If there was ever a Bard of Bombay it was Manto, the subcontinent’s greatest writer of short stories. Earlier this year – the anniversary of Manto’s birth – the photographer Ram Rahman visited the neighbourhoods where Manto and his friends lived, worked and played.
It was the late Habib Tanvir, the popular playwright, actor and director, who prompted me to read Saadat Hasan Manto’s profiles of his friends in 1940s Bombay. We were reminiscing about a theatrical event in 1993 that I had helped organise: Habib’s Naya Theatre had performed at Sahmat’s all-night show at the riverfront in Ayodhya, with Sitara Devi, the legendary Kathak dancer. Habib was laughing at my description of the drowsy local police waking up to the sound of Sitara’s ghungroos (ankle bells) at 4am, and the way their perception of her as Sizzling Siren changed in seconds to Goddess when I told them her age, rumoured to be 70 at the time.
“You have to read Manto on Sitara right away,” Habib said. Luckily, a five-volume set of Manto’s works had just been published in Devanagari script so that those, like me, who were unfamiliar with Urdu script could finally read Manto in his own language. His pen portraits of his Bombay pals – including the actors Sitara, Nargis and Ashok Kumar – are sharp, frank, intimate and acidic. With their combination of affection and fascination with personal insecurities, moral transgressions and vanity, these vivid sketches could only have been written by Manto.
Over the years I have known and analysed many women but the more I learnt about her, the closer I came to the view that she was not a woman but a typhoon which did not blow in and out as typhoons do, but which retained its force and fury without showing any signs of weakening…Sitara was like a sorceress of old who turns her lovers into flies and sticks them on the wall. In fairy tales it always required a prince bearing a special amulet to break the spell and release the sorceress’s prisoners. Was a prince going to come to Asif’s rescue, because he was bewitched by one on whom even the most potent black magic could not have much effect? She was a fort that could not be stormed: so Asif continued to see Sitara and his relationship with his uncle kept worsening.
Manto is best known today as one the great masters of the short story. He was born in 1912 in the Ludhiana district of Punjab to a Muslim family of prosperous barristers. He was educated in Amritsar and began his literary career at the age of 21 as a translator of foreign authors like Victor Hugo and Chekhov. Inspired by the revolutionary fervour against British rule in Amritsar in the early Thirties he began to write his own short stories. In 1936 he moved to Bombay which became his spiritual home. There the film industry provided the hard-drinking writer, who was always improvident and desperate for money, with something of an income. He edited a monthly film magazine and wrote screenplays. Because he was writing for the cinema, he made friends with struggling young actors some of whom became the screen gods ruling our cinema-crazy culture. In 1941 he moved to Delhi for a year and started writing plays for the Urdu service of All India Radio. After Partition he left for Lahore, where he wrote many of his greatest stories, but he came to regret the move and pined for Bombay until his death in 1955 at the age of only 42.
Like many of his contemporaries, Manto was for a while a member of the communist Progressive Writers’ Association. But, like Pier Paolo Pasolini, another poet of the gutter, he was denounced by the communists for his salty writing and focus on human weaknesses. He was tried for obscenity three times in pre-Independence India and three times in Pakistan, but never convicted.
Manto is a quintessentially urban writer, and for him Bombay was its amazingly cosmopolitan populace. Christian secretaries, Jewish actresses, handsome, penniless Muslim rakes and other strange and troubled characters people the 1940s Bombay depicted in his fiction. His searing, graphic descriptions of the communal violence which tore apart the subcontinent just before Independence and Partition are a vivid record of how communal politics unravelled that cosmopolitan camaraderie.
This spring I went on a journey in search of Manto’s city with the journalist Rafique Baghdadi, flaneur par excellence of Bombay. Rafique himself could have stepped out of one of Manto’s tales. He lives in a tiny single room near Mazagon docks, surrounded by canyon walls of books stacked floor to ceiling. A narrow passage of floor leads to a table and chair by the window. Rafique not only has an encyclopedic knowledge of Bombay and its history, he has also walked all of its streets. He seems to know every shopkeeper in every quarter of the city, and he is steeped in the world of cinema.
