confiscated and repeated requests for emigration stalled by Stalin. In 1931, he resumed work and rewrote the initial portion from memory. Four weeks before his death in 1940, Bulgakov stopped writing. From 1968 to several decades after, only a highly censored copy was available in print. Fortunately, the process called samizdat was also underway. Considered dissident activity, controversial publications were manually reproduced. Bulgakov’s original text, containing all omitted sections, was circulated among trusted circles. Finally, the text dating to 1940 saw the light of the day in 1973. Another edition, that compiled all previous versions, was published only after 1989. Therefore, the fact that we are able to read and appreciate this book is a deeply humbling realisation in itself.

So, what does it take to enjoy The Master and Margarita? Here’s a checklist:

  • Sense of humour (You must be able to recognise and enjoy a good laugh)
  • Sensitivity (To understand the pain of those consistently marginalised)
  • Strangeness (Quite a lot of this; preferably all the eccentricity available)

These are the central emotional experiences that control Bulgakov’s masterpiece. The narrative is an intoxicating potion, prepared in a cauldron bubbling with unhinged humans, the Devil and his minions, detectives, nosy tenants, bustling cities, Jewish feasts, asylums, literary committees, historical events, counterfeit money, housing shortage and every little thing that surpasses the limitations of “This can’t possibly be happening.”  The Master and Margarita straddle three, interconnected plotlines that transcend time and recklessly play with the human notions of redemption, good, evil and life on earth. Each story is nested within the other. Each opens the gate to another world.

In the first section, the Devil visits Moscow. Satan comes as Professor Woland, a black magic enthusiast. Accompanying him are his notorious crew: a colossal black cat called Behemoth, the vampire Hella, the valet Koroviev-Faggot and a trickster named Azazello. Together, they stage a theatrical performance that makes a mockery of the Russian elite. They instigate disappearances, arrests and ridiculous situations that cause a feverish collapse of the social fabric and law enforcement. Through their antics, Bulgakov exposes the most spiteful features of Soviet society; uncontrollable consumerism, the clampdown on the production of literature, unnecessary enthusiasm about private lives, corruption and autocratic bureaucracy.

The second storyline is set in Jerusalem, the time during which Pontius Pilate served as the Procurator of Judea. History best remembers Pilate as the official who oversaw the proceedings against Jesus Christ and ordered his Crucifixion. In this book, Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Hebrew equivalent of Jesus the Nazarene) is brought to Pilate after he is accused of inciting rebellion. Pilate is immediately drawn to his compassionate philosophies but cannot allow a man who has challenged Caesar to be freed. Overcome by guilt at his inability to save Yeshua from the gallows, Pilate is condemned to a painful life. For 2000 years, his dog Banga and he occupy a hilltop, waiting for forgiveness.

Finally, we come to the people who lend the book its name. The Master wins a lottery and moves to the countryside where he spends his days writing his novel about Pontius Pilate. He meets and falls in love with Margarita, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. She is not only devoted to the Master but is deeply connected to his writing. Tragedy strikes when influential critics refuse to publish the Master’s book and subject it to scathing criticism. Tormented by failure, he turns himself over to a psychiatric clinic. Margarita is left hurt and dazed, frantically searching for her lover and desperate for revenge.

The Master and Margarita is a masterclass in magical realism. Injecting the Moscow cityscape with supernatural elements, Bulgakov lets the madness run berserk. And he does so unapologetically, without explaining the why of things. Behemoth is a sarcastic cat who enjoys vodka with pickled mushrooms. Neighbors turn into flying pigs. An accountant disappears, leaving behind his empty suit who sits at the desk and diligently finishes work. Cramped apartments can acquire the fifth dimension for the Devil to host a grand feast.  These things happen. Deal with it.

One of the novel’s most famous episodes is Professor Woland’s Midnight’s Ball where he invites Margarita to be the hostess. She is bathed in blood, rose oil and prepared for the event. The venue of the grand feast consists of several fantastical spaces and things; a tropical forest, a fountain of champagne and a grand choir of orangutans. The ball is for the Dead; specifically, those who committed heinous crimes when they were alive. Coffins and gallows tumble out of the fireplace and the remains of the invitees transform themselves into well-dressed, charismatic guests.

It is widely believed that Bulgakov designed this celebration as an ode to the deep-rooted, cyclical nature of evil. The guests represent historical figures. In 1935, he was invited to a magnificent ball hosted by the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. The extravagance was unimaginable, including Finnish tulips, a recreated forest and a menagerie including zebras, bears, parakeets, pheasants and goats. The 400 attendees included the likes of Nikolai Bukharin (Bolshevik revolutionary), Maxim Litvinov (Foreign Minister), Karl Radek (Communist Leader) and renowned members of the political circles. Stalin was absent. Interestingly, Bulgakov never openly mentioned Stalinism. Instead, he conjured mystical ideas to symbolise the strange happenings in totalitarian regimes.

