The Whore as a Metaphor for a City

Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto 
Translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad
Vintage International

First published in The Beacon

Sudhir Pattwardhan. “Street Corner” 1985

Mention Saadat Hasan Manto’s name and a landscape of tragedy unravels in all its grotesqueness. That he has become almost a Siamese twin of the Partition stories he wrote is a minor tragedy in itself. In both age and disposition, there is an altogether different Manto who predates his avatar as a chronicler of the Partition. Bombay Stories introduces one to this earlier Manto, and with him, the city that built his reputation as a writer. The same city that enabled him to become an indubitable annotator of “lowlifes.”

Manto’s Bombay (yes, still very much Bombay), part of pre-independence India, boils with cosmopolitan chaos. As a pot that melted extremes, the city became a home for everyone, from the business tycoon to the migrant labourer and the prostitute. The last group drew Manto’s literary imagination with an intensity bordering on obsession. Nearly every tale in Bombay Stories features a prostitute, even if she isn’t the central character. The skin-brushing proximity Manto evinces in projecting the lives of sex workers raised many an eyebrow in his lifetime. He had been accused of employing obscenity in his stories. One can see why. Manto presents the prostitute in her grimy and broken hovel, stripping her of exaggerated fancies of glamour and lust. The realism apart, the bigger surprise Manto packs in these stories is his not-so-hidden feminist agenda.

When Kanta opens the door to him stark naked, Khushiya, a pimp, is shocked and asks why she doesn’t have any clothes on.

          Kanta smiled. “When you said it was you, I thought, what’s the big deal? It’s only my Khushiya, I’ll let him in…”

The woman’s brazenness hits Khushiya as a whack of insult. It torments him that she could consider him so insignificant as to think nothing of appearing naked in front of him. This weird conflict in the pimp’s mind is a projectile of writerly brilliance. Who would think that a prostitute’s nudity — her most lascivious and prized offering — could be turned on its head and into a weapon to injure the male ego?

Manto’s prostitutes are the axiomatic flesh-and-blood, but they are more. They have beautiful minds of their own, which they exercise despite the compulsion of being tied to the body to pay for food.

The most visceral demonstration of this happens in The Insult, where Saugandhi, a sex worker kicks patriarchy in its shins instead of remaining in its bubble wrap of faux security. Ironically, Saugandhi’s provocation comes not from sexual exploitation but rejection from a potential customer. A man with whom her pimp sets her up says “Yuhkk,” in apparent revulsion and dashes away in his car. In the man’s single meaningless utterance, Saugandhi (literally, fragrant-smelling) decodes a lifetime of humiliation that masculinity has heaped on her. It is in her getting even that Manto concentrates the story’s greatest force. Shortly after the rejection episode, Madho, Saugandhi’s leeching “lover” reappears with his need for money. She rips his photos from her walls and throws them out of the window uttering, “Yuhkk. That is how she seizes her moment of showing Madho — and through him, every man — his place.

In Ten Rupees, Sarita, a young girl, is forced into prostitution by her mother. The story breaks one’s heart before enthralling and finally healing it — with twists as sharp as the ones Kifayat, the driver in the story – makes his car swerve to. Ten Rupees is evidence of the perversion of depraved men looking to sexually exploit a young girl. It is also proof of what the alchemy between a writer’s masterly imagination and his sensitivity can do to kindle the softest core of the human heart, no matter how savage. Ten Rupees is a fantastical story, electrifyingly so because of a young girl who is just that and the Hindi film songs she breaks into unbidden. It’s also an extraordinary story. Although almost a fairy tale, over the brief wingspan of its flight, it holds out the hope of coming true somewhere at some point in time.

In his depiction of prostitutes, Manto is somewhere between an exploiter and a benefactor – more like an ally. His vision has a diving mask that takes him beyond the prostitute’s essential physical territory. Accompanying him to their shanties allows the reader to see them, really see them — the way they live and dream, quarrel with or negotiate their fate. It isn’t difficult to find in Manto’s whores a metaphor for the Bombay of the 1940s. Like her, the city welcomed in a businesslike way anyone willing to pay for the pleasures it offered them. There were no strident calls for keeping outsiders out and the place teemed with characters from different regions, religions and communities.