Appropriately, our journey began with a search for two books: Bitter Fruit, the complete English translations of Manto’s works by Khalid Hasan, and Stars From Another Sky, a collection of portraits from the Bombay film industry. Walking from bookstore to bookstore in downtown Bombay not only did we not find any copies, most of the booksellers looked mystified at the name! Finally Bitter Fruit was found at Kitab Mahal book store. Then we began to look for traces of Manto’s city.
We started out near Byculla in south Bombay. For much of his time in the city Manto lived in Adelphi Chambers on Clare Road in the Nagpada neighbourhood, in those days an upmarket area favoured by Anglo-Indians, Protestant Christians and Baghdadi Jews. It is now poorer and largely Muslim. Only a part of the Chambers still stands. Like many Bombay buildings of its era, it has a central staircase leading up to long shaded verandahs with rooms running off them as in a hotel. The tenants’ list in the hallway is evidence that the area still has a remarkable mix of people.
It was to this building that Nargis, chaperoned by her mother, the famous singer Jaddan Bai, drove in their huge limo from their Marine Drive apartment to visit Manto’s wife and her sisters. Unbeknown to Manto, his wife and her sisters had been teasing Nargis anonymously on the
telephone, till she was so intrigued that she wanted to visit them:
In the main Byculla square, I saw Jaddan Bai’s huge limousine and her. We greeted each other. “Manto, how are you?” Jaddan Bai asked in a rather loud voice. “I am well, but what are you doing here?” I asked. She looked at her daughter who was in the back seat and said, “Nothing, except that Baby has to meet some friends but we can’t find the house.” I smiled. “Let me guide you.” When Nargis heard this, she drew her face close to the window. “Do you know where they live?” “But of course!” I replied. “Who can forget his own house!”Jaddan Bai shifted the paan she was chewing from one side of her mouth to the other and said, “What kind of storytelling is this?” I opened the door and got in next to her. “Bibi, this is no story, but if it is one, then its authors happen to be my wife and her sisters.” “Every time I would ask her who it was at the other end with whom she had been carrying on such a sweet conversation for hours, and she would reply that she did not know who they were but they sounded very nice. Once or twice, I also picked up the phone and was impressed by their good manners. They seemed to be from a nice family. But the imps would not tell me their names. Today Baby was beside herself with joy because they had invited her to their place and told her where they lived. I said to her, ‘Are you mad? You don’t know who they are.’ But she just would not listen and kept after me, so I had to come myself. Had I known by God that these goblins lived in your house…”
Across from Adelphi Chambers on Clare Road is the sidewalk stand of a pyali seller. Famed for meat and vegetables served in a broth, his father was here in Manto’s time.
As in much of the rest of Bombay, tall apartment towers have been put up where more graceful buildings once stood. But while many old buildings are being razed and replaced, and all the textile mills have shut down, there are still pockets of the Bombay that Manto would recognise, like the famous American Express Bakery. Established in the early 1920s by a Goan family, it is still going strong, its workers loading huge ovens with dough for breads and pies.
Farther along Clare Road, Rafique treats me to fabulous snacks at Sarvi, the corner eatery where Manto and his gang used to congregate and where the likes of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and other stars ordered kebabs. It is in an old Jewish-owned building, where the actors Nadira and Amar once lived. Around the corner is an old Jewish cemetery, now a park. Few Baghdadi Jewish families live in Bombay now, and these sites are silent memorials to what was once a vibrant community.
Late at night we stop at Kennedy Bridge, where streetwalkers and nautch girls beckon from the sidewalks and windows just as they did in Manto’s time. Tucked away behind their building is the Hussaini Imambarah, a Muslim shrine. Nearby is the Imperial Cinema with its fabulous elephants gracing the entrance. Just below the bridge are Congress House and Jinnah Hall. In “Three Simple Statements” Manto writes about the stinking urinal outside. “Both Congress House and Jinnah Hall were under the control of the government, but the mootri (urinal) was free, free to spread its stink far and wide, free to receive the garbage of the local community at its doorstep.”
