My essay Discomfort Food in Dhaka Tribune looks at food from caste and class angles through the lens of literature.
The first time the appearance of food in a book shook me was when I read Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan more than a decade ago. I read the book in English translation, which retained Valmiki’s original Hindi title. This wasn’t, in all probability, merely a stylistic decision; it seems to have been a necessary one. For, the word joothan, like its Bengali equivalent eNthho, does not have a satisfactory English translation. The closest word that describes it — leftovers — is way too short of what joothan actually means — scraps of food left on one’s plate after a meal meant to be thrown in trash. In the autobiographical book, Valmiki describes how members of the Chuhra community — the caste he belonged to — would be served joothan by their upper caste masters as wages for manual labour. Valmiki describes, in excruciating detail, how the Chuhras would collect the remains of the meals left behind from an upper caste wedding, dry the bits of pooris they collected in the sun, and how he had to guard those pieces from crows, hens, and dogs. These dried bits, half-eaten by other people, would be saved for the rainy season, when they would be soaked in water and boiled, to be had with chili powder and salt or jaggery.
As she hurried for her train, a blast of snow slapped her cheeks, reminding Aruna of when she had landed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport for the first time. The extreme weather had made her question her decision to come to Canada. It was too late, she had reminded herself.
When she landed in this haven for immigrants nine years ago, Aruna had been nervous. At their parting, her husband Raghu assured her, “It’s only a matter of a few months, maximum a year, Aru. I will be there after that.”
But those few months had multiplied into as many as it took to make nine years. Years that taught Aruna that time was as slippery as her husband’s promise to join her in Canada. Between trying to make a living and raising twelve-year-old Vishnu, she had aged by two decades instead of one. Looking at the mirror one day, Aruna tried to make sense of how it turned out to be like this—three lives that were supposed to make a family now fragmented like left-over noodle strands on a diner’s plate. Those early years they had spent together contained no suggestion of the later distancing. Her husband had seemed caring and involved, if excessively guided by his quest for a “good life.”
Now, snow and coffee — once alien to her– had become second nature to Aruna. And her good life had little to do with what her husband had imagined. She reflected on how time changes a person’s inner landscape in accordance with the outer one.
The train sped past white houses, streets, trees. Aruna planted her cheek, covered with the woollen scarf she’d wrapped around her neck, to the window. The thickly snow-decked walls that vanished and re-appeared on the horizon were home. She rubbed her glove-clad hands and sipped coffee from the paper cup that danced slightly to the train’s motion on a tray table in front of her.
Arriving in the province, she had felt confident of getting a job. Her many years as a lifestyle journalist in India couldn’t have been for nothing. So she consumed herself with the other variables—managing her son’s education, getting a health card made, securing a driver’s licence, and all the other minutia of moving to a new place.
But she rented a damp basement apartment and managed the other details with ease. Only the job eluded her.
In three weeks, the city had turned from an indifferent host into an unforgiving master. The city demanded labour from Aruna in order to grant her an extended stay. A conversation with her widowed landlady made the prospects look bleaker than the foggy winter mornings.
“Beta, I would suggest you try to find something at a grocery store. Or Tim Horton’s or McDonalds.”
“But Aunty, I worked in…”
“I know,” the landlady had interrupted, “you were a journalist. But this country doesn’t hand out jobs in your chosen field so easily. Maybe if you had a degree. But you don’t. You’ll have to be more humble, my dear.”
Aruna felt a dampness envelop her entire body. The very idea of working in a grocery store behind the cash counter made her bones stiff. The dullness of the job, the ominous possibility of turning into an automaton numbed her. Yet, college at her age was nonsense. There was no money. There was no time. She had a child. She tried to adjust to the idea she would have to get started somewhere, even behind a counter, even wearing a funny uniform.
One afternoon, as specks of sunlight sneaked in through the shoe-box windows of her drawing-cum-bedroom, Aruna got out of the house, armed with her trusted jute handbag and the resumes inside it. The snow outside had melted only a little, and black ice lined the streets. The knife-sharp chill had turned the sun into a frosty pale-yellow orb. It bit into Aruna’s skin right through her thrift store jacket.
