KARACHI, Jan 3: The general consensus is that writer Sadat Hasan Manto never came to terms with the reality of the subcontinent’s partition. To date researchers paint his Bombay days as more productive in terms of financial dependence. A talk by Indian scholar Prof Gyan Prakash titled Manto’s Bombay at the National Museum of Pakistan on Thursday shed light on some facts that were revelatory in the sense that it did not portray Manto just as a chronicler of partition.
Prof Prakash established from the outset that the 1930s was an exciting time to be in Bombay (now Mumbai). It was the time of experimentation as the First World War had just ended and traffic between Bombay and the rest of the world had resumed. The Congress was mobilizing the working classes towards nationalism whereas communists and radical writers, especially Urdu writers, and intellectual were flocking to Bombay sensing there was an opportunity for a new radical future. Manto came to Bombay in 1936 as part of those writers’ journey.
Prof Prakash said Manto was celebrated for his partition stories and was underrated as an urban writer or the writer of the city of Bombay. When Manto entered Bombay he rented a flat in the red light district of the city where he saw the hustle and bustle of daily life and came across characters such as prostitutes and masseurs. His stories reflected all of that, and when he found humanity he did not see it with a reformer’s eye but depicted it as part of the everyday life in that district. Prof Prakash then gave the example of one of his stories, Mohammad Bhai.
Mohammad Bhai is a local gangster, a notorious person, with the heart of gold. He has a big, imposing moustache and moves around the streets with his posse. When Manto falls sick Mohammad Bhai pays him a visit and upbraids him for not informing Bhai of his illness. He orders his posse to call up a doctor and when the doctor comes he threatens him that if Manto doesn’t recover he (doctor) will have to face dire consequences. Luckily Manto recovers. The story moves forward, and a prostitute’s daughter is raped. Bhai murders the rapist and is tried for murder. In order not to look like a murderer, he shaves off his moustache. The judge exiles Bhai from Bombay. Bhai becomes grief-stricken because of shaving off the moustache. Prof Prakash argued that the story signified the limits of street power and the gap between colonial and street powers.
The scholar said Manto never exempted himself from his stories; he’s there as a protagonist and was affected by the goings-on. In that context he mentioned another story, Babu Gopinath, in which the writer ennobled Babu Gopinath whereas he himself couldn’t shed prejudices of the modern, middleclass mentality. However, while doing so Manto engaged with humanity where the street was his hunting ground and the people his dramatis personae. “He treats the disreputable with sympathy,” the professor remarked. Referring to another story, Siraj, he commented that in his stories the notions of propriety and order became common sense, and the reader understood that in the space of everyday life the dominant ideas or protocols could be resisted.
Prof Prakash said other writers such as Ismat Chughtai and Krishan Chandra, too, made Bombay their home and wrote for films (lucrative and steady employment) with the result that they had a mass audience falling in line with their literary quest.
Leading progressive writers and members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) worked for the film industry, some of whom were not followers of the progressives, he said. Manto was friendly with them but was sceptical of the political orientation of the progressives. The presence of the CPI in Bombay added to the whole scenario, Marxism was now inspiring and Bombay seemed to hold a promise for a new India. But the communal riots of 1946-47 shattered the dream of radical writers. Local tensions became nationalised. Bombay was also divided into Muslim and Hindu localities. Prof Prakash told the audience that Manto found communal tensions unbearable and asked the question which was his country, India or Pakistan. He then referred to Manto’s friendship with actor Shyam and mentioned that the writer realised that friendship could overcome the demands of communalism. Manto left Bombay in 1948 and the progressive writers fell into disarray. Some were content writing for films. Later on new producers entered the film industry, actors’ fee soared and formula became king. Writers made peace with the state. For Manto, Bombay remained an evocative place of the modern self. Prof Prakash ended his talk by quoting Manto’s lines which he said he had earlier also read out at an event:
“After living there for 12 years I find myself in Pakistan. I’m here because of what I learnt there. If I leave and go elsewhere, I will remain the way I am. I’m a walking, talking Bombay… I loved the city then and I love it today.”