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‘Main chalta phirta Bumbai hoon’: Manto and Mumbai

Rakhshanda Jalil

Updated: April 11, 2017, 12:06 PM IST
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Saadat Hasan Manto went to Bombay (as Mumbai was then called) in search of work sometime in 1936, landing a job as editor of a weekly called 'Mussavvir'. The glamour and gaiety of the city's high society, as also the grit and grime of its underbelly, provided ample fodder for a man of Manto's disposition; newly arrived from the provincial outpost of Amritsar, he must have been enamoured not merely by the bright lights of the big city but also the incredible diversity of its cityscape. The red light district of Forres Road, the chawls of Nagpara, the paanwallas, taxi drivers, washermen, Parsi landladies and Jewish hotel keepers, the editors of motley Urdu newspapers as well as the film stars, directors, spot boys, cameramen and motley hangers-on became rich sources of inspiration.

Manto wrote prolifically and some of his most memorable characters were drawn from the people he met in these halcyon days in Bombay from 1936 to 1948. Manto hobnobbed with film stars, first as a film journalist and then as a scriptwriter, made money and frittered it all away on drinking, gambling and the good life. He did, briefly, live in Delhi for a year and a half (1941-42) when he worked at the All India Radio (AIR) but irreconcilable differences with the legendary Pitras Bukhari, the station director, and colleague and fellow progressive, Upendranath Ashk, made him give up the only job he enjoyed, one that also fetched him a regular salary.

This short spell at AIR was an exceptionally productive one with Manto dashing off plays, features, sketches on his Urdu typewriter at breakneck speed; he is said to have published four collections of radio plays during these eighteen months. It was during the Delhi days that he wrote and published the controversial collection titled 'Dhuan (Smoke)' as well as the story 'Boo' that ruffled many feathers. Upon his return to Bombay, Manto experienced growing criticism from the progressives, who comprised a formidable literary grouping and some of whose core members disapproved of what they saw as an increasing obsession with obscenity and immorality in Manto's work. Manto, for his part, no doubt hurt by the condemnation from a body of writers that he felt he naturally belonged to, kept cocking a snook at the gods of social realism with a frenzied, devil-may-care bravado. The years till 1947 saw Manto stubbornly writing precisely the sort of stories he wanted to write despite opposition from critics and his friends among the progressives.

No one quite knows why Manto left Bombay and went away to Pakistan. Was it in a huff or on a whim? Was it to seek a better future, broken as he was by chronic drinking and acute poverty? Was it the thought of starting afresh, on a clean slate as it were, that attracted him whenever he did think of his wife and three daughters whom he loved dearly? Was it out of genuine disenchantment with the increasingly strident and communally charged atmosphere of the so-far bohemian film industry? Or was it, as some suggest, the dream of owning an 'allotted' mansion the moment he crossed over? One gets a glimpse into Manto's state of mind - in a story such as 'Sahay' - when he made the journey from Bombay to Lahore in some of his stories but, like much else in his ouvre, with Manto there never were any clear answers.

The year 2012 being his centenary year, we are witnessing a frenzied interest in Manto; it is evident in the plethora of seminars, conferences, discussions, plays, readings centred round his work. A new collection of stories pegged on the years spent in Bombay, called appropriately enough, 'Bombay Stories', is a valuable addition to the existing body of work available in English. However, as even a quick glance at the list of contents establishes, many of these stories have been anthologised before and are already familiar to English-language readers. Among these are 'Khushiya', 'Babu Gopinath', 'Janaki', 'Mummy', 'Mozelle', 'Mammad Bhai', 'Smell' (Boo, in the original). That, regrettably, leaves only a handful of stories that are likely to be new for those who access Manto in English. However, what is certain to be a novelty are translations of three prose essays included in the Appendix: 'Why I don't go to the Movies', 'Women and the Film World' and 'Lecture at Jogeshwari College, Bombay'.

It is here, camouflaged in the Appendix, that the real meat of this handsomely produced book lies. Also, had the Introduction, readable and scholarly though it is, been somewhat longer and somewhat more detailed, the bare bones of the old stories most anthologised in English could have been more adequately covered.

The translators and editors, Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, justify their selection thus:

'Manto never compiled all his stories set in Bombay in one volume, so this collection of translations is both a sample of his work and represents a specific aspect of it.'

Arranged chronologically, 11 of the 15 stories were written after Manto's migration to Pakistan thus allowing for what Reeck calls 'retrospective attention'. Written in Lahore when Mnto was disconsolate over the loss of his 'other home' (Bombay), stories such as 'Mammad Bhai' allow Manto to characterise the city he knew so well. Manto describes people and places as he sees them in his mind's eye: 'It was almost twenty years ago that I used to frequent those restaurants' or 'I don't remember what exactly he looked like, but after so many years I can still recall anticipating that he must be enormous, the kind of man that Hercules bicycles would use as a model in their advertising.'

Bombay Stories reflects Manto's complex love-hate relationship with the city. Bombay not merely gave him a livelihood (sometimes no more than a couple of rupees a day, sometimes hundreds), it also taught him novel ways of squandering it in a multitude of exciting ways. Many of his good friends lived there; he had got married here; his first two children had been born here. What is more, it was in Bombay that Manto had come into his own as a writer. While Amritsar had taught the joys of reading, translating and writing, it was Bombay that honed his craft and made a master story teller out of him. At the same time, Manto was not blind to its darker side; the cruel indifference of the city is reflected in 'Mammad Bhai' when Manto's narrator possibly an alter ego) says, 'Like I said, who in Bombay cares about anyone? No one gives a damn if you live or die.'

The three non-fiction pieces in the Appendix reveal another layer: both of Bombay and Manto. Studded with personal nuggets, little autobiographical asides, tart observations as well as insightful comments on life and literature they make delightful reading. Here's a sampler from 'Women and the Film Industry':
'Women aren't born prostitutes but are either forced to become them or choose to be them on their own. Demand always spurs supply - because men lust after women without regard to who they are, you'll find prostitutes everywhere. If men stopped desiring women, then prostitution would disappear by itself.'

And elsewhere:
'Reality is right before us and we cannot cover it up. If we want to make better and more artistic films (ones that really sparkle), and if we want to avoid going down the wrong path, then we should demand more of ourselves.'

And in 'Lecture at Jogeshwari College, Bombay', he keeps his most trenchant observations for critics and writers, especially the progressives:
'You could say that Saadat Hasan Manto is a progressive human, and every human should be progressive. When people refer to me as progressive, they don't implicate my style but rather prove their faults. I mean that they themselves aren't progressive - they don't want to change.'

(Rakhshanda Jalil has translated a collection of Manto's writings titled 'Naked Voices: Stories and Sketches' published by Roli Books in 2008).
First Published: December 17, 2012, 11:55 AM IST

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