She walked into the shopping plaza in front of her. With lunch hour drawing near, several cars entered the parking lot. The passengers were headed for a pizza joint. A few stores away, Aruna saw some activity—a new store seemed to be opening. The men offloading furniture from a truck looked to be from her part of the world. She approached one of them, a hefty, mustached and sun-glassed man, wearing a long black jacket and smelling of cologne.
“Er, excuse me, is a new shop coming up here?”
The man turned to her and adjusted his glasses before replying,
“Yeah. We are opening a restaurant.”
Aruna allowed a sheepish smile and reached for the resume inside her purse. A crumpled piece of folded paper came out. By the time she straightened it, the mustached man had already moved on and was almost inside the new restaurant.
Aruna nearly ran to catch up with him. He turned around and stopped at the door.
“Here,” said Aruna, huffing, “my resume.”
The man took the paper from her hands and invited her inside.
And so she found her job–at the South Indian vegetarian eatery, right in the heart of the suburb that had been swelling with South Asian population. Being a Tamil Brahmin helped–in the end, it wasn’t her qualifications or experience, but ethnicity that mattered.
Nausea and nauseating people were what Aruna could recall when she thought of the initial days of her job. Serving the same combinations of gravies and lentils infused with tamarind, curry leaves and coconut, throughout her long shifts turned her stomach. She thanked her luck that daily breakfast was part of her job perks. By the time the shift ended, she hardly had appetite for anything.
But she would take that over the gut-churning invitations some diners extended to her.
“Join me for a late-night movie with drinks.”
“Hey, my wife is vacationing in India. Care to spend the weekend with me?”
“What day is your weekly off? I can come over to your place to keep you company.”
Aruna knew Raghu’s absence made it easier for these passes to be hurled at her. With time and some help from her co-workers, she learned to cite an activity with Vishnu as a credible excuse. Conjugal armour wasn’t necessary. Her son was both her shield and compass.
She couldn’t learn to deal with the apparition of longing, though. The one that showed up frequently, especially on weekends, when she served families huddled at table after table. She would imagine sitting at one of them, being teased by Raghu and Vishnu and giggling in the self-absorbed, vain way she saw some younger women do. After nearly two years, it dawned on her that Raghu probably didn’t want to come to Canada at all. His response to her entreaties in this regard had a tone of measured yet affectionate indifference.
A year later that suspicion was confirmed. The then-teenaged Vishnu had been caught in a drunken brawl close to their home. Aruna had received a call from the police at her workplace. Her boss reluctantly allowed her half a day’s leave. She rushed to the hospital where her son and two other kids had been brought for treatment. An inquiry had begun. Though her mind was spinning with the possibilities: trial, imprisonment, expulsion, worse; in front of Vishnu, she remained normal and even sporting, “Beta, you wanted to have a drink? You should have asked me. This isn’t how you take it–on an empty stomach. Wait until you are legally ready. We’ll have it together. Deal?”
He seemed to understand, his own fear making him receptive. She called Raghu the next day, still suffused with worry. He said:
“Hey, all this happens, Aru. It’s his age. Cheer up!”
“But you do realize that I am all by myself here. I have to face his teachers, the police, maybe even…”
“You will manage it all, my feisty lady,” Raghu had interrupted. “I am confident you will tackle it fine.”
Aruna had broken down over the phone, unable to accept her husband’s phony reassurance, his unconcern. Raghu had yelled that he was forced to be far away only because of Aruna and Vishnu. So he could give them a “good life.” Silently, she had thought of her lean bank account and wondered who, in fact, was getting that “good life.” But she had said nothing. If this crisis wouldn’t bring him to her side, she sensed then, nothing would.
Now assistant manager at the restaurant, Aruna was able to take the time she needed to attend the court hearings for Vishnu’s violence. They went on for a year. Those hearings, weekly meetings with his school counselor, and her increased responsibilities at work–tracking the accounts, preparing budgets, taking stock of inventory–all silvered her once kohl-black hair with a vengeance.
