Tears are the perspiration of the eyes

Saadat Hasan Manto

Selected Stories
by Saadat Hasan Manto
translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan

This collection was recommended – and indeed loaned – to me by a friend after a conversation about classic books in India versus in the UK. Many of the names were the same for both of us, but one literary giant I hadn’t heard of, much less read, was Saadat Hasan Manto. So we had to fix that, obviously.

“It was about this time of year. The monsoons had come and, outside his window, the leaves of the peepal tree danced as the raindrops fell on them…Outside, in the milky dankness of the evening, the leaves of the peepal tree swung in the breeze like a golden ornament on a woman’s forehead.”

Manto wrote in almost every medium but the short story is what he was known for, and this selection, specially translated (though apparently most of Manto’s work has been translated into English before at some point) attempts to provide a representation of his whole career, including stories considered classics, such as “The new constitution”.

When telling people what I am reading I have stumbled over such basic information as his nationality, or country of birth, because the answer to those questions is a bit tricksy. He was born to a Kashmiri family in Amritsar in British-ruled India, later living mostly in Lahore, Bombay and finally Karachi. He died less than a decade after the Partition of 1947, and is quoted in the introduction to this volume as saying that he truly did know whether India or Pakistan was his true homeland.

And that, with the turbulence of those years and tensions between religions and social groups, is central to many of the stories in this collection. Which is a great insight and can be very moving. However, in all I’d say I had a mixed reaction to these stories. The language is often beautiful, not flowery and easy to read – except occasionally for the subject matter. The stories are often erotic, with lots of describing women’s bodies, and they don’t shy away from getting down and dirty at times. This is particularly true because many of the women characters are prostitutes.

And I think this is where I began to have a small problem. Where the male characters are varied, three-dimensional and cover a wide strata of careers, the depiction of women is a little…misogynist. Women are always described physically in detail and tend to be defined by their social position or religion rather than having a clear character.

“Tears flickering over her thick eyelashes will look lovely. It will be like raindrops dancing down a shuttered window. It is possible that you may not think tears to be necessary in women’s eyes, but I cannot even imagine a woman’s eyes without tears. Tears are the perspiration of the eyes. A worker’s brow is only a worker’s brow when it is shining with perspiration. A woman’s eyes can only be a woman’s eyes when they are drowned in tears.”

But that reservation aside, these are good stories. They’re real, sometimes shockingly real. There was one story, “The return”, that left me stunned. In fact, for that one story alone I would rate Manto very highly. I also really liked the (very different) story “Odour”, which is sensuous and strangely touching.

This translation first published by Penguin Books India 2007.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

Let our life stories become tragic art

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
by Lisa See

This is the kind of book I went through a phase of reading several years ago – Asian country, female narrator, historical setting (often during a civil war) and generally following the daily life of poor(ish) folk. So I have some comparison. This one stood up well in terms of teaching me new stuff but less well as regards quality of story. Sadly.

Lily is born in 1830 to a modest farming family in the Chinese province of Hunan. As second daughter she has little worth and is just another mouth to feed until the Matchmaker delivers surprising news: if her feet are bound properly, she will have perfect feet, which will secure her both a good marriage (which her family will benefit from) and a laotong – a lifelong best friend (other girls must leave their childhood friends behind when they marry). But secrets, reversals of fortune and an attempted peasant rebellion all threaten both her happiness and her friendship.

The book is narrated by Lily, from her earliest memories aged five or so, and from the age of seven she is largely confined to the “women’s chamber” and discouraged from paying attention to the world of men, so we hear little about the history or politics of the time, but there is still plenty to tell. See did a lot of research into nu shu, the secret women’s writing, and frames her story around it, but she also details the horrors of foot binding, the rituals of daily life and special occasions to the point that I frequently felt I was learning a lesson rather than reading a story. It’s a fascinating lesson, and after years of research I understand why she wanted to use what she could, but it might have been nice to have a little more, I don’t know, insight?

Perhaps I wasn’t helped by my dislike of Lily. She and her laotong Snow Flower are matched at the age of seven, visit one another often and write to each other in-between, so they appear to be extremely close. Yet they almost always stick to formalised language that allows for misunderstandings and misinterpretations that cause them both pain and suffering:

“My writing is soaked with the tears of my heart,
An invisible rebellion that no man can see.
Let our life stories become tragic art.
Oh, Mama, oh, sisters, hear me, hear me.”

I can accept that their writing might have remained this rigid but in person too? They are often alone together – after they are married, when they visit they share a bed with each other and banish husbands to another room – so how come they never speak naturally even then? The insinuation of Lily’s narrative is that she insisted on this formality and in that way caused all the ensuing problems. But really?

Maybe I am struggling with suspension of disbelief. I’m not saying it’s a bad book. I was very interested and entertained but I did not feel absorbed.

First published 2006 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Another vague drifty one

Saving Agnes
by Rachel Cusk

I picked this up while in the US on holiday. I had read and enjoyed Cusk’s second novel The Temporary, which it turns out has rather a lot in common with this title. Possibly too much.

Agnes Day (which is a great name for a heroine) is drifting. She doesn’t really care about her job, feels distant from her (somehow still active) love life and even her friends. She lives with two former schoolmates in a house that is on the brink of being condemned, thanks to a large crack in the wall. This crack acts as a literal (and slightly over-obvious) representation of Agnes’s inner life.

Agnes is one of those heroines who frets about everything, is convinced everyone else is normal while she is abnormal and reminisces fondly about her teenage years when she came close to suicide because at least she was more decisive back then. I did not warm to her. Which is perhaps odd because I’m an over-thinker myself, but I like to think I’m also practical and Agnes is certainly not that. She seems to expect some magical change to just happen to her life, rather than going out and making it happen. She’s also one of those annoying people who take up causes without really learning about them. Even when challenged about this she doesn’t recognise her own failure to engage. And she’s self-absorbed, taking some serious jolts to notice the people around her.

There is an art to creating such a vague, drifting character. For much of the novel Agnes talks about her current relationship and her previous one interchangeably, so that it can be unclear which one is the subject, though what does gradually becomes clear is that Agnes’s attitude to relationships is unorthodox.

Cusk is…wordy. Her prose is beautiful but obscured by long, convoluted sentences:

“Agnes lay in bed waiting for the telephone to ring, believing as she did that the former event would precipitate the latter. Her faith, though gritty, was, she knew, ill-founded, attempting as it did to harness the perversity of the universe and make consistency where there was essentially none. By taking upon herself the task of second-guessing ill-fortune, she was in fact violating the creed of her anti-faith, which, if its principles were to be understood, would presumably visit her only at her own inconvenience…” [This goes on for two full pages before we learn whether or not the phone rings.]

I remember liking The Temporary but with very similar reservations – it also is about a disaffected woman in her 20s drifting, hating London (there is no love for the setting here) and being generally self-absorbed. However, the writing is good and Agnes is completely realistic (lesser characters aren’t quite fully realised but this is actually a believable portrayal of Agnes’s picture of the world).

First published 1993 by Macmillan.
Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award 1993.