Only one other character could possibly make the prostitute envious with the consistency of its appearance in Bombay stories. That of Manto’s. Most of the stories are in the first person, and the narrator refers to himself simply as Manto. It is tempting to take this as the author’s real-life persona, but one is well advised to read this character within the fictional framework of the stories. As translator, Matt Reeck informs us in his detailed notes, the Manto of the stories isn’t really a mirror image of the real-life Manto. Still, this self-depreciating, temperamental persona is close enough to the real Manto, one suspects. This is particularly true when he shares vignettes from the Hindi film industry, where he worked as a writer. He delights the reader with an insider’s view of the film industry, at once an enigma and an imperishable field of gossip fuel.

Consider this principle from a ten-point list Narayan, who works in the film industry draws up for working in the studio. #3: If you fall in love with an actress, don’t waste time dilly-dallying. Go meet her in private and recite the line, “I, too, have a tongue in my mouth.” If she doesn’t believe you, then stick the whole thing out. And#6, which rings so true, one could have written it today. Remember that an actor has an afterlife too. From time to time, instead of preening before a mirror, get a little dirty. I mean, do some charity work.” [Janaki]

The translators, Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad have rendered these stories into English with compelling credence without over-anglicising the text. The distinct Indian-ness of the narration is well preserved for the most part as is Manto’s signature sarcasm and wry humour.

One reads Manto not just for the stories he wrote but also because of the way he embalms each story with his deep humanity, his acerbic wit and his near-allergic impatience for masks — semantic or societal. In Mozelle, technically the only “Partition” story in the collection is also arguably the most brilliant in form, content and technique. It depicts the horrors of the communal tensions of the time with such vividness and neurotic pace that the reader is stunned into a suffocating silence. This one story is also an eerie foreboding of the departure of Manto himself from his beloved Bombay, which he had to leave following Partition and from the pluralistic freedom it offered him.


Bombay Stories
 is therefore, is an important collection to understand not only a city but its author who, tragically, died not in but of Partition.

Biryani Tales and Life Lessons From Kerala

First published in The Wire

Kerala has scarcely had a more challenging festival season than the recent Eid and Onam that went by. Festivals, for all their loaded moral and religious bearings, are also occasions for feasting together. Watching the 2017 Malayalam film Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa (dir. Kiran Narayanan) in the backdrop of the devastating floods in Kerala, I learned, with sobering appreciation, not only how food integrates people but also how it binds Keralites across communities with a peculiar endurance, one that only the tongue’s archived discretion can inspire.

The film begins with the redoubtable Ummi Abdulla, the diva of Malabar cuisine, presenting a radio show. Abdulla shares how biryani arrived in India with the Persians and was refined in the royal kitchens of the Mughals before travelling to Kerala, where it changed its form based on the “land, weather conditions and nature” of the locals. In that summation is a compendium of the history of Malabar cuisine – a confluence of cooking styles including European to Arabian and Persian besides, of course, Indian.

The film’s fantasy trope of angels-helping-humans shifts the scene from the imagined, dreamy heaven to the lush heaven-on-earth, where the main story unfolds. The camera moves with the nonchalance of being in a place – a fictional village about 50 kilometers from Kozhikode – where every shot is bound to hold the eyes captive.

The central attraction of the village is a 200-year-old mosque, famous not so much for its religious services or even the multi-gemstone studded walking stick of its founder preserved as an exhibit in the mosque as for its Sunday biryani program. Cutting across caste, class and religion, biryani lovers throng the mosque every Sunday. When a TV reporter comes to the village to do a story on the weekly feast, the first person he interviews is the elderly Krishnan, who prides his position as the president of the “2,000-year-old” Bhadrakali temple as much as he gloats over the fact that he sat on the front row of the first edition of the biryani program, hosted by Hajiyar, the mosque priest and his (now dead) wife, in 1998.