While she longed for the cocoon of a loving family, her middle age offered a different reality. Finding too little time face-to-face, cell phone texts and emails became her allies in raising Vishnu. Through them, she was privy to the heartaches, acrimonious debates, and insults edging on slurs that were at the core Vishnu’s growing up. But somewhere along the way, the rough edges of adolescence smoothed out, and Vishnu turned from an errant child into a friend. Aruna thanked her gadget gods.
“Stop working like a donkey, Amma,” he counseled.
“Oh and what’s going to fund your fancy professional keyboard?” she would quip, thinking of his musical aspirations.
“Maybe that will have to wait. I can practice at Karan’s. You cut your hours at any rate. You are going to collapse if you carry on like this.”
Slowly, Aruna stopped feeling Raghu’s absence. In fact, she began to wonder if she would ever be able to live with him again. Acquaintances and even regulars at the restaurant would ask questions about her husband. She knew that her silence suggested that he was perhaps living a good life himself, not working toward giving one to his wife and son.
Over liberal sips of wine and unrestrained laughter, her closest friends heard more than silence: “Know what? I couldn’t care less. Who is stopping me from bringing a man into my bedroom?”
But in truth, she had found in loneliness a better, more trusted partner. She had, to her surprise, become at ease with being alone in the bed. And as years piled on years, it didn’t seem to really matter.
The restaurant staff–the suspicious and glassy-eyed accountant Sethuraman, the helper boys, Gopal and Dinesh, and all the chefs–from the bulbous-bellied, middle-aged Bala to the bony, soft-smiling young Manoj–had become her extended family. Sethuraman confided his fears and reservations to her, whether at his son’s craze for violent video games or the “lack of etiquette” among nouveau riche diners. The chefs considered her a big sister and sought her advice on important matters like which insurance policy to buy and what made a good gift for a wife’s birthday.
But for all that, Aruna felt glad that the restaurant hadn’t turned into her home. Despite the chaotic dust-storm blowing through her life, she was determined to find a nest: A haven not just for her own trapped soul, but also for Vishnu and his mates to flap their hormone-charged teenage wings with slaphappy abandon.
After the fallout had settled from Vishnu’s brawl, once all the court hearings and counseling had ended, she had found them a town home. Her restaurant family had worked as moving crew, packing and transferring items from her chilly basement with care. Vishnu had saved some money out of his weekly allowances and bought knick-knacks as surprises for Aruna–a small Ganesha figurine, a wind chime for the entrance, a couple of guitar-shaped key hangers.
Evenings, which began at 10 pm when her workday ended, were a combination of m’s: music and masala. Vishnu had recently joined a local South Asian band and was composing music on his keyboard, which he would then test on Amma’s “unreasonably tolerant” ears. He would rebuke her at times,
“Amma, how can you find this nice? It sounds so amateurish.”
“Yes, but you would agree this is much better than what you played last time, wouldn’t you?” Aruna would say.
“Hmpff! You’re not paying attention. Never mind, go back to your cooking.”
And so she would. The kitchen of their new home had become her creative laboratory, spa, and refuge, all at once. The earthy whiff of cumin seeds as they spluttered in the hot oil in a skillet assured Aruna all was well. The pungency released by garlic crushed in a mortar- pestle or asafoetida in searing oil alluded to the spunk and excitement lurking within every seemingly insipid day.
While chopping onions for a Kerala-style fish curry, she smiled at the thought of how her palate had been transformed by Canada and its long winters as well as her son’s rapidly-evolving gastronomic index. Growing up, she would twitch her nose at the mere mention of fish; now she not only cooked it, gently simmering it in a creamy coconut milk stew, but also enjoyed biting into its flesh, spooning in some steamed rice and curry as well.
Food–not the grub people stuff themselves with to satiate hunger, nor even the gratifying ingestion of chosen foods to fill one’s ego and belly on special occasions–but the unsung yet care-sodden home meals, the mothers’, grandmothers’ and distant aunts’ creations—had become Aruna’s lodestar in a territory that offered her unparalleled freedom–to be messy, to fail in experiments, to not stop experimenting. And it gave her the ability to make her son happy.
