Saadat Hasan Manto's Bombay (now Mumbai) was truly of the lowlifes as Salman Rushdie puts it, but these were people you would really want to know. The sex workers were playful in his world & the pimps, shy. But out of all the characters, the most intriguing was Manto himself, writing unabashedly & never once condemning any people, just like Bombay.
Nandita Das immortalised the controversial writer with her film ‘Manto’ which released across India on Friday, 21 September. Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the biopic traces the author's definitive years – in India and after partition when he moved to Pakistan.
Manto was born in 1912 in Punjab to a Muslim family of barristers. He began his literary career at the age of 21 as a translator for authors like Victor Hugo and Chekhov. In 1936 he moved to Bombay which became his ‘second home’ and more.
“That piece of land had offered shelter to a family reject and it had said to me, ‘You can be happy here on two pennies a day or on ten thousand rupees a day, if you wish,” he wrote in a letter to readers, published in the appendix of a short-story collection in 1952.
From writing about living in a chawl in Grant Road to writing about street goons, Bombay featured almost like a character in many of his stories and essays. The life in bustling neighbourhoods of Grant Road East, populated by prostitutes, pimps, their customers and labourers, inspired many characters in his short stories. He later on also went to become friends with some well-known Bollywood personalities of that time, like Ashok Kumar, Shyam and filmmaker Savak Vacha, soaking in the world of glamour.
“Main chalta phirta Bombay hoon (I’m a moving-and-thriving Bombay),” Manto would tell his friends and family.
In a short story 'Mammad Bhai', from his book ‘Bombay Stories’, he wrote, “If you haven’t been to Bombay, you might not believe that no-one takes an interest in anyone else. But the truth is that if you are busy dying in your room, no one will interfere. Even if one of your neighbours is murdered, you can be assured you won’t hear about it.”
Manto was known not to mince his words, he did not present a pleasant version of the society to his readers. He wrote frankly about sex and desire, prostitutes and alcoholics, drawing protests from critics and even facing trials for obscenity.
And his response to criticism was, “If you find my stories unbearable, that is because we live in unbearable times.”
And today even after 60 years of his death, his legacy remains in the dingy lanes of Bombay. And I, like Manto still see the city through his eyes- raw, real and full of possibilities.
Photographs by Hashim Badani