In Search of a Star

In Search of a Star

The Bombay that Saadat Hasan Manto inhabited fuelled his creative genius and made him the writer that he was. As a new film traces his life and times, a look back at the maverick Urdu writer’s relationship with the city and why he continues to influence literary discourse in the subcontinent.

Saadat Hassan Manto with his wife Safia whom he married on 26 April 1939. (Archive photo)

The world of Arab Galli, at the heart of Mumbai’s Grant Road East area, has stubbornly clung on to the remnants of the past. At the beginning of the Galli is the striking triangular-shaped Koka Building, with its exterior blackened by age and disrepair. Behind the building are narrow alleys leading to cheek-by-jowl matchbox-like kholis and a masjid. The Galli had once been the centre of trade carried out by the Arabs in the vicinity during pre-Independence days. Those were heady times when the tawaifs in the diagonally opposite Falkland Road used to perform mujras and the neighbourhood playhouses-turned-theatres (still known by their colloquially distorted name “pilahouse”) were thronged by movie-lovers in horse carriages. One of these kholis — with a monthly rent of nine rupees and eight annas was the address of Saadat Hasan Manto for about five years after he landed in Bombay in 1936, at the age of 24, with the job of editing a weekly film magazine called Mussawar. Some distance away is the city’s red-light area, Faras Road, now renamed as RS Nimkar Marg.

The Galli — which faces the Alfred Talkies, built in the 1880s and known as Ripon Theatre earlier — was the culminating point of the “Manto Walk” led by Mumbai historian Rafique Baghdadi. For the last two hours, Baghdadi had nudged his audience — mostly youngsters with little knowledge of Manto’s legacy — to imagine the life the author experienced in this area as he took them through Falkland Road, Faras Road, Kennedy Bridge and several pockets of Grant Road East. Many of Manto’s stories such as Hatak and Khusiya are set in this locality while the story Mammad Bhai gives glimpses of his life in the Galli. “The last Indian movie he worked on, the Sohrab Modi-directed Mirza Ghalib, recorded an impressive 18-week run at Minerva theatre in this neighbourhood when it released in December, 1954. Mirza Ghalib went on to win two President’s Awards. However, months after its release, on January 18, 1955, Manto passed away at his Lahore home at the age of 42 years and nine months,” says Baghdadi. Unfortunately, his death was not reported in any Bombay-based newspapers; an Indore paper which carried the news misspelt his name as “Minto”.

On his arrival in the island city, Manto was swept away by Bombay, its cosmopolitan spirit and diversity. Born in Punjab’s Samrala into a Kashmiri family to his sub-magistrate father, Ghulam Hasan Manto, and his second wife Sardar Begum on May 11, 1912, he had spent his early years in Amritsar. Later, he was enrolled at the Aligarh Muslim University, but within nine months, he was sent off to Batote in Jammu and Kashmir to recuperate from tuberculosis. Before he came to Bombay, he had briefly worked for a magazine called Paras in Lahore. With his three elder step-brothers practising law abroad and his father unhappy with his decision to be a writer, Manto believed Bombay offered “shelter to a family reject” because it was a city of dreams where “you can be happy here on two pennies a day or 10,000 rupees a day, if you wish…You can do what you want. No one will find fault with you.”

Manto, Manto film, Nandita Das, Saadat Hasan Manto
His corner of the universe: Saadat Hasan Manto with his wife Safia, Zakia, Safia’s sister and daughter Nighat. (Source: Express archive)

Manto not just embraced Bombay with all its contradictions, he called it his “second home” and revelled in it. The life in the grungy yet bustling neighbourhoods of Grant Road East, populated by prostitutes, pimps, their customers, shopkeepers and a floating crowd of labourers, added to the range of characters who turn up in his short stories. He also became acquainted with some well-known film personalities of that time, such as actors Ashok Kumar, Shyam and filmmaker Savak Vacha, forming lasting friendships and soaking in the world of glamour. Initially, this association with the world of movies started as a journalist but soon he was moonlighting as a screenwriter. He wrote the dialogue and screenplay of Kisan Kanya (1937), India’s first movie in Technicolour; wrote the story of Naukar (1943) and Chal Chal Re Navjavan (1944), among others.


