Book #15 – Reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s rapier sharp prose in Toba Tek Singh

I confess that I hadn’t read a single Saadat Hasan Manto story before I picked up the slim volume of his stories published by Penguin as part of their Penguin Evergreens. What little I knew about is pretty much known by all those who’ve heard of this great Urdu writer: that he was tried for obscenity half a dozen times, wrote screenplays in the Hindi film industry in Bombay and moved to Lahore during his last years. I had heard that he had written some of the most incisive and hard-hitting stories about Partition and that in terms of both style and content, his stories were very much ahead of their times. And yet, I wasn’t prepared for the wallop that they delivered when I actually read them.

The Evergreen collection, named Toba Tek Singh, after his single-most famous piece of fiction, is a good introduction to this wonderful writer. It’s in equal parts a showcase of the writer’s deep humanity as well as his cutting wit. Toba Tek Singh is a fantastic story about the partition: the Indian and Pakistani governments decided they should exchange lunatics as well, so the muslim lunatics will be sent to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics will be sent to India.  The reactions of the inmates themselves is hilarious – one inmate climbs a tree and says he wish to live there, not India or Pakistan. Another inmate, when asked what Pakistan is, says, “The name of a place in India where cut-throat razors are manufactured.”  Another declares himself to be Muhammad Ali Jinnah.  However, the overall mood of the story is one of bemusement: why did this bloody split have to happen in the first place? This bewilderment is reflected in the garbled speech of one Bishen Singh and his obsessive question: is his village, Toba Tek Singh, in India or Pakistan? There is a strong strain of the absurdist that pervades this story:

“One of the inmates had declared himself God. Bishen Singh asked him one day if Toba Tek Singh was in India or Pakistan. The man chuckled. ‘Neither in India nor in Pakistan, because so far, we have issued no orders in this respect.’”

Naturally, the story ends on a tragic note, with Bishen making the no man’s land between India and Pakistan, his final resting place.  In The Dog of Titwal, similarly, a friendly dog is martyred in the never-ending one-upmanship between the two neighbouring countries, with each side accusing the poor dog of belonging to the enemy’s camp. The end is cruel, but Manto deals with the traumatic effects of the subcontinent’s partition the only way he can: by pointing out how absurd it all is.

Other stories can be even more brutal in how they explore the violence that lies beneath all of us, only thinly covered with a veneer of civilization. In Colder than Ice, a Sikh man returns to his lover and confesses how he got carried away by his violent urges during the Partition riots and ended up raping a young Muslim girl, only to find out that she had been dead while he was violating her.  Bitter Harvest sees a ma,n whose wife and daughter have been raped and murdered, go berserk  and ultimately find out that he’s not very different from the animals who brutalized his family.

What I liked best, however, were the stories populated with more colourful characters: Green Sandals is a long domestic argument, where threats of divorce and hideous insults between the couple, evaporate when the trivial cause of their fight is uncovered. The Price of Freedom has a young couple in love realizes that certain sacrifices, even when made for a cause, are just not worth the pain they cause.  One particular delight was A Woman for All Seasons, which is a thinly veiled recounting of the rise and fall of India’s first female star, Devika Rani. It wasn’t the best written of the lot, I admit, but I found it amusing simply because of the casual irreverence with which it is written.  It gives  one a fascinating glimpse into the world of Hindi cinema when it first began, and I would like to get hold of more of Manto’s writings about this period of his life.

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Television really does suck: reading book #14 Coming Soon. The End.

THESE are days when the word ‘television’ is just another synonym for ‘garbage’.  Think of all the words you use when, remote in hand, you do a bit of channel surfing. You say, “There’s nothing but trash to watch” or you say, “It’s all rubbish”. Given how popular and widespread this feeling is, it’s surprising that television channels and production houses don’t do anything about it. I mean, they can’t be blind or illiterate. They MUST have seen and read some at least some of the reviews that their shows get. They MUST have some idea of what contempt is inspired by their regressive shows where all the men go to work and their wives stay at home and conspire against each other. Or the puerile comedies, where the jokes are deader than the canned laughter that rings out every five minutes. Or even the ‘reality shows’ where they know we know that what they’re really making is as far from reality as possible. Should we seriously, SERIOUSLY believe that all those men and women locked up in the house or marooned in that forest are fighting because it’s just how people react to each other? Wouldn’t at least some of them try to get along? And aren’t all of them simply reacting so aggressively because they know they’re being watched and their antics will make them famous, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. Of course they do!

