An unquiet city
Among the most famous things Saadat Hasan Manto wrote was the wistful declaration, Main chalta-phirta Bambai hoon (I am a walking, talking Bombay). His readers are well aware of his deep affection for the city to which he came from Amritsar in 1936. In spite of this, Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed’s new book of translated stories set in Mumbai, Bombay Stories, may strike us as counter-intuitive at first glance. Manto never really memorialized his Bombay in his stories. Today, he is virtually forgotten in the city’s notoriously short memory, and his most famous stories, quite appropriately, are the terrifying, bitter classics he produced after Partition.
But this collection makes it apparent that the historical and political weight of the later Manto oeuvre, vital as it may be, can sometimes obscure his great appetite for the pitfalls of ordinary human life. Bombay supplied him endless evidence of human frailty and human endurance. He wrote with relish—sometimes to the point of self-indulgence—of pimps and prostitutes, aimless, penniless men and seemingly helpless women. In a detailed introduction, Reeck posits that Manto was the first, and one of the finest, exponents of this variety of subaltern “Bombay fiction”.
The 14 stories here, accompanied by an appendix of three key Bombay-centric pieces of Manto’s non-fiction, include relatively famous ones like Smell (Bu), Mammad Bhai and Mummy, as well as pieces like Ten Rupees (Dus Rupay), Khushiya and Peerun. Not all of these stories are alike in quality. Manto’s tendency to sentimentality, which became a bladed weapon in his better Partition stories, can be a bit of a bore in stories like Babu Gopi Nath and Siraj. Manto’s view of women is not his finest contribution to literature, especially in these stories, where they tend to say little (although Izzat Jahan, about an outspoken Communist, goes amusingly against the grain). More interesting is what stories like Siraj, about a mysteriously sad prostitute, say about the male gaze; indeed, this was something Manto was not unaware of.
The violence of Partition makes an appearance in Bombay Stories too, most notably in the famous Mozelle, the melodramatic but undeniably vivid story of a Jewish woman who unexpectedly saves the life of a Sikh man and his fiancée. But unlike in Partition-oriented collections, here Mozelle appears towards the end of a different category of violence—the conflagration surrounding August 1947 reads like an escalation of the daily violence men and women commit on each other in the other stories, and allows us to understand how the mundane apathy and cruelty of Manto’s Bombay could spill over into a historic riot.
Reeck and Ahmed’s translation appears to be scrupulous, but I wish they had been less relentless about finding English alternatives to nearly every word of these stories, at least in an edition aimed at South-Asian readers. It’s a bit of a rude shock to encounter characters singing “I wish I could be a bird singing through the forests” from Untouchable Girl, when many readers will know perfectly well that they are referring to “Main ban ki chiriya boloon re” from Achhut Kanya; some allowances for bilingualism may have allowed the text to retain more of Manto’s rapid rhythms. But their use of colloquial English for Urdu works remarkably well, and there is a lot to like about their style.
What does this collection of stories say about the city in its title? We know Manto did not actively set out to be a chronicler of the city. Bombay is not a grand idea in these stories. But it does develop a character of its own through the kind of people it invited, to whom Manto was attracted—immigrants vacillating between hope and disillusionment, the melancholy, the survivors, the perpetually angry. In chawls, in brothels, on dark street corners, he found a flesh-and-blood city that had nothing to do with Mumbai’s familiar poetics of dreams, riches and loneliness. Like the unknown woman in Bu, whose odour cannot be forgotten even when replaced by the perfume of a beautiful girl, the acrid dust of Byculla haunts this work.