“When I move out, I am taking you with me. I don’t want to miss this awesome food,” he said one morning as he sipped from a glass of mango shake. Every summer, Aruna would buy boxes of mangoes, expensive as they were, having been imported from India or Pakistan, to make sure that Vishnu could have his mango shakes and lassis for breakfast.
“Why would you need to move out at all?” Aruna asked. “This house is all yours, Beta. But you will give me the third floor, won’t you?”
“The entire third floor? Nah, Amma, you can’t have my music room, no way.”
Laughing, they argued over the proposed division of the house for half an hour, before agreeing on letting it be the way it was–with Vishnu deciding what part of the house belonged to him. That sometimes included his mother’s bedroom. Contrary to feeling betrayed or wronged, Aruna found her son’s near-feudal sense of ownership to be a snug blessing. Anything to make him stay in the house–even if that meant sleeping on the living room couch for nights on end.
Things had started falling into a pattern, like the predictable rhythm of seasons in Canada. Aruna particularly cherished the fall, when leaves changed colours faster than a painter’s brush strokes–as sensuous reds flirted with boisterous yellows and fiery oranges, the thermometer’s dipping mercury made bodies seek the embrace of jackets and light cardigans, sunset morphed into huge pumpkins and descended on grocery stores and maple syrup flowed indulgently over pancakes at breakfast tables. And schools re-opened after the summer break. For a mother of a teenage son, what was there to not love about fall?
Autumn also awakened the writer in Aruna. At first, she fed long nights that refused to bring sleep with DVDs of the latest Bollywood flicks. But she tired of them. On those restless nights, she wrote, remembering the career she had left behind years before. If food acted as her release, writing was her plunge–the deep-sea dive that took her on secret, often uncomfortable journeys. In writing she was compelled to confront and listen to the many women within her–those whose roles she played in real life and those whom she could never be. The single mother, the survivor, the lonely spinster, the comforting cook. The charming partner, the dependant wife, the fighting feminist.
When a freelance opportunity to write for a lifestyle magazine came along, Aruna grabbed it with her raddled hands. An occasional article on parenthood, a sometimes report of a cultural event, an infrequent restaurant review–the writing wasn’t exactly soul-lifting, but it was better than washing dishes at the restaurant, which she had continued to do even after becoming a senior manager.
Then, Bharat, the restaurant owner started complaining to Aruna about finances. He had incurred a substantial debt and would be cutting down on staff. The words dropped on Aruna’s ears as a whipping hailstorm. She knew what it meant. She told Bharat she wouldn’t survive without the restaurant; that it had become a part of her. The continuance of her job had become a reality as simple as the nonexistence of her husband. Losing this “normal,” which had taken years to make, scared her.
Bharat had tried to calm her, “I don’t want to let go of you either. I can’t. We’ll find a way.”
As a start, he suggested part-time work for her. Aruna understood that would also mean part-time salary and didn’t know what to say. She hated the idea of asking Raghu to send additional money: for nine years, he had paid their electricity and phone bills, but no more. And Vishnu was at least two years away from making his own money.
Her hours were cut. The numbers told her that adding the expense of college education didn’t make sense. And yet, a sense of vindication surged within her as she ran: not away from her Canadian life, but deeper into it.
The restaurant went on, and so did she. Through the bleached, bleak Ontario winterscape she rode a train into the city. Thrice a week she attended classes at the college alongside students half her age: broadcast journalism. On two other days, she volunteered at a local TV station. Restaurant work now meant just a few hours in the evening. The digits on her salary cheque had dropped.
For the first time in nine years, nonsense made total sense to Aruna. She was in possession of her power and her possibility, and for the first time she allowed herself a solo flight over an uncertain territory.
The frosty surroundings reminded her that the white always changed to green, no matter how old or young the trees were. As she glided above the ennui of routine and the relevance of marriage, Aruna breathed free. So did all the strands of hair on her cigarette-ash head.
First published in Stealing Time literary magazine (print) in 2013.
Dusk hung over the city as Suhani blinked into a droplet of rain. The outpour had finally slowed but not enough to save a day’s labour and wages.