The ’30s and the ’40s were formative years for the short story genre in Urdu. “Indian authors were still trying to find their voice. Some fell back on the tradition of Afsana (a traditional storytelling technique in Urdu). Others were creating their style as they went along. Manto was writing about characters who were considered to be beyond the pale of literature. He erased the distinction between high-brow and low-brow literature. In a way, Bombay defined Manto and his style. Since Manto’s stories were set in Bombay, Urdu readers got to hear a language and cadence they had never heard before. The Jewish, Parsi and Christian lingos were not part of the Urdu fiction writers’ vocabulary previously, nor were the chawls. Manto introduced them to a tenor, language and milieu that they had never known,” says Rakhshanda Jalil, who has translated a collection of Manto’s writings titled Naked Voices: Stories and Sketches (Roli Books, 2008).

In the just-released 112-minute biopic, Manto, actor-director Nandita Das captures the life of the writer between 1946 and 1950. Das, who describes Manto as “a misfit, brutally honest, rude, very sensitive and arrogant” person, says she came to know more about the writer during his centenary celebrations in 2012. “Manto is relevant today as he went beyond the religious and national identities which are dividing us, not just in India, but the world over. You interchange the religion in his stories and they would still work. He didn’t spare anyone. Manto gives me a perfect excuse to respond to what’s happening today when identity politics is being played out everywhere,” she says.

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Saadat Hasan Manto with his contemporaries in Lahore, 1949. (Source: Express archive)

In a career spanning two decades, Manto wrote nearly 250 short stories, sketches, a large number of essays, portraits, letters — especially famous are those addressed to Uncle Sam (the US) — and one novel. Highly controversial and admired, the author believed in holding a mirror to society — often baring its ugly side. “Premchand was influenced by Russian realism. So was Manto,” says Jalil. Manto was introduced to Russian literature by Abdul Bari Alig, described as a “footloose writer, journalist and armchair revolutionary” by Khalid Hasan, the translator of several anthologies of Manto’s writing. Alig also introduced Manto to French literature and encouraged him to translate Victor Hugo’s The Last Days of a Condemned Man and Oscar Wilde’s Vera — which were well-received. Alig, who was a father figure to Manto, later prodded him to write his own stories. Praising the prolific Urdu writer, screenwriter-poet Javed Akhtar, who plays a small part in Das’s film, says: “Usually, the craft of prose writers matures in the later years of a writer’s life. Manto died young but within a short span of time, he created a huge body of work. His style was different from his contemporaries such as Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Ismat Chughtai.”

During his later years in Mumbai, Manto shifted to Adelphi Chambers on Byculla’s Clare Road, with his wife Safia, where author Ismat Chughtai and her husband, writer-director Shaheed Latif, were frequent visitors. This is the home that young Nargis visited along with her mother, Jaddan Bai, after the actor formed a friendship with Safia and her two younger sisters. This relatively upscale locality wasn’t very far from Manto’s previous address, but it had a different charm, being a Muslim, Jewish and Christian-dominated area back then. The Irani café, Sarvi, on the ground floor of the Mirium Building was one of his favourite haunts and finds a mention in his story, Siraj.

Today, many Manto-lovers flock to this place, which still retains the traditional round marble-top tables and wooden chairs. Manto’s favourite table was next to the window, overlooking the Nagpada police station, and offered him inexhaustible views of life outside.

Manto lived in Bombay till he left for Lahore in 1948, barring a year-and-a-half (1941-42) stint at the All India Radio, Delhi. During his time in Delhi, he drew a salary of Rs 250 and produced around 150 radio dramas and features. In his essay, ‘A Solitary Soul’,which appears in the hot-off-the press compilation, Manto-Saheb: Friends and Enemies on the Great Maverick (Speaking Tiger), author Balwant Gargi mentions that Manto used to carry a small Urdu typewriter in his bag and directly typed out his plays on it. “Once, he announced to his friends that he would write a play on any subject they wish to propose, the only condition being that they keep a dozen bottles of beer ready for him,” he writes.