Dignified egalitarianism

As depicted in the film, the queues formed diligently for the free biryani – one each for men and women – held for me a mirror to the dignity and grace of the people of Kerala. Everyone waits for their turn patiently, and social position accords no special status to anyone. This is the same grace the Malayalees have displayed in the wake of the unimaginable calamity of the recent deluge. From cabinet ministers to district collectors, and police officers to ordinary millennials and seniors alike, Keralites displayed a spirit of cooperation that stood out when the force of water swallowed everything else around them. Images of a young girl carrying her pet dog on her head as she wades through waist-deep water, of poor villagers at the district collector’s office to return their eagerly-awaited meagre pension and of ministers carrying sacks of relief material on their shoulders won’t escape our memory soon. More so because, while stories of human endurance in crises involve ordinary folks are common, it is rare in the Indian context to see officials and legislators stepping in to respond to life-threatening situations.

Even besides the workplace and the biryani queue, the neighbours – Muslims, Christians and Hindus – freely intermingle on a social level, visiting each other’s houses, having tea and food together. God is a common point of reference in their conversations. Communal harmony is not a clichéd, feel-good cinematic flower vase here because it is precisely not that in the social milieu it draws from. This bond is real and sincere, as has been demonstrated by the temples and churches that opened their doors for namaaz in the wake of the recent floods.

The Malabar biryani then becomes a metaphor for this smooth amalgamation, combining as it does, according to the mosque priest, 35 different ingredients. When mixed in the right proportion, these create an aroma that rises “straight to the heaven.” Similar to the harmonizing of the spices in the biryani is the social mixing of the neighbours. Hassan, an aspirational tailor, works in Mariyama Memorial Tailoring Shop owned by a Christian and writes screenplays at work; his current work in progress is a modern-day story of Mahabharata’s king Pandu.

Biryani Tales and Life Lessons From Kerala
A screen grab from the trailer of the Malayalam film Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa.

But despite the egalitarianism and secularity, the biryani queue is also where strains of tension first become visible. The camera focuses on Miss Tara, a middle-aged widow who quickly becomes the object of ogling and slander from the men’s line. Her crime? Not displaying grief on her husband’s death in the Gulf two years earlier.

The perils of disinformation

The biryani program comes to an abrupt halt with due to certain circumstances. To cope with the drab Sundays, no-good youngsters like Paul, the tailoring shop owner’s adopted son, look forward to such activities as visiting Tara’s house on the pretext of delivering her blouse. At a village meeting chaired by Hajiyar and Krishnan, Tara volunteers to cook the Sunday biryani. But on her first scheduled Sunday, she ends up delivering a premature baby girl instead, sparking a wildfire of scandalous gossip through the village. Speculations on the baby’s father bring everyone into its ambit – from the impotent tailor master to Hajiyar.

The viral acceptance of rumour as truth that follows brings to the mind the vicious disinformation campaign launched with the aim of forestalling aid contributions for the recent flood victims.

Tara is defamed as a fallen woman, publicly called a whore and barred from participating in the biryani program. But Tara, like Kerala, stands her ground in the face of all the aspersions. Like Kerala, too, she does not let herself slide into victimhood, treating herself to a sumptuous home cooked meal instead.

Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa is a feminist film in several ways. The guest appearance of Ummi Abdulla featuring on an FM channel run entirely by women, the heavenly angel deciding to help Tara, the exposing of patriarchal hypocrisy—all point to that. Contrasting with that clear slant from director Kiran Narayanan is the easy geniality with which the villagers from different religions and social classes intermingle.

The film’s finale emerges from Tara revealing the name of her child’s father to the villagers and stepping forward to cook the Sunday biryani with the help of fellow villagers. After overcoming his initial shame-induced denial, the father of Tara’s illegitimate child finally owns up his responsibility. The village is able to bring the biryani program back without outside help, much like Keralites have done to rebuild their state in the aftermath of the floods.

It would be imprudent to simply draw the parallels without also considering the man-made causes that contributed in large measure to the recent flooding. That said, the soul of Oru Visheshapetta Biriyani Kissa is the wisdom it offers – living in harmony, assuming responsibility in full and a staunch refusal to negotiate with harmful agents – both as a fable and a doctrine to live by.

For, indeed, biryani can be a way of life if not a religion in itself.

Satirical Films Have a Lot to Say About India’s ‘Baba’ Culture

First published in The Wire

Stills from <em>Mahapurush</em> and <em>Ab Ayega Mazaa</em>.