The Master and Margarita is like an indulgent, baked delicacy. When you hold up the glass dish, you can ascertain the distinct layers of meat, vegetables, and cheese. But it is only when the spoon cracks through the hot surface and scoops up a delicious bite, can the complexity of flavours be truly appreciated. The layers merge into a single, delicious whole, and the juices begin to flow. If this thought makes you hungry, then The Master and Margarita will surely satiate that appetite.

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Master_and_Margarita

Nothing Behind Me, Everything Ahead of Me: Why ‘On the Road’ Is the Perfect Book for 2020!

To describe 2020 as difficult would be a gross understatement. It’s not just the constant struggle of having to unlearn and learn how to live our lives. The year has been plagued with infinite battles fought in our heads and hearts. A stifling stagnancy contaminates dreams and realities. Such tumultuous times call for a gust of crisp, fresh air. For me, it came as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. That unforgettable piece of Beat Generation literature that redefined rebellion, inspired generations of youthful madness, changed Bob Dylan’s life and birthed a sparkling, anti-mainstream régime by stitching together ‘deviant’ subcultures.

Before delving into On the Road, it would be helpful to clarify that no Beat poet, writer or artist was perfect. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Stark-raving insanity was the alternative they concocted to challenge the American humdrum and this philosophy had hysterical manifestations. However, this isn’t about their controversial lifestyle. Everyone knows of the psychotic episodes, multiple addictions, use of chemical stimulants, rampant affairs, promiscuity and irreverence. Frequently and unfortunately, this becomes the start and the end of most conversations on this period. My current concern isn’t discussing Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs’ way of life. Nor is it sensationalising their excesses. It’s only to initiate a dialogue on a particular book that was the literary milestone of the 1950s and why it needs your attention in 2020 more than ever.

On the Road is the logical culmination of Jack Kerouac’s love for travelling. The story follows Sal Paradise (the author’s alter ego) and his journey across America through which he attempts to break through life’s inertia, discover the meaning of manana (an indefinite future) and experience love, freedom and self-assertion. With Sal, we travel to Chicago, Iowa, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sabinal, New York and countless, nameless towns that dot the landscape. We are thrown into the arms of bustling cities, impoverished mining settlements, lively carnivals, snow-capped mountains, apple pie and ice-cream trucks and fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries. It’s like the textual rendition of an exhilarating and intricate dream.

So, why do I speak highly of the book as an antidote to the emotional turbulence of 2020? Because seldom will you come across an experience that is soothing, immersive, contemplative and breathtaking at the same time. On the Road is about flawed individuals who are clawing to make ends meet, failing miserably, not being able to decide for themselves or decipher who they are. There is no privilege. The existential crisis is real. The fear of missing out on the best years is real. At a hard-hitting juncture, a depressed Sal is alone in Los Angeles. Surrounded by glitz and glamour, he uses his only dollar to buy a loaf of bread and laments spending his last night in the crazy gold-coast city making sandwiches in a parking lot. As a 23-year-old always distressed about not having achieved or experienced enough, this little paragraph deeply resonated with me, as it will with the countless others who grapple with the anxiety of their lives passing them by. We’ve all suffered moments where like Sal, we thought, “I had nothing to offer anybody, apart from my own confusion.”

Yet (and thankfully), On the Road is brimming with promise. Kerouac acknowledges the bubbling restlessness, disillusionment, and frustration. He shows you the way, describing the path through language that is unimaginably decadent. So, don’t be surprised when you find pages after pages talking about one night or a cobbled alley. But, here’s the catch. The writing is rich, picturesque, and easy-going. You’ll never realise the breakneck speed at which you’re living Sal’s life. Nor can you enumerate the sheer number of towns and freeways you’ve traversed with him. Kerouac’s writing is both transportive and transformative. The dense imagery is bewitching, flowing like intoxicated thoughts. The result is mesmerising, flashing before your eyes like postcards. Imagine a red rose floating down the Hudson River, burning Roman candles, cherry blossom mornings of springtime in the Rockies and purple dusks over tangerine groves. 

On the Road is equally harrowing. A feeling of breathlessness pervades the aesthetic. While reading long, winding paragraphs about waking up alone in a hotel room, it isn’t uncommon to experience dissociation and sadness. When Sal remarks, “Things are so hard to figure out when you live from day to day in this feverish, silly world”, you understand his dejection and naiveté. We all have a Sal within us- immature, compassionate, and clumsy.  