If this post sounds angry, it’s because I am angry. Bad, dumbed-down television really pisses me off, because frankly, I feel insulted. I feel insulted by the assumption that Indian viewers such as myself deserve this kind of nonsense, where weird accents are supposed to be a joke and where somebody like a Rakhi Sawant can have not just one show, but TWO that revolve entirely around her. Seriously, TV?

A lot of the bitterness and anger that I feel seems to be shared by Omkar Sane, the author of Coming Soon. The End – The Reality Show Called Television.  The tone of the book is mordant and the author makes no bones about the fact that he holds the workings of television channels in the lowest esteem. There’s no logic, he tells us, in the way the world of TV functions, apart from money. Money is the only thing that greases the wheels of this world and good ideas are usually considered a hindrance.

The book is written in the form of an allegory – an interesting way to draw the reader into the world of TV, where each genre has its own peculiar way of functioning. We’re introduced to five main characters: Grass who works in kids’ channel, Bass who works in a music channel, Crass who is employed by a general entertainment channel, Farce who is part of a news channel and Mass who represents the general public.  Grass, Bass, Crass and Farce take Mass through the tumultuous life of those who work in television. The complaints are the usual ones: it takes over your life, it’s run by people who have no idea what they’re doing and only money counts. That naturally means that creativity becomes a casualty and it’s not the content, but the revenue that is the king.

This is one of those books that left me feeling quite ambivalent. On the one hand, I loved that someone had finally decided to take a dig at the television industry. It’s a great illustration of the behind-the-scenes of the idiot box and the frustration that one can feel when working for a medium where creativity matters so little. Even the dialogues – though the jokes sometimes bordered on the cheesy – reflects the feverish energy and the often nonsensical proceedings of the small screen world.  There’s a clear sense of anguish in the author’s voice; what else could it be when there is a chapter called ‘Stories, Commodities and News’.

On the other hand, I did feel a little disappointed that Sane hadn’t really gone deep into why television is so crappy. Perhaps, he didn’t feel that exploring that particular question was within the scope of this book, but I would have liked to read a little bit about how Indian television became so dumb. It wasn’t always like this: there used to be some genuinely good programming on TV. People still reminisce fondly about shows like Malgudi Days, Byomkesh Bakshi, Banegi Apni Baat, Campus and Dekh Bhai Dekh. So how did something, that started out with so much promise, go down the path of mediocrity? Was it Ekta Kapoor and her blitzkrieg of Saas-Bahu shows? Was it the introduction of reality shows or the American Idol format on talent shows like Sa Re Ga Ma? The US has some great shows with strong stories in the recent past: 30 Rock, Mad Men, The Wire, Lost, Dexter. Hell, even older shows like The Simpsons, Arrested Development, Seinfeld and Futurama hold up to repeated watching. Why can’t we have a few shows like that here?

In fact, Sane’s flippant and irreverent tone sometimes takes the sting out of his harshest condemnation of television. He should next write a book that won’t pull its punches and will bloody well call a spade a spade. Now that the author has got this off his chest, perhaps he can dig a little deeper and really dish the dirt on television. It’s not just the viewers that need to be shown what the medium has been reduced to. It’s the people who control television who really need to hear it and they can do so only when it’s said loudly enough.

Reading Book #13: Truman Capote’s Summer Crossing

I worship at the altar of Truman Capote. I adore his prose and I’m fascinated by the man. I’ve watched two different biopics about him – Infamous and Capote – almost back to back (I favoured Infamous, because the dishy Daniel Craig played Perry Smith). I’ve read the book – In Cold Blood – which Capote wrote at the end of the events covered in the movies. I’ve also read Breakfast at Tiffany’s; I found it to be profoundly moving. How many of us can say that we haven’t felt as rudderless as Holly Golightly confesses to feeling? As for the gem of a short story A Christmas Memory, I’m yet to come across prose that aches with such nostalgia and loneliness.