Miracles, magic, superhuman powers, grand events – the works. Divine grace hides in samosas, the answer to fatal diseases in pranayama routines and relief from brutal office stress in pricey retreats and workshops. Science is debunked, its “helpless” limits made to capitulate before extraordinary and divine-blessed powers. The stories of many a spiritual guru in India would make for cracking comedy if it weren’t for the tragedy of real masses of converts being swindled in broad daylight, mostly of their own volition. As the court case involving Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh unravelled recently, I returned to Mahapurush (Satyajit Ray) and Ab Ayega Mazaa – two films that satirise ‘babadom’ at its hilarious best.

Based on Birinchi Baba, a story by Rajshekhar Basu, one of the greatest Bengali satirists, Ray’s Mahapurush shows how babas appear in many stripes to take care of every kind of gripe. In a discussion among three men – two chess players and their friend who is in search of a baba who would rescue him from his broke status – there’s mention of Mirchi Baba, a godman who gives his followers hot chilli peppers for curing all their distress and Radio Baba, who taps into electricity from the sky and turns it into sparks to combust any problems his disciples face. Not too long ago a real baba, who used to prescribe remedies involving the distribution of hot samosas and muffins among folks, went bust. The darbars of Nirmaljeet Singh Narula, Nirmal Baba to his followers, were a lesson in the incredible human capacity for suspending disbelief in front of a guru who sits on a gaudy throne and dishes out barkat (Urdu for abundance or blessings) via samosas, gol gappe and wearing ties, as if the sky were dispensing showers in the monsoon. Babas in India disseminate their abundance in different ways. Ramdev does it via kapalbhati and Patanjali, the efficacy of both of which have been questioned; Singh in the form of drugs and liquor rehabilitation, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev by elevating the appeal of that elusive elixir called a “heightened state of consciousness” into something of a corporatised business model.

Read the rest in The Wire

Anhey Ghorey Da Daan—Making the Unseen Visible

Anhey Ghorey Da Daan (Alms for the Blind Horse) isn’t a film you will watch every day. The language of the film, Punjabi, makes it an even bigger rarity. For a while now, the Hindi film industry in India, popularly known as Bollywood, has been projecting a certain version of Punjabi culture—gaudily-dressed bhangra dancers, songs laced with Punjabi phrases or dashing heroes–self-assured, upwardly mobile and often given to crass humour.

Based on a Gurdial Singh novel of the same name, Anhey Ghorey breaks that pattern with grating sharpness. Rarely, if ever, was a story told about the people who are not any of the above. About those marginal men and women whose very existence is of little meaning for those who keep these people in the fringes.  Here is a film encapsulating a day in the life of a Mazhabi Sikh family, who are ranked the lowest in the caste hierarchy. Yet encapsulation is probably an inadequate and even inaccurate word to describe this debut film of director Gurvinder Singh.

For Anhey Ghorey is not so much a tapestry, but a number of threads hanging down a wire, even as the breeze around them threatens to rip these threads apart. The film opens with the house of Dharma being bulldozed by a powerful landlord who has sold the land to an industry. The tremors of this demolition are felt by Dharma’s neighbours, including the family that is at the centre of the story. The male elders’ collective plea to the village head or sarpanch falls on deaf ears, as his gun-wielding henchmen step forward to show the poor villagers who the boss is.

Thereafter, the story moves to the town of Bhatinda, where Melu, the son of the family, is a rickshaw puller. Despite moving to the city, he finds the pasture no greener than in his village. He is still on the margins, working hard and long hours, but not earning enough to lead a life of dignity.

This part—the middle of the film—can be a challenge for the mainstream/conventional viewer, who expects a turn of events to unfold. Instead what appears is a documentary-like collage of staccato images, punctuated with dialogue exchanges between stray characters. The director’s emphasis on using ambient sounds—the thunderous rumble of an approaching train, the screeching halt of a bus, the shrill noise of metals being sharpened—to amplified effects, is deliberate. In place of harmony as created by music, these sounds strike as discordant notes—announcing, as it were, that something isn’t quite all right in the world.