Manto describes the drawings of human genitalia there and the obscene, cynical comments about both the Hindu and Muslim nations which were being carved up for Partition. Often his writing almost seems to smell of the city:
Every evening, he would put two hundred rupees in his pocket, get into a cab and drive towards Pawan Bridge [Kennedy Bridge] on his way to Foras Road. The cab would crawl along the tiny cubicles in which sat the City’s prostitutes behind an iron grille, waiting for customers. The taxi would come to a stop near a lamp post and he would step out, adjust his thick spectacles over his nose, straighten his loincloth and glance to his left where a most plain-looking woman was always to be found applying make-up to her face with the help of a broken hand-held mirror. He would ignore her and walk up a flight of stairs tothe gambling den.
Certainly Shuklaji Street late at night resonates with his words from years ago. A few streetwalkers carrying cellphones mix with workers laying new sewage lines. Movie theatres beckon for their late shows in Mumbai’s traditional red-light district. The Alfred Theatre on Grant Road is the only one which still has hand-painted hoardings advertising its films, shunning the flatness of digital signage. Built in the 19th century and originally called Ripon Theatre, it staged European and Indian plays in Indian languages and was later converted to show films. Manto once lived in a kholi (a room in a chawl) in nearby Arab Gulli and wrote about Mammad Bhai, the Robin Hood strongman of the neighbourhood with his “Kaiser Wilhelm moustache”. The loss of that moustache, like Samson’s hair, caused Mammad Bhai to shrink and vanish from the district. While there are very few descriptions of Bombay locales in Manto’s work, those few that do exist tend to focus on this area:
If you happen to be on Foras Road, Bombay, and turn into the street called Sufaid Gulli you run into a cluster of cafés and restaurants. Nothing special about that, Bombay being a city of cafés and restaurants. However, there is something special about Sufaid Gulli. It is the city’s “red-light” district where prostitutes of every race and description can be found.
If you went past Sufaid Gulli, you came to Playhouse, a noisy all-day cinema. There were actually four cinemas in the area, each with its bell ringing barker. “Walk in, walk in. First-class show for only two annas.” Sometimes, unwilling passers-by were physically pushed inside by these enterprising salesmen…
The name Foras Road was used to describe the entire prostitutes’ quarter. The small side streets had their own names, but collectively they were referred to as Foras Road or Sufaid Gulli. The women sat in small rooms behind bamboo screens. The price varied from eight annas to eight rupees, and from eight rupees to eight hundred rupees. You could find your choice in this versatile buyers’ market.
Another street in the area was called Arab Gulli, with twenty to twenty-five Arabs living there, all apparently in the pearl trade. Others were Punjabis or Rampuris…
The next day we go to Goregaon, one of the Northern suburbs of the city, to visit the Filmistan studio, which is still in operation. Manto worked here with Ashok Kumar for many years, after the star moved from Bombay Talkies. We find a noticeboard in a corridor listing the films that have been made here. Rafique points out the films that Manto wrote and even one he acted in (Eight Days). The two big sound stages still host film or television crews. A backlot has chickens running amuck amid a central jail and streets of old village houses.
Manto was working here when, hypersensitive to the rising communal tensions in Bombay, he decided to leave for Pakistan. He described that difficult time in a piece he wrote subsequently in Lahore on hearing of the death of his friend, the actor Shyam:
Once during the time of Partition when a bloody fratricidal civil war was being fought between Hindus and Muslims with thousands being massacred every day, Shyam and I were listening to a family of Sikh refugees from Rawalpindi. They were telling us horrifying stories of how their people had been killed.
I could sense that Shyam was deeply moved and I could understand the emotional upheaval he was undergoing. When we left, I said to him, ‘I am a Muslim, don’t you feel like murdering me?’
‘Not now,’ he answered gravely, ‘but when I was listening to the atrocities the Muslims had committed…I could have murdered you.’
I was deeply shocked by Shyam’s words. Perhaps I could also have murdered him at the time. But later when I thought about it—and between then and now there is a world of difference—I suddenly understood the basis of those riots in which thousands of Hindus and Muslims were killed every day.
