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26 October 2016

Bombay - Dreams and Regrets

Sa'adat Hasan Manto
picked up Stars From Another Sky a few years ago, when Penguin India inducted the translation (Khalid Hasan) into their Modern Classics library. (The translation had originally been published in 1998.) Along with this, I also picked up Manto's Bombay Stories, simply because they were stories set in Bombay. I must confess that while I'd heard of Sa'adat Hasan Manto, and of his fame as a short story writer in Urdu, I'd never read any of his work until then. So I sat and read Bombay Stories in one sitting. After which, I began Stars From Another Sky but I never got past the first chapter. 

Recently, I revisited the book on the off chance that I might find it more interesting. (It's unusual for me to keep a book aside; I typically finish reading even books I find boring once I start reading them.) Like Bombay Stories, the underlying tone of the book is an aching sense of loss for the city that he loved. Since I can’t talk about one without also talking about the other, here are two reviews for the price of one. 

Stars From Another Sky
Trans: Khalid Hasan
Penguin Books
I’m fascinated by the film industry, by the films that were/are made, by the people who make them. For far too long, we have gone without a recorded history of one of the most prolific of film industries in the world. Much has been lost to the ages, and the men and women who peopled the industry in its infancy, and nurtured it and worked to make it an important part of our cultural history, are dead and gone. There’s no one left to ask, really. So it becomes doubly important to salvage what was recorded.

Sa'adat Hasan Manto came to Bombay in 1936; he was as responsible for the creation of the industry that he skewers so mercilessly, becoming a journalist and then screen writer of note. The note of regret at having left Bombay for Pakistan is present, both implicitly and explicitly, throughout the book. I’m not sure if the translator picked and chose which articles to collate, but I found it intriguing that the only really well-known names were those of Ashok Kumar, Noor Jehan, Sitara Devi, Naseem Bano and Shyam. 

These stories (for stories they are) are a collection of his writings in various newspapers, immediately after Partition. Forced by straitened circumstances, he decided to write about the industry he knew intimately, and loved only too well. He was well aware of people's curiosity about the film industry, and was not beyond satisfying it for a price. 

There are nuggets of information and amusing stories: how Ashok Kumar had directed Eight Days, his first production, even though the film was credited to DN Pai; how Manto himself, and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, the lyricist, had acting roles in the film; how comedian VH Desai flubbed his lines regularly; how Rafiq Ghaznavi had never seen Ghazni, having been born in Peshwar; how Pran was the best cardsharp in town; how Kuldeep Kaur tricked Manto into paying for her perfume; how Manto’s sisters-in-law spent their time calling up various actresses pretending to be their fans; how Baburao Patel built up or tore down people based on his personal equations with them; how Shanta Apte whipped Patel in his own office… there’s also a hint that Suraiya’s grandmother was really her mother.

There’s a certain poignancy in the way he writes about the actor, Shyam, and of their friendship. It is also in this chapter that he writes of his feelings about the Partition in more detail. “My wife and children were in Pakistan. When that land was a part of India, I could recognise it…I found it impossible to decide which of the two countries was now my homeland – India or Pakistan. Who was responsible for the blood that was being shed mercilessly every day?’ And ‘… but now that we were free, what would our dreams be? Were we even free?’ He talks about how he came to the decision to leave India forever. And how his friendship with Shyam suffered as a result. It’s touching to read that first person account.

It’s also nice to read his defence of the industry he lived and worked in. In those accounts, his is a very progressive voice, not judging anyone, least of all the actresses who were considered not much better than prostitutes. Manto’s wife and sisters-in-law had become very close to Nargis, who apparently, wasn’t attractive enough or talented enough, but Manto mentions the young girl’s simplicity, innocence and her love for life, belied by the sadness in her eyes. Naseem Bano also comes off well, described as a beautiful, graceful, dignified woman, who was head over heels in love with her husband.

People have often talked about the seedy side of films, far away from the glitz and glitter that we see on screen. Tales of exploitation, poverty, desperation, prostitution - these were the cautionary tales with which parents regaled their star-struck children; films were not for those from ‘good’ families. Manto’s writings make it clear that those tales were not too far from the truth. Sex, sleaze, scandals and booze abound in this collection, and one sees the mask stripped off those who seemingly live a fortunate life – they are as fickle and egoistic and flawed as the rest of the hoi polloi who idolise them.