The subtlety of the film is such that it penetrates the viewer’s psyche even without a hard-hitting linear storyline. The imagery, particularly the way the camera has been used to convey the sense of the story, is arresting. For me, the verdant fields seen through the just bulldozed walls of Dharma’s house, the mass of empty rickshaws on a day the rickshaw pullers call for a strike in the city, or the village women standing next to each other in the dark on the tense night when gunshots are heard on the streets were more telling than any spoken dialogue.

The film ends in sombre irony—even as Melu’s father proceeds at night towards the city to meet his son, Melu, having had enough of the city life, returns to his village. But it isn’t just the irony that makes the scene of the father’s departure memorable. As he decides to make the journey, he seeks his young daughter Dyalo’s opinion. Her silence makes the old man, noticeably sparse in speech and defeated  in silence, utter one of the most endearing dialogues of the film—“If you don’t want me to go, I will stay back.” A stoic Dyalo, however, urges him to go ahead and meet his son.

Upon his return to the village–swept in uneasy darkness–Melu sees his sister Dyalo, who has ventured out of the house, unable to hold her restive spirit. Suddenly, all those threads hanging precariously are brought together—if only momentarily.

Anhey Ghorey is in the league of the best of contemporary world cinema. Both the content and the aesthetics of the film set it apart from the slew of Punjabi or Punjabi-themed films coming out of India. It might not be an easy film to watch. But then neither is the story reality of families leading sub-human lives no one cares about, an easy one to come to terms with.

Read another review of the film here.

Séraphine and the Source of all Sparks

The other night as sleep eluded me, I requested my husband to tell me a story. Though juvenile, the exercise was definitely enjoyable. He started narrating a tale in which the protagonist was a small car. The story took me through this little car’s journey into the big, bad, puzzling world–about its getting lost in the woods, feeling lonely and scared, and finally being brought back to its mother, a truck. A story suitable for all children, including the occasional one like myself. It was a rather well-crafted story with all components fitting well with each other and flowing logically. At the end of it, I wondered where did he, who insisted on being a reader, not a writer, get the brainwave for this story? And that brought me to the bigger question–where do well all get our ideas from? From life around us, some would say. Of course, that’s true, but what plants a particular story seed in one’s brain in the first place? The answer remains one big mystery and has been so for quite a while since humans embarked upon adventures in creative expression.

Rabindranath Tagore, toward the end of his life said something to the effect that he never wrote anything of his colossal body of work. He meant that all his writing had “been written,” that it wasn’t something he could claim as his deed. His refrain is echoed by Mirza Ghalib, one of the greatest and most revered of Urdu poets. Ghalib condenses his creative process in a couplet where he says:

Aate hain ghaib se yeh mazaami khayal mein

Ghalib sareer-e khaamah nawaa-e sarosh hai

Loosely translated, it means

These flourishes of imagination come to me from (nowhere)

These words are the ones uttered by the archangel.

And in the book on the legendary Indian sculptor-painter, Ramkinkar Baij that I translated, the artist says in one place:

“A lot of times, one doesn’t know what form the painting will acquire. You understand? The image comes alive on its own. It inspires awe. Completely stuns you. Then I think intoxicated, where does that man, who quickly drew the picture by keeping me standing like a mute witness, live? “

I like to think the mystery of creative spark is what endows it with so much excitement. When you start off, it’s not a known path you take, it’s not a less-known one either; it simply is one that unfolds in real-time, moment by moment. And nothing brought home this aspect of creativity to me more than a film I watched recently.

Séraphine, a 2008 film, tells the story of a self-taught French painter, Séraphine Louis or Séraphine de Senlis (Séraphine of Senlis) who was born in the late 19th century, and died in 1942. When I read the film’s synopsis, I took it to be fictional. For it is hard to believe the extraordinary life of this artist and the events that punctuated it. Orphaned by the age of seven, Séraphine grew up to a life deficient in comforts of the material kind, but rich in imagination and nature’s marvels. After spending years working as a shepherdess and a maid, she got hired as a servant by the nuns of a convent when she was eighteen. Pious and hardworking, she spent two decades with the convent, before returning to her role of a maid to keep her stomach palette filled. This is the role–of an ageing maid–that the film Séraphine opens with. We see a zaftig and somewhat eccentric spinster in the houses of aristocrats in the French town of Sinlis.

