Bombay Stories

I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really only remember the barest details of Gandhi’s life and deeds. I can say, in the humblest of humblebrags, that I did read Intizar Husain’s Basti, a book I certainly might not have if not for its inclusion on the “2013 Best Translated Book Award longlist”:http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=6532. That book, more than anything, made me somewhat—an emphatically underlined, italicized, all-caps, incorrectly-used quotation marked “SOMEWHAT”—more educated of the events surrounding India and Pakistan’s violent schism in the 1940s.

But perhaps you are on equally unfamiliar terrain. Or perhaps not: maybe you were one of the many who read Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which would most likely make you yet more knowledgeable of India in the 20th century than I, because I didn’t read that one either (by the way, this is the part of the review where I wow you with my credentials). However, if I were a betting man, I would wager that I am in the majority when it comes to the American readership in regard to South Asian literature: an absolute novice.

It is precisely why I jumped at the chance to read this collection. I could barely know less about the Indian subcontinent if I tried. But the point of reading international fiction at all, as far as I’m concerned, is precisely to experience and learn about a place, a culture, a history of which I am only dimly aware. I can only imagine that this is true for many of you, who so adventurously clicked on the link to get here. Great job, by the way! You and I are going to be good friends, I can tell. And for the Manto-educated, fan or otherwise, surprised to see him getting some attention today: I’m going to be ignoring you. Sorry about that.

Because Manto is a big name in the Urdu and Urdu-adjacent literary world, but perhaps not so much in the English-speaking world. Hopefully, that world is going to be getting a little bigger soon. Because guess what Mantonians (a name I just coined, but you can have it!): you’re already part of the club. You get to bask in the warm glow of already being part of something bigger than yourself. Go ahead, continue to bask. I’m going to keep talking to the neophytes.

Novicehood is underrated in reading culture. No one wants to seem ignorant or out of the loop, but there are few feelings greater than the discovery of something revelatory. And after all, we aren’t all born familiar with all the great writers and their works, no matter how much that guy at your book club might pretend otherwise. This is how we learn. We seek out the unknown, absorb it, and become something more. So let’s have an honest chat about this Saadat Hasan Manto, proud tyro to tyro.

Manto was born in 1912 in what is now India, and lived a brief but eventful life, passing away at just 43 from complications stemming from his raging alcoholism. But during that relatively short time, he produced a prolific output of short stories, essays, and radio and film scripts; he is even credited with writing the screenplay for India’s first full color film. He was a translator and a journalist, and a Communist sympathizer, though he was considered too temperamental and iconoclastic to be truly associated with any particular group. He was condemned by many leaders of the dominant literary movement of the time, and clashed with the government multiple times over his writing, too. Both considered his work to be obscene. The Pakistani government upheld a ban on Manto’s work on television and radio even on the 50th anniversary of his death.

What made his work such a lightning rod for controversy? Though relatively quaint by today’s standards, Bombay Stories shows the seedy underbelly of the great Indian city. Prostitutes, pimps, gangsters, and actors are the primary focus of the stories on display here. Prostitutes in particular were a source of endless fascination for Manto: the vast majority of the stories included in this collection feature or star a prostitute in some way, shape, or form. There were hordes of them in Bombay at the time; the stories here make it seem like they were practically unavoidable, or at least, unavoidable if you were Manto.

Despite the poverty that most of them suffer, the prostitutes featured in Manto’s fiction are not shameful creatures to be pitied by their johns or the reader. It might be hard to call Manto particularly progressive or (dare I even say it) feminist, but Manto as a writer treats these women with compassion, respect, and dignity. They are almost always portrayed as vibrant beings, full of life and love. In most cases they are the most recognizably human characters in his stories.

In “Ten Rupees,” a fifteen-year-old girl, prostituted by her own mother, is sent off on a drive with three middle-aged men. As a reader, your heart instantly fills with dread; this is the kind of situation where very bad, very dark things happen. But the girl’s precocity—she is described as acting more like a thirteen year old—saves the day. Her childish enthusiasm for car rides and singing pop songs so utterly charms the men that they forget all about what they came to do. The only shame is that while this story ends with the girl innocently returning the money to the men this time, her and her mother’s abject poverty will ensure that this probably won’t be able to happen again. In “The Insult,” a prostitute, who has just been insulted by a potential client exclaiming “Yuck!” upon meeting her, finally has had enough of her policeman john, who not only does not pay for her services, but “borrows” money from her, finally kicks his sorry, duplicitous butt to the curb. Vivacious and strong, the prostitutes here are human beings just trying to make it through another day with their heads held high. The only woman who seems to receive any particular disdain for cashing in on her sexuality is not a prostitute, but a hopeful actress in the story “Janaki,” who attempts to sleep, it seems, with anyone who might help get her to the top. Extramarital sex is a-okay with Manto, both as a business transaction and as a form of love and passion . . . as long as it’s not being used for selfish reasons? Again, the sexual politics on display here are not quite 21st century but they seem to be presented fairly and accurately, if not downright compassionately. Manto was certainly no misogynist.