Manto is unabashedly frank in his account of what really goes on in the underbelly of the world of films. Yes, that’s a plus, in a world that has gone incredibly sanitised because someone, somewhere, will be offended by something, but what is not easy for me to overlook is the lewdness or the thread of misogyny that runs through the book. In the translator’s note, Hasan mentions a woman, Nayyar Bano, who had strong words of condemnation for Manto’s writings. [She wrote a letter to the editor in response to Manto’s piece on actor Shyam, titled Murli ki Dhun.] In response, Manto wrote: I felt pity for Nayyar Bano and her mental condition. I said to myself that...I should make it up to her. But then I thought if I tried to do that in the manner that I wished, she might faint...I did not want her to suffer a shock; she might not survive the experience. He goes on to explain in detail what should be done to punish a woman such as Bano. Punishment for what crime? For daring to criticise him? I guess so, because when he was jailed for obscenity (several times), he wrote: My judge thought that truth and literature should be kept far apart.” (Letters to Uncle Sam)

He claimed to speak the truth, with great relish. I have no doubt whatsoever that he did. It is the manner in which he does it that is horrifying. Ashok Kumar’s shyness with women, and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan’s opportunism are unremarkable trivia. Amusing perhaps, but not malicious. His descriptions of some of the women then acting as heroines are in the most vulgar of terms, and he often makes assumptions about their sexual proclivities of which he could have had no personal knowledge. And what in heavens’ name has Manto’s hatred of Noor Jehan’s bra got to do with a story?  (And why is the man so interested in someone’s lingerie?) Why does Rafiq Ghaznavi’s and Sitara Devi’s chapters have more to do with their sexual peccadilloes than about his music or her dance, about either of which there’s hardly any mention at all?

As remnants of a bygone age, these writings are a chronicle of what once was. And even in translation, the power of Manto’s writings come through. I wonder what this would have read like in the original Urdu; certainly, Manto is considered one of the greatest (if not the greatest) South Asian writers of the 20th century. I suppose the tawdriness wouldn't have changed much – it may just have sounded better in Urdu. Or perhaps not – regional languages have an earthiness that English seldom approaches. (When it does, it merely sounds vulgar.)

In his foreword, Jerry Pinto has this to say: When you have put down this book, you will feel as if a friendly voice, cheerfully malicious and yet vulnerable in its self-revelation, has been stilled. You will miss it.

I’m not so sure that I will. In fact, I’m quite sure I won’t.
Feeling that sense of violation (my skin crawled as I read through), I wondered that I had read the same man’s Bombay Stories without feeling that same sense of something vile. I couldn’t immediately recall all the stories, but I knew I had read the book, and liked it, and not solely because it was set in Bombay, or because Manto loved Bombay and always wanted to return to it. (That part resonates with me.) So I read the book again, and was caught by how inherently bleak the stories were, much like the lives of the people he writes about.

Bombay Stories 
Trans: Matt Reeck, Aftab Ahmad
Vintage Books
Like Stars From Another Sky, Bombay Stories too deals with the underbelly of society. In that focus, Manto only reflected the society of the time, where an unbridled population explosion and the unique social conditions of the time gave rise to prostitution on a scale hitherto unimaginable. Funnily enough, these stories are certainly not tawdry or misogynistic, (though they are equally frank) which is a revelation, considering most of his protagonists are whores. In fact, most of the women, destitute and exploited, are still strong at the end – just not in ways one expects them to be.

His stories, set in the Bombay of pre-partition India, are a scathing indictment of the social mores of the time which devised one law for women and another for men. He skewers the Madonna-Whore syndrome, and his ‘bad’ women are depicted with subtle nuance, raising them from cardboard cut-outs into true multi-dimensional characters. It is rare to see women as protagonists, whores or otherwise, depicted with such humanity and compassion. Their bodies, their voices, their perceptions, are all laid bare with unabashed frankness and searing honesty, and with a singular lack of judgement for their choices. You will scarcely see a more strident voice for women’s rights than in this collection of 14 short stories, in some of which Manto himself (or a character that closely resembles him) appears as an interlocutor. That’s not the voice of a misogynist.

