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Manto’s Bombay stories and Mumbai’s debt

mumbai Updated: Sep 27, 2018 00:02 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times

Writer Saadat Hasan Manto.(HT Photo)

Manto, the biopic based on the life and times of author, script-writer, and journalist Saadat Hasan Manto, has rekindled interest in the maverick man. His large oeuvre – hundreds of short stories, a novel, essays, letters, nearly 150 radio plays, dozens of film scripts, and dialogues – are characterised by what renowned novelist Salman Rushdie once described as “low-life fictions”, the trials and triumphs of everyday people, the urgent communal question, and textures and flavours of city life.

To read Manto is to read Bombay of the 1930s and 40s. To trace Manto’s steps in the areas he lived and worked in is to discover, yet again, how places shape a writer and his sensibilities. Manto came to Bombay as a migrant, as others did, but when he left it in January 1948 for Pakistan, he had seen – and shown – the city as few others had.
Take Bombay out of Manto’s life and there’d be a gaping hole in his story. “Main chalta phirta Bambai hoon” was a line he apparently repeated to family and friends.

He didn’t leave for Lahore with his wife and children in the wake of the Partition in 1947. He hung on till he was disillusioned.

Ace filmmaker-actor Nandita Das who crafted the film “Manto” with patience and compassion, shared with an eclectic audience at The Asiatic Society last month that Manto had said: “Ho sakta hai agar Bombay Pakistan chala jaye, toh uske piche piche main bhi chal padoon”. Bombay, it could be said, was Manto’s abiding love, perhaps because he felt “ye sheher sawaal nahin karta”.

The characters now commonplace in movies, books and urban memoirs – workers, chawl residents, pimps, prostitutes, Pathans, thugs, the debauched, aspiring film actors, intellectuals, writers – are Manto’s legacy to literature in a way few writers can claim.

His life initially in Grant Road’s downbeat Arab Galli near red-light areas, and later in the more upscale Clare Road; his work in Byculla and in film studios like Imperial Film Company, Saroj Movietone, Filmistan, and briefly Bombay Talkies meant he absorbed a spectrum of influences. In his stories though, he focussed on “lowlife”.

Manto brought more about Bombay to his work: the city as an economic opportunity, its ethnic diversity, religious accommodation, male-dominated and migrant working world which partly explained prostitution and the grime behind its glamour. The prostitutes in “Mammad Bhai” are of every sort from Jewish, Punjabi, and Marathi to Kashmiri, Anglo-Indian, French, Chinese, and Japanese. Mammad Bhai is from Rampur, Uttar Pradesh; “Ten Rupees” features a chawl and fights over water at the common tap; “Hamid’s Baby” and “Mammad Bhai” have the quintessential ‘Dada’, the local strongman; “Mummy” has the blood-thirsty Pathan and Bengali musician Sen; “Smell” features Anglo-Indians.

Manto’s unsparing eye and moral ambivalence of his characters often got him into trouble. He faced the fury of law when he was charged with obscenity. The Progressive Writers’ Movement dismissed his work for its lack of political ideology and reformatory intent.

Manto does not fit conveniently into slots; he defies labels and challenges ideologies. Is that why he hasn’t been celebrated, commemorated? The city, the film industry, barely remembers him.

Manto is a difficult figure in the intellectual-literary landscape of the city – acknowledged but not embraced. This perhaps explains the lack of interest, appeal, and significance for the places that were touched by his life and/or his pencil. Bombay-based newspapers did not even report his death in January 1955.

He remains an exotic figure who migrated to Pakistan, a writer of uncertain value till recent translations brought home the power of his writing, an angry and dissatisfied man who could weave some magic with his words but would not accept any ideology.

Local historian Rafique Baghdadi conducts the “Manto Walk”, taking tourists or youngsters to Arab Galli and other places. Book stores stock translations. But there’s little to show that the city remembers him or celebrates his legacy. The film has brought him out of the margins. His words on Hindu-Muslim unity and “mazhab ki topi”, on freedom of expression, on the plebs and masses ring resonant even today. Bombay, now Mumbai, owes him a debt.

First Published: Sep 26, 2018 23:58 IST