The group of migrant labourers from Himachal had been trudging through Delhi’s criss-crossed thoroughfares for four days now. Even as they negotiated the city traffic and an ever-floating mass of people, a temporary street market drew Suhani with a pull that stainless steel plates and woks, plastic pails, colourful tiffin boxes, broomsticks, and china cups with saucers can exert on a 12-year-old girl. As she squatted to examine the collection, Lakhi, an older woman from the group, hastened her.
“Chal, get up, Suhani. What good are these for us? We won’t buy anyway,” Lakhi said and stepped ahead to join her group amidst the milling bazaar crowd.
Suhani let go of a sigh and a set of green glass bangles she yearned to see around her wrists. When she got back on her feet, Lakhi wasn’t beside her. “Chachi,” she called out, jostling through the crowd, hoping to reunite with her group. Instead, a thousand strangers milled around her. Tears rolled down her eyes. She was lost.
Suhani dreaded rain.
Wading through the crowds, Suhani couldn’t help a nightmare from clasping her mind. She saw her father’s face as he hammered stones to build a tunnel through a mountain near Kullu for a hydro power project.
A dream had cradled Suhani before the tragedy struck. As floodwaters swept away their tent, her spell broke. People around her screamed, scrambling for their belongings. Neither Baba nor his soothing voice was around. Even as Lakhi dragged herself out of the tent, Suhani peered backwards, hoping to see her father through the gushing water. But he had already turned into one of the 78 casualties the flood devoured.
Suhani slapped her arm to fight the brittle rain slashing her skin. She thought of Baba. How he’d take her to his work site, yet not let her carry a brick. At daybreak, when he opened his food basket, she would force him to eat more than he could hope to digest. “Suhani is your amma, Raghu,” her father’s friends would say. The little girl would break into a chortle.
A sob escaped her throat.
At a corner of Safdar Hashmi Marg, Saleem’s tea stall, a shack with a torn tarpaulin sheet for its roof, barely withstood the rain. Saleem couldn’t care less. He ran the stall to douse the stomach’s fire, which somehow burned even when the heart had been razed clean of feelings. Wary of his perpetual frown and aversion to exchanging pleasantries, regular customers seldom made any casual conversation.
But today his face wore a smile. The incessant rains teleported him to his village and to memories of his son and wife. He remembered how Ali loved to get soaked and pick up the green mangoes that fell on puddles under the trees. No matter how sharply his mother scolded him, Ali had the unspoken nod of his father for this wet indulgence. Saleem would join the boy in his rain dance and fruit collection, much to the disdain of his wife, Fatima. All the same, he understood her fear. Ali had come to them after nine years of their marriage, and they had seen a few village children catching a cold that turned into violent, fatal pneumonia.
In the end, it wasn’t to pneumonia he lost his son. Or wife. The rain, in fact, played no role in that. He still didn’t know if Ali was alive, or like his mother.
The afternoon he found Fatima’s body — her kurta shredded to bits as if by a pack of starving hyenas, her bare breasts oozing blood yet to dry, the string of her salwar undone — left for display — in the tiny courtyard of their house was also the afternoon Ali had gone missing. Saleem had no time to grieve his wife or look for his son. He couldn’t even claim Fatima’s body for burial — the police took it away for investigations. She wasn’t alone — 11 women from the community had been ravaged. A few had survived, most didn’t. For the men, the discovery of the scarred bodies of their wives implied a terrifying warning of what was to come.
They fled to a neighbouring village, to community members who sheltered them for a couple of weeks. Saleem and one of his neighbours eventually managed to board a bus and find their way — escape — to Delhi.
Today, nearly a year later, the rain eased Saleem’s pain, if only by a smidgen. Images of chasing little Ali through the fields, in the rain, came flashing to him; for a few moments, he found a speck of life back. Deep down, he wished for the rain to continue. Maybe it could wash off the wounds from Fatima’s naked breasts that now festered on his?
Drenched to the bones and shivering, Suhani plopped herself on a bench at the corner of the street.
A sudden sneeze coming off the bench startled Saleem. He felt guilty to be reminiscing.
“Ae, ladki, what are you doing here?” he asked the girl who’d just claimed a corner of his stall bench.