In Khushiya, the pimp is aghast (and later, furious at being insulted) when one of his ‘girls’, Kanta, appears near-naked in front of him. ‘His masculine dignity had been affronted, and when he remembered Kanta’s naked body, he felt humiliated.’This is a man who lives off pimping women; yet, he’s insulted that she didn’t think it necessary to cover up when she receives him, that she does not feel at all ashamed of her body. He feels less of a man, even though there’s a dawning realisation in him that even a whore can be attractive. So what happens to Kanta in the end?

In 10 Rupees, Sarita goes one better. She’s barely 15, coerced into prostitution by her mother to help support the family. Beginning with getting into the car with three men, it is Sarita who sets the tone for the afternoon. At the end, untouched by any of them, she drops the 10-rupee note that one of the men has given her, querying, ‘This money – why should I take it?’

Barren is the first of the stories in which Manto makes his appearance. It is also one of the best stories in the collection, layering deceit upon deceit until one is not quite sure just where the lies end and the truth begins – if at all it does. In this tale, where people meet as chance acquaintances, and share parts of their life stories, ‘Naim’ (the narrator) tells ‘Manto’ his ill-fated love story; ‘Zahra’ comes alive, and as she become more and more real to the narrator, the sooner he dies, thus sacrificing himself to his art. For Naim’s mendacity is his gift to Manto, an author he admires.

In The Insult, we meet Saugandhi, yet another exploited prostitute, and her married lover, Madho. Madho scolds Saugandhi for being a whore, promises to take care of her financially but instead takes money from her – both he and she strive to keep the pretence going. When a brief meeting with a client and his summary rejection of her gives Saugandhi an epiphany, she regains both her voice and her self-respect.

Smell (Bu) was one of the stories for which Manto was tried for obscenity. A story of a chance encounter, inexplicable attraction, unbridled lust, and a disconcerting consequence was, as Manto puts it himself, ‘…as real and as old as the story of men and women itself.’ Both poetic and erotic at the same time, the girl’s smell lingers on, leaving the protagonist strangely dissatisfied with the reality in which he’s trapped.

Babu Gopi Nath becomes Manto’s mouthpiece when he says (of the resemblance between whore houses and shrines): ‘Because there, from top to bottom, it’s all about deception. What better place could there be for a person who wants to deceive himself?’ Not a stupid man, this Nath, even though his friends use him: ‘They think I’m stupid, but I think they’re smart; at least, they’re smart enough to see how they can take advantage of me.’

These and other stories in this collection, set wholly or partly in Bombay, brings that city to life – read about it today, and you get a sense of another place and time, but he wrote many of them after he emigrated to Pakistan (as evident in the narrative where he places events in the past). The translators have striven to collate his writings on Bombay, organising them chronologically, and in Reeck’s own introduction: ‘…this collection of writings is both a sample of his work and represents a specific aspect of it.’ 

Manto, never willing to be member of a club that would have him, was castigated even by the Progressive Writers’ Movement for writing about the sleazy side of life. On his part, Manto saw no reason to present a shiny, idealistic fa├žade; instead, he felt that writing about life as it was, was more beneficial to change. Indeed, in these short stories, and the three brilliant essays that are appended to the book, Manto shows himself to be as much, if not more progressive than any of those who criticised him. In 'Women and the Film World' he writes (Pg 256): Society produced prostitutes, and its wide-reaching laws foster their existence. So why are they stigmatized, why is their collective death wished, when they, too, are part of society? If we want to transform them into something good, then we will have to work to improve society as a whole.' 

In the same essay, he also notes '...if women can be chaste, can't men be too? If women can be promiscuous, can't men be too? Then why do we direct our wrath only at women?' (Pg 257)

The translations are impeccable, true to the essence of the Manto's writing, and quite simply told. The only false note I could find was the use of American colloquialisms, which did not sit right with the setting of the stories, but that's a minor peeve. However, these are definitely stories that I would love to read in the original.

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