She is like any other maid one might have come across at that time–earnest, diligent, careful with her money. Except, she is not any other maid of her time. Yes, she is earnest in her chores of floor-mopping, cloth-washing, dish-cleaning, but her real sincerity lies elsewhere. She is most diligent in answering the commands of her masters and mistresses; but it’s nothing compared to the command she truly cares for. And the prudence she shows with expending her meagre earnings is not to indulge herself, except for her life’s passion.

Early on, along with portraying the rigours of her job as a maid, the film establishes her love of nature. Next, it is revealed that the pennies she so painstakingly earns and haggles for with her employers are not for buying bread, but art materials–paints and brushes–from a local store. She is even shown to sneak oil from church lamps, except her god knows this is no pilferage. For, in the course of the film we learn that Séraphine‘s foray into the world of painting was prompted by a command she received from her guardian angel. We see her painting furiously, squatting on the floor of her cramped, untidy room, even as she fails to pay rent. Her subjects are typically drawn from the natural world–trees and birds she would claim to “talk to”, fruits and vegetables, animals and the sky.

“Séraphine is a visionary in the powerful sense of the word. She let herself be carried by something that was stronger than she was, that she did not control, at the risk of destroying herself.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

It’s not long before the film as well as Seraphine’s life story take a decisive turn–with the entry of Wilhelm Uhde, a German art collector. He rents an apartment in Senlis, where Séraphine does cleaning work. By sheer chance, he comes across one of her paintings at a dinner invitation. Struck by the creative vitality, Uhde immediately takes her under his wings. Even as his encouragement bolsters the artist inside Séraphine, the scimitar of World War I slashes their association–the art collector has to flee Senlis as his house is raided. Thirteen years later he returns to France and, once again, is faced with Séraphine–through a painting of hers he sees at an exhibition of local artists’ works.

One of the most touching parts of the film is when Uhde traces his steps to Seraphine’s creaky room and assures her of supporting her painting career–by this time, the old maid is even older, and weighed down by age and its annoyances, she cuts down on her house assignments, focusing instead on her heart’s calling–painting. Soon, thanks to the provision of art materials and a monthly allowance, set up by Uhde, the self-taught artist begins painting with an intensity greater than before. We see her causing an explosion of colours on huge canvases, even as her lifestyle too improves. This burst of creativity wouldn’t last too long either. This time, her own mind would be at war with Séraphine. Hallucinated and “hearing voices,” she scares her neighbours and is finally taken to a mental asylum. Almost immediately, she gives up painting. Forever. Three years after her death, Uhde would organize an exhibition devoted entirely to Séraphines works in Paris. Ironically, during the last phase of her painting life, this is what Séraphine desperately wished for–a solo exhibition.

 

As exceptional as Séraphine Louis’s life story is, the film achieves in conveying it with outstanding maturity. The strongest element in this is Yolande Moreau, who is Séraphine in the film. She appears so natural–both physically and in her mannerisms–that it’s hard to believe she is acting in a film and not living her actual life. However, what makes the film all the more powerful is the deftness with which the director, Martin Provost, has turned almost every frame into what could be a painted canvas or a brilliant photograph–works of art. Whether it be the fields or streams Séraphine passes through or the night when the terror of war booms through Senlis streets with cannon shots or Séraphine’s imaginations bursting forth on to a canvas–the scenes are rich with eloquent detail. Yet, none of it is loud that would scream for attention.

“Whether it be for the costumes, the sets, or the lighting, we were intent on making sure that everything was a bit “withdrawn.” A general desire for sobriety and discretion; the least amount of effects.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

Even as Séraphine‘s story intrigues me, it brings me back to the exciting mystery that spawns creativity, while also stuffing me with bagfuls of inspiration.

“Séraphine was a simple cleaning lady—worse, a handy woman—who painted extraordinary things in secret and who was the butt of all jokes. She represented at the time what was the lowest on the social ladder. But she didn’t care. Nothing stopped her. She was able to preserve her autonomy in spite of everything, her inner life’s abundance in the secret of her little room, even if it meant accepting performing the most thankless jobs.”

[From an interview with Director, Martin Provost]

Do watch this film if you can. You won’t regret it.

Martin Provost interview source: http://www.seraphinemovie.com/