She looked up, her eyes pooling with water and fear.
“You have no tongue or what? What are you doing here?”
A customer offered to pay for a glass of hot milk for the girl.
Saleem agreed reluctantly and gave her a glassful with a couple of biscuits that had gone soggy.
It was already late; Saleem closed shop for the day while Suhani still sipped her milk. “Just keep the glass in that bucket and get going, okay?” he said to her and added, knocking his forehead, “Allah jaane where they come from.” His grouse with the almighty wasn’t new.
The kiss of a wet leaf on her forehead woke up Suhani the next morning as she sprang from the bench that had been her bed for the night.
Engrossed in washing tea-stained glasses while humming Palla Sipayia, a song Baba often sang at work, she was caught unawares by a gruff voice. It was Saleem’s.
“Ae, you’re still here! What are you up to with those glasses?”
“I am just cleaning them.”
“So you want money now, haan? Get lost! I won’t pay you a single rupee.”
“I don’t want money. I was cleaning the glass in which I drank, so I thought…” Suhani was on the verge of breaking down.
“Tell me, where do you live? I’ll take you to your home.”
The girl was more puzzled than shocked to see Saleem’s tone softening. Through a torrent of tears, she mumbled her story to him.
“Hmm, so you have no place to go? And you found no one but me in this whole world. Allah! Okay, leave those glasses now; you don’t have to wash them.”
“Not a problem. I am good at this.” Suhani resumed her humming and washing.
When she was done, Saleem offered her a glass of tea and a fresh bun.
“Come, sit on that bench and eat this.”
Suhani had been estranged from her village group for less than a week, and Saleem was already at a loss for ideas for her. He brought her to the stall daily on a rickshaw and she quietly helped him run it, washing glasses, preparing the elaichi and laung for spicing the tea. She’d noticed the masala version sold more than plain tea.
One morning, on their way to work, Suhani saw a construction site and asked Saleem if she could work there. Who knew if Lakhi and the rest of her village people were there? Saleem snapped at her. “Are you in your senses or what? Don’t ever talk of that again!” He had seen how construction thhekedars and their sidekicks treated the young girls who worked on the sites. The thought of Suhani, an orphan, working there made him shudder. Instantly, he felt bitter for his concern for her. He was only inviting trouble.
He gave himself three days to find an orphanage for her.
A week passed. The air was hotter and the crowd of customers thinner. More people preferred lassi and Coke to tea in the searing heat. Saleem utilised his free time shortlisting orphanages. The moment his glance went to Suhani, he averted it, as if blanking her from his vision would somehow invalidate the truth of her existence.
It was early evening when a dust storm banged against his stall. The tattered tarpaulin revolted through the gust. Saleem worried if it would last this heavenly outburst. He wasn’t up to renovating his shack — he had other things to deal with. Within minutes, the storm lashed into a downpour. Just as he got ready to leave, he saw Suhani weeping.
“Ae, Suhani, are you feeling sick?”
“Then why do you cry, Beta?”
Suhani’s tears halted midstream. At the slightest show of affection from the otherwise stern Saleem, she leapt forward, hugged him and broke into fresh tears.
“Why does it rain, Chacha? Why? It only takes people away. Why did it take Baba away from me?”
Saleem patted her on the back, uncomfortable to hold a crying child in his arms. Ali had cried on his shoulders while reporting a school master’s taunt only a few days before Saleem stopped seeing that sweet face ever again.
He was relieved when Suhani let go of him. Gently poking her forehead, he said, “It’s not the rain that took your Baba, Suhani. It’s all your kismat. Come now, help me wash these glasses, or we may end up spending the entire night cursing our kismat.”
Suhani burst out laughing, and suddenly the rain didn’t feel so bad. In an instant, she was jumping, two glasses in her tiny hands, feet floating on a puddle, hands waving in the rain.
“Ae, Suhani, what are you up to, you crazy girl?” Saleem asked.
“Why, washing the glasses, Chacha. Look!” she said. Her laughter carried the echo of fresh raindrops pattering down the street.
