Written by Simran Raikar
A small group of students on Monday walked through a guided tour of locations that shaped the works of Saadat Hasan Manto — the celebrated Urdu writer and playwright who lived in Mumbai until shortly after the Partition.
The literary and cultural organisation Urdu Markaz and the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, which have been organising the walks for the past five years, led the 15 students from St Xavier’s College through Bhendi Bazaar on Monday afternoon.
Zubair Azmi, the director of Urdu Markaz, said Manto’s works were inspired by the historic South Mumbai area, to which the roots of Urdu literature in Mumbai can be traced.
A lawyer by profession and holding an MPhil in Sufism, Azmi has been working for the past two decades to promote Urdu culture through its literature. After spending his childhood listening to progressive Urdu poets who his father would deem as non-conformist, Azmi started Urdu Markaz to enable people to study Urdu literature and give budding poets and writers a chance to showcase their talents. “I realised there was this whole world of treasure that we were oblivious to.”
Azmi’s walks bring to life the places that shaped progressive Urdu writers and poets of the 1930s and 40s. It began at Urdu Markaz Chowk, a bustling intersection. “This area was the karambhoomi of progressive Urdu writers and leftist poets such as Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Ali Sardar Jafri and Mehboob Khan. They would perform their works at a communist party commune here which has been demolished,” said Azmi.
The next spot on the itinerary was the Mughal Masjid, a blue-tiled mosaicked Iranian structure situated in a narrow lane off J J Road. The walk then moved to what used to be the Wazir Hotel, an Irani restaurant. “Wazir Hotel is closed now, but all the kawwals used to stay in the restaurant all day long. It was a landmark for Urdu poets and writers. Kawwals used to come in at 5 in the morning and would stay till night.” Azmi said.
Up next was J J Junction where, in the 1940s, eateries like the popular Shalimar restaurant housed some of the Hindi film industry’s most well-known lyricists.
A short walk away stands the Arcadia Building, where Jan Nisar Akhtar lived and wrote some of his more famous songs. Letters written to him by his wife during his stay there have been adopted in Urdu literature syllabus, said Azmi. The walk continued to Maktaba Jamia Ltd, the first bookstore to sell Urdu books in the city. The store, which is almost 90 years old, still retains some of the same furniture from when Manto frequented it. The walk ended at Manto’s home in what was then the Adelphi House and is now Khoja Society on Clare Road. “The residents of the society are completely unaware that they live in the same society as the greatest short story writer in Asia,” Azmi said.
Siddharth Thayil, a 19-year-old student who attended the walk for the first time, said, “I got interested in Manto’s work after I saw the movie last year. I then read his short stories that have been translated into English and Hindi, and I am looking forward to knowing more about Manto’s life through this walk. Manto’s writing is dark and very relevant to his time. He picked up on social issues that very few were willing to write about, on the less privileged and under-represented parts of society. His work is beautiful.”
The walks, Azmi hopes, will help break the stereotypes attached to Bhendi Bazaar’s image. “People need to remember that this has cultural significance and is not limited to the underworld or the red-light zone… Society today is divided among communal lines. We need to revive the old feeling of a sense of peace among communities,” he said.