When storytelling gets the better of me,I do not know myself what paths I will wander off on. I quite enjoy tiring people out by leading them through labyrinths, an apologetic Saadat Hasan Manto confesses to his idol,the 19th century poet Mirza Ghalib. In Rabisankar Bals Dozakhnama,in which these conversations take place,a Kolkata-based journalist comes across a manuscript in Lucknow,supposedly that of Mantos only novel. The intrigued narrator masters Urdu to translate it,and with this literary staple of a story-within-a-story,Bal leads readers into the heart of the narrative the labyrinthine conversations between the flamboyant Manto,regarded as one of the greatest 20th century writers of short stories in the subcontinent,and Ghalib,dreamer and court poet of the last Mughal emperor.
In this fantastic situation,in which the two literary doyens come together to tell each other stories of their lives and times,biography meshes with imagination,truth with fiction. Separated by a century and products of momentous historical eras,their dastaans run parallel to one another. Ghalib speaks of Shahjahanabad,of an empire on its last legs with a foreign adversary ready to seize control. Manto inhabits a post-Partition universe,a witness to human depravity and aggrandisement. He sees Bombay grow from these debris into a city of aspirations,where films give wings to dreams,and then Lahore,hard-nosed and bargaining,extracting its due for every penny it bestows on him in the last years of his short-lived life.
These descriptions are fascinating,conjuring up images of vanished eras,of idiosyncratic men and their whimsies,of times that were changing so suddenly that it didnt allow them to make the transitions smoothly. Their love of alcohol and the brothel notwithstanding,there are differences in Ghalib and Mantos characters that give both layered personalities. Manto is not averse to selling his art for money,indeed,he thinks of it as a shop with hundreds of stories,while the elitist Ghalib considers his gift to be a prayer,even if he anoints himself to be the best poet after Amir Khusrau. Writing becomes both their hubris and hamartia,liberating them from their private dozakhs,holding them captive in its thrall.
Arunava Sinha has done a commendable job with the translation of Bals book which came out in 2010 in Bengali. It flows seamlessly,retaining the flair of the original,the Urdu nazms and phrases often left untrammelled,a luxurious read if you can afford the time. Time is of particular essence,because it is a book that tends to drag its feet,with digressions that pop up on every other page. While one is suitably impressed by the mingling of oral and documented history and imagination,some of the meanderings feel dated and sorely test ones patience. Not always the labyrinth you would enjoy being lost in.