Despite his best efforts, Saleem couldn’t help thinking about his days in the village with little Ali.
“What’s it with this girl?”
The clear blue sky the next morning gave Saleem hope. Since the mercury had dipped quite a bit, people were expected to return to the stall.
“Suhani, can you manage the stall today?” he asked the child.
“I have some work and won’t be back before noon.”
With that he went out, a sly smile betraying his face as he took out a piece of paper from his pocket. He saw Suhani’s face paling but didn’t bother.
When he returned in the afternoon, Saleem found an animated Suhani taking care of business, asking the customers if the sugar was enough, or if they wanted more cardamom in their tea.
As Saleem came closer to the stall, a man asked him, “What’s that you are carrying, Saleem?”
“Well, Sahab, I thought I would repair this stall a bit. You can see how it is right now.”
“Ah, that’s a good idea. Your roof might fall off any moment, and then we are all doomed,” he said, braving a light guffaw, which was immediately echoed by other customers. A rare opportunity for mirth in the tea stall’s drab history couldn’t be let off.
Saleem and a younger customer began changing the tarpaulin sheet. Soon the stall sparkled in fresh blue. Saleem opened another package wrapped in old newspaper. A signboard came out of it. As he and the young man fixed it, the rest of the customers moved to take a closer look. Most of them were too startled to react.
When they were done, Saleem asked Suhani, “So, how do you like this?”
“What is written on the board, Chacha?” Suhani asked, craning her neck to look up.
She got a tap on her shoulder. It was the young man who had helped Saleem with the facelift.
“Come here, little girl. That board says, ‘SALEEM-SUHANI TEA STALL’.”
Suhani let out a silly chortle and squealed, “See, Chacha, he’s making a fool of me.”
“He doesn’t have to.”
The rain had let up when Saleem took Suhani’s hand and walked back home. The muggy air drenched him in sweat. He didn’t complain. Clearing his throat he asked her,
“Do you have a problem calling me Abba?”
Suhani paused, taken aback by this sudden suggestion.
“Yes, ab se. I want you to start practising right away.”
Suhani lowered her head to a slight nod, enough to hide a smile and a tear.
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.
“She was playing with little girls in the neighbourhood alley.”
This is how Saadat Hassan Manto opens his story Das Rupay (Ten Rupees). “She” is the story’s young protagonist, yet, as Manto implies by introducing her with the generic third-person pronoun instead of her name, she could be any girl. Nearly eight decades after he wrote that story, she – the fictitious Sarita – seems to be gathering a disconcertingly increasing number of real-life sisters in India. As one comes across news reports of little girls being sexually violated – each more harrowing than the other – across the country, Das Rupay serves as an unnerving reminder of everything that’s at stake for and taken away from a young girl when she is raped.
Pushed into the flesh trade by her mother, 15-year-old Sarita is more a little girl than a teenager. Like most little girls, she’s free from worries. She enjoys, like I did in my teens, playing with girls a lot younger than her. And from the slivers of her personal life that have filtered through the horrific news surrounding an eight-year-old girl’s rape and murder in Kathua, we know she enjoyed playing with her horses. More recently, in the case of an 11-year-old girl who was raped by a dozen-and-half men over seven months in Chennai, her mother blithely assumed her daughter was playing with her friends when, in fact, she was being sexually abused.
Back in my teenage years, not all neighbours appreciated my propensity to play with girls younger than me. Some found such “childishness” annoying. As Tagore, too, illustrates in his short story, Samapti, this expectation for a girl to relinquish her girlhood no sooner than she hits puberty is anything but atypical in the Indian context.
In Das Rupay, Sarita’s playing in the nukkad irks her widowed mother for a different reason. Her daughter is an easy source of income and she hates to keep Kishori, the local pimp – and the fat-pocketed customers he brings – waiting. As a cover for her complicity in trafficking her own child, the mother makes tall claims like, “I’m thinking of enrolling her to the municipality school that just opened,” which her neighbours know to be a sham. Sadly, for today’s flesh-and-bone Saritas, the school building isn’t always a safe place. School teachers, older students and even a principal in Patna can turn into sexual predators, as recent news reports suggest.