Dervishes and Gypsies
By Saadat Hasan Manto
Adjacent to the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, India, is the nightmarish Annawadi settlement. In 2012, American journalist Katherine Boo brought Western attention to the shantytown and its three thousand squatters with her National Book Award winner Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Her harrowing reportage shows decay hidden behind enterprise, and highlights the dreams of the determined poor striving for better lives.
Another noteworthy expose of the Indian supercity’s class division is Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1948 classic Bombay Stories. Autobiographical, featuring real people Manto knew, this collection sees its characters wading not through literal refuse, like Boo’s do, but moral.
Bombay Stories was translated in 2012 by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, and is finally available stateside for readers eager to revisit the turbulent last days of British rule in India, when Manto embraced its pimps and prostitutes without judgment or condemnation.
Ironically, Manto was born into a family of lawyers in 1912. He proved an academic failure until Abdul Bari Alig, editor of the Amritsar newspaper Equality, saw promise in the young misfit. Manto eventually rewarded Alig’s mentoring with an impeccable Urdu translation of Victor Hugo’s “The Last Day of a Condemned Man” in 1933, and Oscar Wilde’s “Vera” in 1934, which brought accolades from prominent literary circles. By age twenty-four, Manto had moved to Bombay.
Known at the time for corruption and popular cinema, Bombay provided fodder for Manto’s soul. He became infamous as a journalist, screenwriter, and editor while focusing on the misdeeds of prostitutes, pimps, and gangsters.
Government censors and moral crusaders plagued Manto, believing he should embrace social uplift instead of street squalor and obscenities. He went to trial six times for the writing of questionable material (most notably for his short story “Smell”). Ultimately, however, his work was found “not to incite lustful feelings” but to be “progressive with no harmful effect on people’s morals.”
Manto’s writing itself wasn’t a crime. It merely outraged those who feared exposure as citizens of his literary underworld. Even author Salman Rushdie, quite familiar with public outrage, calls Manto “the undisputed master of the Indian short story,” describing his work as “low-life” fiction or “Bombay” fiction, where the upper class, mingling with the poor, uses them as guides to an amoral lifestyle.
That was the attraction of Bombay. Wealth did not equal social acceptance. It was a city that didn’t judge its inhabitants, but instead cultivated ethnic diversity. In an exciting era of Indian history, Bombay inspired Manto; it was a relationship he would revisit throughout his lifetime.
Bombay Stories seductively exemplifies the typical Madonna syndrome. Postitutes are colorful, multi-dimensional characters, while the women with whom men should raise families are stale, embittered, and usually devoid of real personality. It’s as though this dichotomy was encouraged, if only to license the debauched interaction between men and supposedly questionable women.
Personally, I like Manto’s bad girls.
In the first short story “Khushiya,” we meet Kanta. Khushiya is a well respected pimp and Kanta has just begun working for him. She’s beautiful, and disarms Khushiya with her naive reaction when he knocks on her door. Without thinking (after all, she works for him), she greets him nearly naked and begins discussing business. He’s shocked that she doesn’t cover up. It’s like she’s dismissed him as a man:
Drops of sweat appeared on his small forehead, like the drops of
water that emerged from paneer when you gently squeeze the soft
mass through cheesecloth. His masculine dignity had been
affronted, and when he remembered Kanta’s naked body, he felt
Khushiya goes home, thinks about the young woman, and returns a changed man. He accepts that Kanta reacted the way she did out of innocence. Manto showcases an even purer sense of innocence in “Ten Rupees,” where we meet the fifteen-year-old Sarita, whose mother has coerced her into prostitution to help pay the family’s bills.
Being so young, Sarita enjoys playing dress up and riding in expensive cars (like most teens do). She’s bought by Kifayat, a taxi cab driver, to entertain his two visiting friends. Naturally, he worries about her age and quiet demeanor, but once outside the city, Sarita comes to life: singing, teasing, twisting their hair, and pinching them. One visitor is so enamored he tips her ten rupees beyond the two paid to her pimp. By the end of the night, Kifayat’s two friends are fast asleep in the back of the taxi and no one has physically touched Sarita:
With his hands still on the wheel, Kifayat was replaying in his mind
all that had happened when Sarita stopped and turned around. She
returned to the car, removed the ten-rupee note from her bra and
dropped it onto the seat next to him. Startled, he looked at the
note. “What’s this, Sarita?”
“This money–why should I take it?” she said before she turned and
took off running.