‘Not now…but at that time, yes.’ If you ponder over these words, you will find an answer to the painful reality of Partition, an answer that lies in human nature itself.
Later we go further North to visit the huge Bombay Talkies studio compound in Malad. It was the last place that Manto worked at before leaving for Pakistan. We find it is full of small factories and the last remaining ruin of the studio is about to be pulled down. A group of elderly henna-dyed denizens are sitting outside on Himanshu Rai Marg and they point out the site where Devika Rani’s grand bungalow once stood. They tell us that the last film shot there was in 1962, starring Dilip Kumar.
Shortly afterwards at the India Photo Studio in Dadar we find traces of Manto’s thespian friends Nargis, Ashok Kumar and Pran. Photographer Vimal Thakker opens a box of beautiful vintage black-and-white prints of portraits made by his father, the legendary J. H. Thakker, in the early 1950s. The faces emerge one by one, each more gorgeous than the last. Shot in the very same studio where we are sitting, Thakker’s portraits were famed for their complex and moody lighting, a collaboration between the photographer and the actors, who would spend hours fooling around with costumes and props. Thakker’s protraits of Nargis are some of his best. They show her as the huge star she became after Manto left Bombay, a far cry from the young girl under Jaddan Bai’s stern gaze.
As we leave the inner room of the photo studio Rafique and I look up and see fixed to the ceiling several silvery actor portraits. We are both dumbstruck. Here, looking down at us, are Manto’s “stars from another sky.”
Manto’s Flight From Bombay
In January 1948 Saadat Hasan Manto, the award-winning script writer and author, sailed from Bombay for Lahore. It was one of the saddest days of his life.
Although he felt intense nostalgia for the years he had shared with Bollywood figures like the actor Ashok Kumar, the producer Savak Vacha and his closest friend, the roguish actor Shyam, he wrote the best and most poignant of his 200-odd short stories in Lahore. Almost all are set in India rather than Pakistan; many in his beloved Bombay. No other writer has captured the madness and butchery that followed in the wake of Partition on both sides of the border.
Throughout his time in Lahore, Manto suffered from poverty and alcoholism. He even spent some time in a mental asylum. When he died in 1955, a few months before his 43rd birthday, he was a broken man; arguably, another casualty of Partition.
Manto’s protagonists are usually ordinary people. His Bombay was a cosmopolitan and relatively integrated city in which Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Jews all lived in harmony until the communal violence that erupted in the approach to Independence. In his stories about that period you encounter both generous humanity and the most bestial, inhumane acts, sometimes involving the same person.
In Manto’s touching short story Mozail, the heroine of the title is a fiercely free-spiritedJewish Bombay girl who, during an episode of Muslim-Sikh violence, sacrifices her life for the fiancée of her former Sikh lover Tarlochan:
The bazaar was deserted. The curfew seemed to have affected even the usually brisk Bombay breeze. It was hardly noticeable. Some lights were on but their glow was sickly. Normally at this hour the trains would start running and shops begin to open. There was absolutely no sign of life anywhere.
Mozail walked in front of him. The only impact came of her wooden sandals on the road…Tarlochan felt scared, but Mozail was walking ahead of him nonchalantly, puffing merrily at her cigarette…
The door opened slightly. Tarlochan asked Mozail to follow him in. Mozail saw a very young and very pretty girl standing behind the door trembling…Mozail said to her: “Don’t be afraid, Tarlochan has come to take you away”…Karpal Kaur was taken aback, but Mozail gave her no time to think. In one movement, she divested her of her loose shirt. The young girl frantically put her arms in front of her breasts. She was terrified, Tarlochan turned his face. Then Mozail took off the kaftan-like gown she always wore and asked Karpal Kaur to put it on. She was now stark naked herself.
“Take her away,” she told Tarlochan, She untied the girl’s hair so that it hung over her shoulders, “Go.”
“Then, this one here, whatever her name is, can slip out. The way she’s dressed, she’ll be safe. They’ll take her for a Jew.”
(From Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition, translated by Khalid Hasan)
– Madhu Jain