The book’s merit is the power it vests in the human capacity to sustain. No matter how cold it is or how penniless you are, there’s always a mason jar of hope. Sal has been heartbroken, confused, and stranded. His intense sorrow, set against the backdrop of rain in the mountains and lonely highways, is nerve-wracking. It reminds us of our hidden insecurities and the dread of being lost. But the despondency is never absolute. Sooner or later, a jalopy comes along and Sal is on the go again, ready for his next destination. There will be a kind soul who’ll share a smoke or pay for coffee. Or a good night’s sleep in a comfortable inn. To put it simply, Sal survives. His actions aren’t heroic. There are dark bends and slippery slopes and like anybody else, he improvises and finds joy in the nooks and crannies of life. Nonetheless, the adventures don’t cease. It assures his readers that they too will make it out of any mess.

Those familiar with On the Road can criticise my article on many accounts. I’ll list them. First, I haven’t commented on the Beat values, their post-war context or impact on literary traditions. Second, I haven’t detailed other characters and their bearing on Sal’s life. Finally, the most searing disapproval is, “Where the hell is Dean Moriarty?” Dean Moriarty, the speed-loving, selfish, indulgent and reckless man whose arrival set the entire book in motion. While I accept the shortcomings, my aim was to primarily talk about the philosophies in the book and how they can help overcome the 2020 blues. On the Road provides what has been hugely absent in our lives in the past months- a sense of movement. It does so in the most relatable manner possible, by telling us about clueless people who have their coming-of-age journeys. It takes time, tears, laughter and belief. The book is messy, beautiful, and too much about everything to be about anything in particular. Just like life.

Of Chocolates, Leg of Lambs and Giant Peaches: Remembering Roald Dahl

When Willy Wonka, Charlie, Grandpa Joe and the group of obnoxious children and their parents float down the Chocolate River whilst seated in a pink boat made of boiled sweets, they pass by a door labelled “STOREROOM NUMBER 71. WHIPS- ALL SHAPES AND SIZES.” Veruca Salt, described by the Oompa Loompas as a bratty child who is pampered and spoilt like a Siamese Cat, confronts the chocolatier, “What on earth do you use whips for?”. Willy Wonka answers with absurd confidence and sardonic wit that perfectly exemplifies his creator’s downright strange and incredible imagination. He says, “Whipped cream isn’t whipped cream at all if it hasn’t been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn’t poached eggs unless it’s been stolen in the dead of the night.”

That’s Roald Dahl. Eccentric, hilarious, magical and frightening! His could beautifully synthesize diverse sensibilities and conjure stories that shaped generations of children and adult consciousness. And as September celebrated his 104th birth anniversary, it’s time we reflect upon his works and discern what makes them distinct from his predecessors and contemporaries in fiction.

Dahl normalised the ridiculous, seamlessly imbibing magical fantasy into the humdrum of everyday life. His characters were odd, nasty and nice and he invented bizarre ways of dispensing justice. Recollect the Twits? Undoubtedly, the Twits are the most ludicrous married couple to exist in literature. Retired circus trainers, they spent their days plotting repulsive pranks. While Mrs. Twit lovingly fed her husband spaghetti with worms, Mr. Twit tied her to balloons, hoping she would fly away and never return. Together, they tortured the Muggle-Wump family of monkeys by training them to do everything while standing upside-down. Yes, they were foul. And they met with a ghastly end. The Muggle-Wumps, assisted by a group of birds which the duo had planned to trap and bake, glued all the furniture to the ceiling. Under the impression that they were upturned, the Twits stood on their heads and finally, vanished into a heap of clothes. Critics disapprove of the harsh treatment Dahl meted out to adults. To this accusation, the author said, “Beastly people must be punished.”

Dahl’s greatest strength was never infantilising his young readers. His sarcastic, anti-establishmentarian tone does not attempt to sugarcoat concepts of death, institutional violence and evils of character. He explicitly details Ms. Trunchbull’s barbaric methods to civilize students, how James’s parents are eaten alive by a rhinoceros and Augustus Gloop’s nauseating gluttony. Now, the question that arises is why kids devour his work despite the morbid inclinations? Simply, it’s because they adore Dahl’s unconditional support. He indulges their fantasies, penalises adults and allows the children to triumph. So, in the end, Charlie Bucket gets to live in Willy Wonka’s factory and the insufferable others return with permanent disfigurements. And James, who had an awful childhood with his abusive aunts, befriends the children of New York City while his guardians are squashed to death under the peach. Coming to Matilda and Miss Honey, they live happily while the school improves under a kind headmaster.

