When Manto, the mercurial Urdu writer now deified against his wishes on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, died, he left behind an epitaph for his own grave: “Here lies Manto, and with him lie all the secrets of short story writing. Beneath the ground he lies, wondering who the greater short story writer is, him or God” (…woh ki Khuda). ‘Fundanen’ (translating to ‘Tassels’) is often ignored by editors and translators of Manto’s work, perhaps because it destabilises the image of Manto as a writer of only overt or graphic violence.
In this story, to which I was introduced by Veena Das in her extraordinary Life and Words, Manto is working at the limit of language. Like his ‘Toba Tek Singh’, which is perhaps the most anthologised short story in India, ‘Fundanen’ uses nonsensical syllables, as well as contortions of the body, to signify pain and trauma that is internalised, made invisible. There is not much in the way of a plot—disjointed sentences reveal to us an anonymous woman playing with her hair in the mirror, struggling to give her experience any shape or speech. This afsana, which is Urdu for the short story, must be read in the backdrop of the genocidal and deeply gendered violence of the Indian Partition in 1947.
Details of first publication in Urdu is unknown, likely confiscated by the then new Pakistani government which held Manto in court on charges of obscenity (fahashyat, see The Crown vs Minto). Collected in Alok Bhalla’s Stories from the Indian Partition (3 Vols), Indus/Harper Collins, 1994, and My Name is Radha: The Essential Manto, Penguin India, 2015.Also made available in both Urdu and Devanagari scripts by Rekhta