What is a short story?
If you were to visualise the completeness of a ‘long-story’ as arcs of different lengths on a circle, then I would say a finished novel could be 90% of the circumference. Or an epic fantasy series like Lord of the Rings to be 100%.
However, reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories, I am confused. Each of them subtends an arc of 10º or 20º at a time. They begin somewhere and end somewhere else, but they don’t seem to me to begin at the beginning and end at the end. They are vignettes but are not entirely vignette-like.
I seem to be able to relate to them only on a very personal level, in a way that is unlikely to be of any interest to anyone else. I catch flashes of parts of my own life, and the thoughts I had in those fleeting moments, here and there in the episodes he narrates, but nothing more than that. Nothing that will allow me a glimpse of his overarching theme, should one exist at all.
In another moment, a friend says she has always thought of short stories as being free from the need to be complete. “That in some way, they are more about transferring certain feelings.” A kind of lifelike poetry that is okay with being leashed to structure – is that it?
Perhaps… is Manto celebrated because he was strong enough to have wrestled the sins of the everyday, together with their evanescent hypocrisies, into words?
I am only halfway through his book, and maybe sometime soon a shot of his genius will condense out of this strange fog of reassurance he has created. But I hope it will not. For now, I hope Manto is the fog itself.
Featured image credit: Jaromír Kavan/Unsplash.