The complexity of Dahl’s writing reveals to kids a spectrum of sentiment. Suddenly, they could experience what adults are wary of them knowing. It mirrors their powerlessness when faced with authoritarian figures like parents and teachers. But simultaneously, children are told (and convinced) that it is perfectly possible to overcome odds, rebel against autocratic influences and be the master of their lives. At the core, is always a tale of fulfilling dreams. 

Dahl’s relationship with adults is just as intriguing. He once said, “Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets.” Funnily, this becomes the current permeating his short stories. He doesn’t shy from experimenting with gore and macabre deaths. Ordinary men and women perform haunting actions. The mundane is elevated to the horrific.

The protagonist of Lamb to the Slaughter, the pregnant Mary Maloney, clubs her disloyal husband to death using a leg of lamb and then cooks it. She hoodwinks the officers and as they enjoy that very lamb, the policemen discuss the possibility of the murder weapon being right under their nose. In the next room, Mary giggles and we are left unnerved. In Man from the South, an old man and young naval cadet participate in a preposterous bet. If the latter can ignite his lighter ten times in a row, he gets the former’s Cadillac. But if he fails, the man will chop his finger using a butcher’s knife. As the cadet prepares to test his lighter for the tenth time, a woman bursts into the room. To reveal what unfolded would be a sin. Dahl truly masters the art of building tension. He neatly arranges every element, constructing a house of cards balanced on intrigue, horror and humorous repartee. 

This discussion is incomplete without talking about the more controversial elements of his life and writing. Grown-ups don’t enjoy certain aspects of Dahl’s storytelling. He’s been accused of misogyny, teaching children all the wrong things and pandering to violent fantasies. His controversial personal life (his wife named him Roald the Rotten) and anti-Semitic views constantly come under the scanner. Interestingly, even his closest competitor in children’s fiction, Enid Blyton, has been often accused of racism and sexism.

However, to deny Dahl’s genius is criminal. Having never written a mega-series (like Blyton’s Secret Seven or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia), he continues to be the most widely-read children’s author across decades. The subversive and uncomfortable plotlines are a grave reminder for adults that all is not rosy in a child’s life. A little boy or girl’s reality is frequently plagued by shadows, a sense of powerlessness and fear. And for children, he fashioned unbelievable spaces that are the perfect balance of light and dark. Here, they weren’t looked down upon. Dahl wanted them to be playful, true to themselves and wild and save the day utilising such unruly qualities. Never before was disruption packaged so deliciously.

One may conclude that Roald Dahl is not everyone’s cup of tea. Particularly not his English teacher’s. When Dahl was 15, his report card read “A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences mal-constructed. He reminds me of a camel.” Now, that’s quite horrigust. What’s horrigust? That’s the word he invented for something that is both horrible and disgusting. But in the end, we must admit that a Roald Dahl book will never cease to be zozimus…the stuff that dreams are made of.

Cover Image: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo / CC0

More Than Just the Partition: Comprehending Manto in His Entirety

It is a pungent truth that the tremendous burden of the Partition was borne entirely by the unnamed men, women and children of the subcontinent. As they boarded overcrowded trains, watched relatives being slaughtered, fled from burning homes, and struggled to rebuild their lives with nothing but loss, they were pushed into oblivion by History. Fortunately, a handful of artists have documented the more mundane and animalistic side of human grief. Saadat Hasan Manto, who wondered in a self-written epitaph that who amongst God and himself was the better short-story writer, is a sparkling mind renowned for his audacious portrayal of trauma, displacement, sexuality and sorrow. 

While Manto is our most precious looking-glass into the widespread torment set free by the Partition, to generalise his works as revolving around a single element is a reductionist approach to his art. What must be celebrated is his powerful eye for human nature in its most unpolished manifestations. Plunging into the twisted corridors of the human psyche which till date remains the most ostracized victim of decolonization, Manto explores complex relationships, pathos, liberation, domination, murder, the struggle for survival and a romantic search for residual goodness. 

In 1934, Manto moved to Mumbai where he wrote scripts for Hindi cinema. And set in the bustling, gossip-loving milieu of film sets is My Name is Radha. The story follows three individuals: a famous actor called Raj Kishore known for his moral righteousness, Radha who is playing the vamp in his film and an observant narrator. Although Raj Kishore is adulated for his chivalry, Radha sees through his conceited frontier and recognizes a vain, controlling sadist. Through a journey riddled with sexual tension and redemption, Manto makes profound observations on voyeurism in filmmaking, the vilification of women and the all-encompassing subjugation threatening gendered minorities.