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Saadat Hasan Manto with his father. (Source: Express archive)

After his return to Bombay, he rejoined Mussawar and freelanced for movies. In 1943, he joined Filmistan studio and wrote a number of scripts including Eight Days (1946), which was the story of a shell-shocked World War II soldier, in which he even did a cameo. The movie flopped and other projects that Manto was working on were held up. “During this period, Manto also experienced growing criticism from the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association (IPWA). Some of their core members disapproved of what they saw as an increasing obsession with obscenity and immorality in Manto’s work. They begun to shun him. He was hurt by all the criticism,” says Jalil.

His life in Bombay might have been a roller-coaster ride but those were also his happiest years. “Main chalta phirta Bombay hoon (I’m a moving-and-thriving Bombay),” Manto would tell his friends and family. During a talk at The Asiatic Society of Mumbai last month, Das said: “When he was asked if he would go to Pakistan, he would say: ‘Ho sakta hai agar Bombay Pakistan chala jaye, toh uske pichhe pichhe main bhi chal padoon (If Bombay goes to Pakistan, I might go after it)’. That’s how much he loved Bombay.”

Notwithstanding his profound love for Bombay, Manto decided to make Pakistan his home after Independence, taking his friends by surprise.

It happened suddenly. One day, I said to myself, ‘To hell with it all. I’m leaving. Shyam (his close friend, actor Sundar Shyam Chadha) was shooting that night. I stayed up and packed. He came quite early in the morning, looked around and asked, ‘Going?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied,” writes Manto in Murli ki Dhun, an essay on Shyam after his demise in 1951. They “never mentioned the subject again.” One fine day in January 1948, as they waited at the Mumbai port for Manto to board the Karachi-bound ship, Shyam regaled him with funny stories.

Yet, the decision to move to Pakistan was far from sudden. Manto was deeply affected by the Hindu-Muslim riots following Partition and the relocation had been a decision he had been mulling for months. His wife Safia and their one-year-old daughter Nighat had left for Pakistan in July 1947 with her family. She has been asking him to join them in Lahore. Safia was also pregnant with Nuzhat, who would be born on February 6, 1948. By then, Manto had quit Filmistan and joined Bombay Talkies, Malad, which had been taken over by Ashok Kumar and Vacha — both his friends. Under them, all senior posts were occupied by Muslims, which created a great deal of resentment among Hindu employees. That apart, the attack on his artistic integrity upset Manto. In his essay, Ashok Kumar: The Evergreen Hero, Manto writes: “At a meeting held to discuss a story written by Nazir Ajmeri — which was later filmed as Majboor — I made some critical remarks suggesting changes. Nazir turned to Ashok and Vacha and said, ‘You should not let Manto sit in on such meetings. Since he is a story writer himself, he is prejudiced.’ I told myself, “Manto bhai, this street will lead you nowhere. It is best to turn into this side lane.’ So I took the side lane that brought me to Pakistan, where I was soon tried for obscenity for writing a story called Thanda Gosht.”

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Saadat Hasan Manto in a still from Eight Days. (Source: Express archive)

To friends, he gave different reasons for the move. He tried to persuade Chughtai to shift as well “saying that the future would be brighter in Pakistan”. To Gargi, he said, “I am going to Pakistan so there is a Manto in Pakistan, too. A Manto who will rip open the facade of politics and expose corruption.”

A harsh life awaited Manto in Pakistan where he would encounter lack of work, ill health, alcoholism, lawsuits and extreme poverty. The one film that Manto wrote after moving to Lahore, Beli (1950), tanked. Yet, his seven years in Lahore were a period of intense creativity. He wrote powerful stories about Partition and captured the pain of dislocation and communal conflict. Manto once wrote in a postscript to one of his collections, which is reproduced in the book Bitter Fruit (2008), a compilation of Manto’s writing by Hasan: “You know me as a story writer and the courts of this country know me as a pornographer…You may call it my imagination, but, for me, it is the bitter truth that so far I have failed to find a place for myself in this country called Pakistan, which I love greatly. That is why I am always restless. That is why sometimes I am to be found in a lunatic asylum and sometimes in a hospital.”