What I’ve found most interesting about Capote is how he could employ such very different prose styles to tell very compelling stories. In Cold Blood, as everyone knows, is the account of the brutal murder of a Kansas family, and the prose is appropriately sombre. Obviously, it’s a book that is very different in tone from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The latter is, in fact, closer in style to Summer Crossing, his very first novel. There’s an interesting story here; you’ll find it everywhere if you go online. In a nutshell, Capote was apparently unhappy with this manuscript, he abandoned it, left instructions for it to be discarded, but someone held onto to and long after the author was dead, it was rediscovered, auctioned by Sotheby’s and bought by the New York Public Library. After much deliberation, it was published.

The plot of Summer Crossing revolves around 19 year old Grady McNeil – a beautiful young debutant, who has been left in New York for the summer, as her parents sail off to their vacation home in the South of France. Her married sister is residing in her family’s summer home at the Hamptons, so it’s a great opportunity for Grady to continue, and intensify, her affair with the unsuitable Clyde Manzer. Clyde is unsuitable for many reasons, primary among them being the fact that he’s a Jewish parking lot attendant from Brooklyn. He’s also older to Grady and indicates at one point that he may be engaged. Nonetheless, what started out as a summer fling turns into a full-blown love affair.

When reading the novel, one can clearly see the beginnings of Capote’s trademark style of sharp social observation combined with unsparing, razor-sharp wit. His insights into people’s minds are quite brutal. Capote is not a very polite man, at least in his prose, and he says things as they are. One of the notions that our minds find difficult to accept is that while a mother may love her child, she need not necessarily like her. It’s after all, much like other human relationships, and governed by compatibility of personalities. Capote, however, does not hesitate to delineate a mother-daughter relationship that is affectionate at best, and distant at its worst. Sample this:

“…once when she was fourteen, she’d had a terrible and quite acute insight: her mother, she saw, loved her without really liking her; she had thought at first that this was because her mother considered her plainer, more obstinate and less playful than Apple, but later, when it was apparent, and painfully so to Apple, that Grady was finer looking by far, then she gave up reasoning about her mother’s viewpoint: the answer of course, and at last she saw this too, was simply that in an inactive sort of way, she’d never, not even as a very small girl, much liked her mother.”

This is brutal, but it’s not quite conscious of being so. It is rather matter-of-fact in describing this less-than-ideal relationship between parent and child. Considering Capote’s own personal history, of course, this is quite understandable. As a child, he had been subjected to the ‘benign neglect’ of his parents and had been brought up by relatives. It’s clear he never quite got over his loneliness and parental absence is a motif in most of his work, such as A Christmas Memory and Other Voices, Other Rooms. Indeed, Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly’s family background is a complete mystery. Summer Crossing is less thorough in its abandonment theme, although Grady’s parents do leave for France right at the beginning of the book. Significantly, when Clyde’s mother, who clearly still has an overbearing presence in her son’s life, is introduced, it’s the beginning of the end for the love affair. Perhaps on an unconscious level, Capote seems to be indicating that true love, and poetry and romance, can only flourish away from the severe, judgemental gaze of parents. After all, didn’t his talent as a writer blossom when he was away from his parents?

Capote once again displays his casual cruelty when describing the love affair: Grady is pretty and smart and seems just a little bit lonely, but she displays a sort of benevolent contempt and a rather cold affection for her family and her immediate circle. Clyde, on the other hand, is affectionate, impetuous, loud-mouthed and can be a bit of a male chauvinist. Love between these two – even the fierce urgency of first love – is bound to be an imperfect thing, and the romance of their encounters begins to fade as the book progresses. And yet, he inserts gems like this:

“Snatching her hand, he pulled her along with him, and they ran until they reached a side street muffled and sweet with trees. As they leaned together, panting, he put into her hand a bunch of violets, and she knew, quite as though she had seen it done, that they were stolen. Summer that is shade and moss traced itself in the veins of the violet leaves, and she crushed her coolness against her cheek.”

Knowing what we do of Capote, it’s fairly obvious right from the start that the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Not for him the satisfying finale with a happy marriage, kids, perpetual health and wealth. After all, such stark happiness leaves no room for ambiguity and ambiguity is what Capote is best at. That’s why, when he describes the little scenes of affection between Grady and Clyde, their brief playacting of domesticity and their certainty that they do indeed love each other, it breaks one’s heart. Little do they know how Capote has plotted their story.