Hopefully she doesn’t mention the ten rupees to her mother, who’s waiting up for her. But lest it be said that Manto only trades in super-sympathetic characters, he introduces Saugandhi, a seasoned professional, in “The Insult.”
After her date with an official from the city’s sanitation department, the sleeping Saugandhi is awakened by Ram Lal, another well-known Bombay pimp; he’s got a wealthy gentleman waiting for her outside. Saugandhi freshens up only for the gentleman to take one look at her and respond “Yuhkk!” before driving off down the alley:
Her head was still throbbing, but the internal noise of her thoughts
had drowned out the pain. Saugandhi wanted the pain to engulf her
body–she wanted pain in her head, in her stomach, and her arms
too, the kind of pain that made it impossible to think. Thinking this,
she noticed a sensation in her heart. Was it pain? Her heart
contracted and returned to normal. What was that? Damn, that was
it! That “yuhkk” was messing with her heart!
Manto enshrined all of his characters with the emotions he felt for their living counterparts. But none possess the pain of self-revelation like “Mozelle.”
Mozelle is a young Jewish woman living across the hall from Trilochan, a devout Muslim. A wild child, she’s self-centered and reckless as only someone desperately hungry for all of life’s experiences can be. She has no problem toying with Trilochan’s affections, and even convinces him to shave his beard and cut his hair in return for her hand in marriage. Blinded by desire, Trilochan agrees to go against his religion, only to have Mozelle disappear before the wedding.
Four years later, Trilochan is engaged to the respectable and highly religious Kirpal Kaur when Mozelle reappears. Kirpal lives with her disabled parents in an area where the Sikhs are vandalizing the Muslim neighborhoods and terrorizing its inhabitants. Distressed, Trilochan confides in Mozelle a growing fear for his fiancee, who was raised in the countryside and doesn’t know how to protect herself. Mozelle’s solution is to charge in and save the young woman from possible harm.
Trilochan, however, is not as courageous as Mozelle; she must embarrasses him into action:
Mozelle forged ahead, and Trilochan followed, surveying from side
to side skittishly, fearful that a knife-wielding assailant would
spring upon him. Mozelle stopped, and when Trilochan caught up
with her, she explained, “Triloch, dear. Being scared like this
doesn’t help. If you’re scared, something bad will certainly happen.
Believe me, I’m talking from experience.”
Together, they save Kirpal, but at great personal expense to Mozelle. Is her sacrifice the result of a personal fear she refuses to admit, or merely the carelessness that a wild child might encourage?
“Oh, damn it!” she said, and wiped her mouth with the back of her
wrist. Then she turned to Trilochan. “All right darling–bye bye…”
Trilochan wanted to say something, but the words stuck in his
Mozelle removed Trilochan’s turban. “Take it away–this religion of
yours,” she said, and her arm fell dead across her powerful chest.
Not every protagonist in Bombay Stories is a prostitute, though Manto and his friends never hesitated to lighten the wallets of the wealthy themselves. Theirs was a life of excess. One of their greatest admirers and benefactors was Babu Gopi Nath, a story unto himself.
Inheritor of his stingy, money-lending father’s fortune, Babu Gopi Nath devoted his life to spending this money on activities his father would have frowned upon. Manto and his friends had no conscience when it came to taking advantage of him, whether by gambling, procuring prostitutes and expensive liquors, or throwing parties.
They didn’t realize, however, that Nath knew exactly what they were doing and allowed it. In the story that bears his name, Manto and co. are amusing performers:
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. The truth is
that I’ve lived with dervishes and gypsies since I was a child. I love
them and can’t live without them.
Asked why he likes whorehouses and shrines, Nath thinks for a moment and responds,
Because there, from top to bottom, it’s all about deception. What
better place could there be for a person who wants to deceive
Manto knew deception well. It allowed cirrhosis of the liver to kill him by age forty-two. But for a time, his talent surmounted his demons; he successfully mixed Bombay’s politics and hypocrisies with the forces of human nature. His stories introduce you to an ever-growing group of acquaintances and friends; people who made him aware of their existence and problems, both severe and petty, and ended up affecting his life. He puts the reader in the enviable position of wanting to know these individuals, making them flesh and blood, not just black type on white paper. In doing so, he entrusts us with his memories.
In the last seven years of Manto’s life, he continued to pierce the falsities of Indian society, exposing an underbelly saturated with taboos and discrimination, and cementing his stature as India’s most popular and controversial writer of short stories. When challenged, Manto said, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth.”
As for modern Mumbai, you can change a city’s name, but not necessarily its sins.
Carole Shepherd is a painter and freelance writer living in Boston.