When Radha stops Raj Kishore from addressing her as Sister, everyone feels entitled to abuse her for this supposed display of arrogance and audacity. Even the owner of the tea stall calls her filthy names while admiring Raj Kishore’s gallantry. Finally, after they indulge in a violent sexual encounter, Radha is disgusted and seeks solace in the narrator. While consoling her, he mistakenly calls her Neelam (the screen-name she uses as she feels that Radha is too pure for the talkies). She interrupts him saying, “My name is Radha.” Her parting words tell us that she will always be a misfit. Simultaneously, it reinstates her virtue, bright intellect and inner strength. 

My Name is Radha bears striking resemblance to Alankrita Shrivastava’s Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare. Both are stories of women who don’t confer to standards. In the film, Kitty works as a companion on a romance app and Dolly routinely fudges office accounts to pay off loans.

However, underlying Radha, Dolly and Kitty’s questionable decisions are resolute individuals fighting for survival. They assume multiple identities, are prone to imperfections and errors but remain true to themselves. When Dolly chides Kitty for the nature of her job, the latter says that she is proud of making an honest living. It resonates deeply with one of Manto’s most famous sayings, “To those men who say that women from good families must come into the world of cinema, I have this question: What is it that you mean by “good?” A woman, who honestly puts her wares on display, and sells them without an intention to cheat, is such a woman not virtuous?”

Manto’s women are complicated people who delicately toe the line of imposed morality. But his strength lies in upholding their innate goodness and honest intentions. They are self-assured, well-meaning and flawed. Consider A Woman’s Life, a poignant tale of asserting of one’s identity. Saugandhi, a kind-hearted prostitute, is slighted by a rich merchant who mocks her appearance. Humiliated, she questions her worth. Reflecting upon her life, she realises that even her lover is a selfish, avaricious man. When he arrives asking for money, Saugandhi smashes his photograph and throws him out. Here, Manto doesn’t wish to discuss the poverty-stricken condition of marginalised women. Saugandhi’s story is about achieving dignity in despair. 

A similar spirit is seen in Mozel, about a brazen Jewish girl and her relationship with Tarlochan Singh, a devout Sikh. Despite her digs at his religion and multiple affairs, Tarlochan indulges Mozel and even shaves his hair and beard to please her. But after Mozel leaves, he falls in love with Kirpal. When rioters’ attack her neighbourhood, it is Mozel who convinces Tarlochan to overcome his fear and they set out to rescue her. Sadly, she is killed while attempting to save Kirpal. When Tarlochan rushes to cover her naked body with his turban, Mozel refuses. She is defiant even in death, rejecting both sympathy and the so-called sense of shame. These stories highlight the existentialist efforts at self-assertion by women across class, caste and religion. 

Frequently, Manto takes us into the dingy world of riots, mobs and refugee camps. The Assignment is a haunting account of the transactional nature of death. Sughra, a young girl is trapped in her house with her brother and bed-ridden father, Mian Abdul Hai. As the riots gain momentum, her neighbours relocate to Muslim-majority localities. One evening, a Sikh man whose father was greatly indebted to Mian Abdul Hai for saving him from legal trouble, visits them with sweets. As he returns, turbaned men carrying explosives corner him in the streets. They ask if he has fulfilled his assignment and if they were free to proceed with theirs. The man replies, “If you like” and walks away. Sweets, a symbol of warmth and hope, becomes a cold harbinger of doom.

A gruesome picture of brutality is found in The Return. Sirajuddin wakes up in a migrant camp, unable to find his daughter Sakina. He desperately searches for her, pleading to the officials and running from one site to another. Days later, she is brought to the camp infirmary on a stretcher. Cruelly assaulted, her only reaction is to loosen the strings of her salwar and pull down the garment. Sirajuddin is overjoyed at the sight of his daughter but the vicious violation she has endured makes the reader squirm. Such narratives strongly compete with the more diluted, mathematical version of the Partition recorded in official archives. Unnerving and nauseating, they create a space for public mourning. 

Above all, Manto is our guide through a labyrinthine society. He unearths realities of existence, identity, sexuality and suffering. Such themes counter the purist notion that postulates how he is solely interested in Partition and prostitutes. Breaking through such cursory reading of his texts, we understand that Manto is concerned with people; complex, careless, cruel, compassionate and capricious as they are. He is a storyteller and commentator in equal measure and boiling down his corpus to its overtly visible themes is akin to reading with blinkers.