Manto: The Seer Who Knew Every Prostitute and Pimp in Town


Manto: The Seer Who Knew Every Prostitute and Pimp in Town

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Acouple of years ago, while walking alone in a bylane along Chennai’s Tharamani junction I bumped into an alien world. A canal ran along my left and a cluster of educational institutes on the other side. The sun had set, and the roads, had started to look chequered with shadows spliced by the street lights. The evening felt calm, until a woman emerged from behind a pillar. Our eyes met, and she, without warning, bared her bosom at me.

Instinctively, I recoiled toward the divider and plunged to take the pavement on the other side. Unsettled, I walked the rest of the way without looking back. As with life, I’d taken the middle-road, confusing provocation with violation, hamstrung by the way the world of my fantasies suddenly found itself pressed against reality. That night I watched porn for hours. The hypocrisy notwithstanding, I’ve always tried to remember that vaguely unnerving moment through the woman’s eyes, instead of the infringement it would normally be considered by everyone.

Everyone, except Saadat Hasan Manto.

Manto was born in Samrala, Punjab in 1912. He read Russian and French authors, the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Guy de Maupassant from a very early age, eventually translating most of them into Urdu. He graduated from Aligarh Muslim University, and his most productive period in terms of his short stories was spent working through the mid-40s in Mumbai’s nascent film industry. Then came the event that not only changed his writing, but life as well – Partition.

Manto’s stories can be broadly divided into two sections: the ones about Mumbai, its film industry of which he was a successful part and his later acerbic, poisonous, sometimes batshit meditations on the delusional fallouts of the Partition. Most of his popular stories, like “Toba Tek Singh”, were written after he moved to Pakistan in 1946, where he inevitably, slipped through the very cracks he had helped light through his words.

Manto might have found implicit meaning in the Partition’s madness, the prickly skin of its morbidly grafted skeleton. For me though, he came into his own when writing about the dingy alleys of Mumbai, where prostitutes, pimps, and decent men met, their dreams and desires in tow and humanity intact. Alleys that existed not just in Manto’s Bombay, but in each city, often as the site most notorious, the kind of depravity men would indulge in but not admit, a space where they felt in control for as long as it remained anonymous to them. These are alleys that I still haven’t been able to enter other than through Manto’s stories.

His short story “Ghaate ka Sauda”, for example begins with the hauntingly sardonic lines, “दो दोस्तों ने मिल कर दस बीस लड़कीयों में से एक लड़की चुनी और बयालिस रुपये दे कर उसे ख़रीद लिया.” (Two friends chose a girl out of a lot of 20, and bought her for a price of ₹42.) “Dus Rupay” is the story of Srita, a teenage prostitute fascinated by cars, and the desire for some sort of ordinariness. It ends with Sarita returning a 10-rupee note, to a startled customer, having been allowed the simple, yet more valuable joy of riding his car. Even his macabre Partition parables like “Thanda Gosht” and “Khol Do”, tied communal acrimony to the distinctly carnal nature of retribution (rape) that most evade by identifying it with lunacy alone.    

Manto’s world is not an exploited version of society, but only its crudest reflection. In his famous speech at Bombay’s Jogeshwari College, he said, “If you find my stories unbearable, that is because we live in unbearable times.” His view appears conflicting only because it is ignored, and remains unknown, a metaphor he illustrates in “Be-khabri ka fayda” where a couple of men take joy in the illiteracy of a child facing a gun, that only they know is empty – the sheer paranoia of it.

Manto was given to such literalness that even in a job interview with All India Radio he pitched himself as the man who knew every prostitute and pimp in town. His years in Lahore, where he wrote the bulk of his stories inspired by Partition, were also his most painfully lived. Penury, alcoholism, and sickness underlined the everyday. Strangely, though, despite the evidence of his indulgences he remained a family man, eventually consumed by the inability to provide for that family; in a way, torn between two lives, one inescapable by design, the other by the want for virtuosity – each a bodily sin for the other.

You cannot read Manto’s stories as a therapeutic exorcism of the horrors of Partition, nor can you evade the thorny nudity of his emotions long enough to sexualise his women. There is a manic, unsparing stability in his characters that doesn’t even give into grief – as steady a pair of hands as you can think of. In his world, amorality doesn’t hide up the sleeve of a man, or behind the cleavage of a woman, but sits at the tip of the tongue waiting to parachute into the common. To know Manto and his stories therefore, is to know a world where humanity doesn’t die in the custody of morality, but is allowed a slice of life, however vicious its layers.

Manto’s world is not an exploited version of society, but only its crudest reflection. In his famous speech at Bombay’s Jogeshwari College, he said, “If you find my stories unbearable, that is because we live in unbearable times.”

That said, to write like Manto, one probably would have to live his life. Stare at the sun long enough to not mistake its redness for mist, the untellable truths of life for mere exaggeration. For a society that wears its curtains even in public, a man like him is probably an alarmist. Naturally, a number of his stories faced charges of obscenity and criticism both, in British India and Pakistan and would still be considered offensive.

Given, that even 65 years after his death, his legacy is more of an inquiry than a summation of felicitations, Manto is perhaps as immeasurable as he remains unsurpassed. I keep reading his stories again and again, so I can defreeze myself, live out of a body indistinct from the air it breathes, and the dirt its each draught accumulates. So I can remember the pair of eyes I met on that quiet evening on a Chennai road as of a woman trying to get by in life, without the lash of my own judgment obscuring them further. So I can, like Manto, walk without having to take the middle road in life and regard the shadows of its bylanes without naively fearing what might emerge from it.