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Manto's metropolis

The great Urdu writer, whose birth centenary was two days ago, called himself a ‘walking-talking Bombay’.

art and culture Updated: May 13, 2012 02:21 IST
Devendra Mohan

You can take a man out of Bombay,” Sadat Hasan Manto, the Urdu short story writer, wrote in a sketch of the city three years after he had migrated to Pakistan. “But you cannot take Bombay out of a man.”

Born in Ludhiana, he lived in this city between 1937 and early 1948, barring a year when he worked with All India Radio in Delhi. He lived on Clare Road in Byculla, working as a journalist and scriptwriter.

This city and its residents populated his fiction. He drew on a range of characters, from the city’s underbelly to the glamorous world of cinema. Although he died at the shockingly young age of 42, his output was prolific. He would have been a 100 years old this Friday.

In Manto’s work, we perceive Bombay as a serene place, but one that accommodates a colourful variety of people, from simple folk with strong ethics to more complex, amoral ones. Through his eyes, we see it as a great metropolis, one that puts Calcutta, Delhi and Lahore in the shade. We also see it as an entity so powerful that it forces people to change radically, physically and psychologically, in order to adapt to its rhythms, but also gives them an opportunity to reinvent themselves.

Neither a landscape artiste who etched a scene in minute detail nor a Dostoyevskian prober of souls, Manto revealed his characters to the reader simply by describing key life situations and through their words.

In a short story set in this city, Mera Naam Radha Hai, the eponymous character is a struggling actress besotted with the hero, Raj Kishore, a character Manto based on his friend Prithviraj Kapoor, a man who treated his leading ladies with deference and a bit of aloofness. In one scene, Kishore enters the room and greets all the women, “Sisters, how are you?” “Don’t you call me a ‘sister,’” replies Radha as she stalks out of the room.

When he wrote about ordinary people and those on the margins, such as pickpockets and prostitutes, he showed how they could be almost heroic. In one story, for instance, the main character, Mahammad Bhai, a real-life goon from Foras Road, whose name Manto didn’t change, shows he can be large-hearted and generous towards someone who is critically ill.

When Manto wrote about celebrities, he revealed their ordinariness.

In his real-life sketch of Nargis Dutt, for example, one of many he did of celebrities, he narrates how she visits her fans at their homes when they invite her and how when she visited Manto she asked his sister-in-law for a recipe to make toffee out of jaggery.

Manto also wrote sketches of, among others, Ashok Kumar, a leading star of the 1930s and 40s and one of his great friends; Noor Jehan, a great singing star; Babu Gopinath, a journalist-cum-producer; Sitara Devi, the kathak dancer; and thespian Prithviraj Kapoor. These sketches were as short as 1,500 words and as long as six pages.

Manto left his beloved Bombay for Lahore after a spate of communal riots. Friends such as Ashok Kumar tried to stop him, but he was nervous about his family. Yet just two days before he left, he told Ashok Kumar, “I don’t know much about Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar or even Karachi. They are all alien to me. Speak to me about Ludhiana, Amritsar, Aligarh, Poona or even Delhi. I have known these places and can speak about them for hours together. But Bombay is the only destination I can speak about for months, even years, on end because it inspires me. It gives me characters in flesh and blood.”