At his best, Santo is an animated and amiable storyteller. He writes like a smutty uncle getting nostalgic—and a little tipsy—at the family party. The tone is conversational, focusing on the people animating and bringing life to the world. Authorial intrusions are common in many of these stories, as if Santo himself really was telling these stories in person over a round of drinks. In one story, he interrupts a particularly long description of one of his characters, claiming: “Anyway, enough of this. If I go into such detail, I’ll fill page after page and the story will get boring.” The translators calls these authorial asides a prelude to future post-modernist sensibilities, a suspiciously pseudo-“Manto”-like narrator with biographical details very similar to the real deal. One might call it that; I call it someone who knows how to tell a good yarn.

Which isn’t to say that Santo doesn’t know how to get real. As mentioned above, the 1940s were a very serious, very dangerous time to be living in the Indian subcontinent. Only “Mozelle” really brings these dangers to the forefront, in which a Sikh man (neither Hindu nor Muslim), with the help of an old Jewish love, tries to rescue his current fiancée, stuck in a Muslim neighborhood after a curfew enforced during the heights of sectarian violence. In “Hamid’s Baby,” a married man impregnates a prostitute, and when he can’t kill the baby from the inside, decides to do the deed himself after the baby is born. But the translators note that Manto’s most famous stories are his darkest, the ones fueled by the inescapable separatist violence of the times, stories such as “Open Up,” “Cold Meat,” and “Toba Tek Singh“—none of which appear in this collection. Ostensibly this is due to the fact the stories collected in this collection are all linked by their setting, Bombay—the one place, the translators argue, Manto felt the most at home. Most of the included stories, they note, were written well after he had moved from Bombay and into today’s Pakistan, as if he were longing for his lost home. “Bombay fiction,” they also argue, becomes a notable sub-genre of Indian literature itself, all thanks to Manto. As a naif in the ways of Indian/Pakistani literature, I cannot say whether this is true or not. It is a bit disappointing that as readers we don’t get full a picture of Manto as a writer, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing either, really. Those stories can be read elsewhere, and with this collection we do get a more well-rounded view of his work, and frankly, it’s all rather entertaining to boot.

Weaving its way through this depiction of Bombay is the issue of wealth disparity, notably just as much a problem then as it is now. But it’s never a focus really of any of these tales. Manto himself swung from swimming in rupees to reportedly writing a short story per day just to get by. He mentions the depravity in passing, but he writes knowing that his stories have places to go, and he is raring to get there. Again, it’s the people, the characters that make up Bombay, that are ultimately more interesting to Manto as a writer. Still, the chills run down one’s spine:

This happened back when I was dirt poor. I was paying nine rupees a month for a room that didn’t have water or electricity. The building was horrific. Gnats fell from the ceiling in thousands, and rats were everywhere, bigger than any I’ve ever seen, so big the cats were scared of them.

There was only one bathroom in the chawl and its door was broken. The women of the building—Jewish, Marathi, Gujarati, and Christian—would gather there in the early morning to fill their buckets with water. The women would get together first thing in the morning and go to the bathroom where they would form a wall in front of the door and then one by one, they would bathe.

Still, Manto can’t help but cast his judgmental eye, even as he’s distracted by his own stories:

She lived near Byculla Station in an extremely dirty neighbourhood dotted with garbage heaps that served as an open toilet. The city had built tin shacks there for the poor, and I won’t mention the nearby high-rises because they have nothing to do with this story, only that in this world there will always be the rich and the poor.

But Manto, you sly devil, you do mention those high-rises and we are so glad you did. Manto was criticized by the literati for simply depicting the stark realities of life, instead of then using those horrors to fuel his fiction as a way to instigate change. They saw him as simply wallowing in the filth, shooting the breeze with the underclass instead of finding ways to improve their situation. Manto apparently—justifiably, entertainingly—felt it was enough to present the world as it really was, and not to dress it up with a shiny, fake idealism.

Bombay Stories does present a detailed picture of the city in the mid-century, and it’s the people of the city that give it its life. Manto saw those lives, profoundly comic and tragic in equal force, and captured them at a time and place that I know I, for one, knew little about. It is simply marvelous that half a century later and halfway around the world, we get to see it again. Despite those distances and the differences in cultures, Bombay Stories reminds us of what it is to be human in an at times unforgiving yet hopeful world. An accessible, entertaining introduction to South Asian literature.


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