Manto fought three obscenity cases before Independence and as many afterwards in Pakistan, where he was also imprisoned. By the time he shifted to Lahore, he was considered to be a “reactionary” by the Progressive Writers’ Group while the authorities saw him as an “undesirable progressive”. This is when he started writing incisive, insightful and no-holds-barred portraits of film personalities of Bombay between 1948 and1954. “Written in his inimitable style, these pieces created a new genre in film journalism,” says Baghdadi. Hard-pressed for money, often he would walk into the office of a publishing house, sit in one corner and produce a piece in less than an hour. He wrote at one go, without making any corrections, and at an amazing speed. Talking to Manto’s Indian biographer Brij Premi on April 6, 1968, Safia had said that “life was full of worries in Lahore” but Manto wrote “prodigiously, almost a story a day, until the day he died”. It is during his last days in Lahore that he wrote Toba Tek Singh, which was first published in 1953 in an Urdu magazine, Savera, probably his most well-known work, that depicts the absurdity of Partition.

The last three decades has witnessed an increasing engagement with Manto’s work. Historian Ayesha Jalal, Manto’s grandniece, who wrote The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work Across the India-Pakistan Divide (2012), says, “Among the reasons for the increased interest in Manto are newly available translations of his work in a number of international and regional languages. He foregrounds social issues of perennial relevance. His humanistic approach, sensitivity, and accessibility is attractive for a cross-section of readers, particularly those inclined to think out of the box.” Hindi publishers have also played a major role in keeping his books in circulation, says Jalil. The Delhi-based critic says that interest in Partition studies has fuelled an interest in Manto’s writing. “In the ’90s, translations of his stories started coming in. Initially, these were clumsy attempts, but these translators were pioneers and they were going where others had not gone before. Such is the power of Manto that he rises above the poor translation and still speaks to readers,” she says.

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View of Mumbai’s Arab Galli where Manto for some years. (Source: Express photo by Prashant Nadkar)

Manto’s grandson Mohammad Farooq, son of his second daughter Nuzhat, believes Manto would have been happy to see his writings being read at various levels and portrayed on television and on the big screen. “For a writer labelled fahaash (risqué) by society, this would have reflected as a victory of Manto over the intelligentsia which decried his works. However, somewhere in his writings, he once mentioned that he hoped never to be eulogised for his works,” says Farooq, a journalist with a business publication.

Delayed validation of his contribution to literature came with Pakistan issuing a postage stamp on January 18, 2005, commemorating his 50th death anniversary. In 2012, his birth centenary year, Manto was posthumously honoured with Nishan-i-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s top civilian award.

In a cyclical motion, the subcontinent is once again witnessing a polarisation of civil societies on religious grounds that Manto was fiercely critical about. In an email interview, Jalal, who is the Mary Richardson professor of history at Tufts University, says, “Manto would have deplored the heightened state of religious bigotry in the subcontinent and the embittered nature of the India-Pakistan relationship. Affected by international events, he would have most likely lampooned Uncle Sam’s liberalism, pointing to military adventures in oil-rich Muslim lands and, closer to home, in war-torn Afghanistan…”

Today, the trams and carriages that used to run on the streets of Grant Road East are missing. The Taj theatre, next to Koka building, has been replaced by Ali Tower. Yet, it’s hard to do away with Manto’s Bombay entirely. There is Thakur paanwalah next to the building. His neighbour is Chintu, who can manufacture the seat of any antique or high-end bike. A board advertising Modern Clinic, which offers cures for gonorrhoea, syphilis and fistula, stands in a corner. A stone’s throw away, a group of children squeals in joy around an open aquarium opposite the Arab Gulli masjid. At Sarvi, the staff eye us suspiciously as we gawk at Manto’s favourite eatery.

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Nandita Das and Nawazuddin Siddiqui during the shoot of the film. (Source: Express archive)

When we say “Manto”, the manager walks away, shaking his head in exasperation. At Adelphi Chambers, the guard is friendlier even though he doesn’t let us in. He suggests we seek the building society’s permission first. “Main dekhte hi jaan gaya tha aap Manto saheb ka ghar dekhne aayen hain (I knew at a glance that you had come looking for Manto saheb’s home),” says the guard, who has never read Manto’s stories but is familiar with fans who come seeking a slice of the author’s world.