Chintan Girish Modi interviewed me about my debut novel. The most rewarding part of the interview was his reference to a blog post I wrote in 2011 regarding home and what it means for me. Read the interview in Firstpost.
Feminism in India has listed Victory Colony, 1950 in a “selection of books by women writers in 2020.” which the writer found to “defy homogenous understanding of Indian woman, laying bare the contradictions, contestations, compliances that Indian women are going through, being located within the intersectional grid of their realities.”
To quote from the article:
Resistance against the norm has always marked the crux of women’s writings, where they have been found experimenting with the given. Bhaswati Ghosh’s Victory Colony, 1950 (Yoda Press, 2020) zooms into Amala’s life, a victim of Partition in the East, as she traverses through trying political conditions, displacement, self-fashioning, and finding companionship in a new land, thus, giving a fresh perspective to the genre of Partition fictions, where life is not just about rebuilding, but about refin(d)ing.
An excerpt from my debut novel, Victory Colony, 1950, in The Dispatch
Manas had little chance to interact with Amala over the past two days as the women were still holed up inside the school. The morning after the clashes ended, Manas and his friends took a tour of the freshly-seized squatter colony. Manas could see the enormousness of the task that lay ahead for the space to become truly habitable. There was no clean water supply or electricity. Nor did the residents have any sewage or waste collection system in place.
As they walked through the area, Subir thought aloud the need for setting up a few hand pumps at the very least. Manas nodded, saying they needed a new fundraising drive to get the basics in place in Bijoy Nagar.
‘We’ll also need more volunteers, Manas-da,’ Manik said.
Manas agreed as he thought of the added effort needed to manage the camp and work with the squatting refugees.
They landed close to Amala’s shack. The landlord’s goons had razed the incomplete fencing Amala had earlier put up. Manas saw Amala resurrecting the fence with a fresh batch of hogla leaves. She seemed engrossed in what she was doing. Manas noticed her lips moving with the hint of a sweet smile.
As the boys came closer, Manas said softly so as not to break Amala’s reverie, ‘Ei je, how goes?’
He thought he had caught a fragment of a song in her voice before it faded away as she looked at him and smiled. A tiny hurricane swept through Manas’s heart.
Read the rest in The Dispatch
Translated from the Bangla by
First published in Parabaas
I first met Shakti in 1957, at the College Street Coffee House. I still carried on me the smell of Ramakrishna Mission’s Vidyamandir from where I had just graduated. The modernity of Coffee House startled me almost every day. I would find myself a corner to sit at the Krittibas table, with the poets barely tolerating me. Scores of foreign names—of poets, novelists, films, filmmakers—rained down my head. Every single day, I would hear new names—how in the world could I get to read so many books, watch so many films? I hadn’t even seen the magazine Kabita (*Poetry, কবিতা ) yet. I have faint memories of Shakti wearing a red tie and commuting to his workplace, Hind Motors as a daily passenger.
Somehow, with time we became friends. I didn’t write any poetry, only dealt with prose, that too very little. I had enrolled into Jadavpur University’s master’s program in Comparative Literature, which brought me an entry into the haloed and unique adda of ‘Kabita Bhavan’ (*lit. house of poetry, residence of Buddhadeva Bose, founder-editor of Kabita). Shakti’s name was still on the student roll, but one hardly saw him on the campus. He would (suddenly) show up once every six or nine months and that would be it. He was part of the batch following ours, a classmate of Rumi’s (Damayanti Basu Singh, Buddhadeva Bose’s youngest daughter) in the BA course. Buddhadeva had forced him to enroll with hopes of making him return to the mainstream. By then, however, a witch had already seized Shakti’s heart.
Read the rest in Parabaas
First published in Saaranga
For Frida Kahlo
A sea rises from your iris,
its cobalt waves mapping
your skin, tunneling into your
Bones a freak accident left
Paralyzed — life’s black
humour at 18. But what use
Would you have for walking
When you had wings to take
Off to the azure horizon and
Set it ablaze with the crimson
Desires of your heart.
The earth smells in
you a confidant who knows
Its ripe secrets — the dust
and sweat of toilers. So do
the flowers that sprout from
Your hair. And the birds in
Your seeded tropical oasis.
The urn still breathes in your
Warm scent that wanders
Alongside the cats in the blue house.
First published in The Wire
Night falls on a river. The village around it thickens with darkness. Not the river. On its breast, distant lights flicker like inextinguishable fireflies. The glow comes from the boats of the fishermen sailing on its waves. A majhi (boatman) sings a drawn-out tune and the river’s water folds into its haunting essence with every splash of the oar.
This is how the 1959 Pakistani film, Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn) unfolds as does Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatman of Padma), the novel it’s adapted from. An enthralling flute amplifies the aural impact of Jago Hua Savera’s opening scene even more, holding the viewer in a delicate trance. A synthesis of the work of stalwarts like Faiz Ahmed Faiz who wrote the songs, dialogues and story; music director, Timir Baran and Academy Award winning cinematographer, Walter Lassally – this first scene establishes the tenor of the film’s sensitive and neo-realist aesthetic.
That the night isn’t pitch-black isn’t insignificant. Like the Padma itself, it is mysterious and pregnant with possibility. Of light. Of dawn. It has to be that way. For the Padma is as unforgiving to the fisherfolk edging its banks as it is giving.
When Manik Bandopadhyay wrote Padma Nadir Majhi, his sparkling novel chronicling the lives of East Bengal’s fishermen, India was under British rule and the Second World War was still three years away. When director A.J. Kardar adapted it for the screen, Partition had split India, and Faiz’s reworked story reflected the region’s altered geopolitics. Filmed on location at Saitnol on the banks of the Meghna River in what was then East Pakistan, the film’s story marks a significant, and arguably necessary, departure from the novel.
The biggest change is also the most awkward one – the fisherman’s tongue. Instead of the regional Bangla dialect of the book, the characters in Jago speak in colloquial Hindustani. It’s not an A for B transposition, though. For me, a Bengali married to a Sikh, the ingenious workaround Faiz and Kardar employed to get around the language hurdle struck a personal resonance. Despite speaking fairly respectable Hindi all my unmarried life in Delhi, my hometown, with my husband, I started speaking in a deliberately incorrect tongue, upturning verb conjugations – a pattern absent in Bengali.
The fishing villagers of Jago speak a similar broken Hindustani, their vocabulary sparse and uncluttered. When the viewer is least expecting it, fragments of Bengali float into her ears – a kid begging his father to spare “duto poisa,” another telling his uncle, “Miyan boddi anchhe,” (the miyan has brought a traditional doctor), and then a full exchange in Bangla between two sisters, Tripti Mitra playing the younger of them.
An idiom for celluloid
One would be mistaken, however, in attempting to locate the film’s vocabulary in a particular vernacular. From the first scene to the concluding one, the elements that dominate both the stylistic and utilitarian purposes of Jago are wordless – the music, the ambient sounds, the silence. In the opening scenes, the viewer gets a sense of a sound peculiar to Padma’s boatmen as Bandopadhyay describes it:
“From the heart of the river afar, a call is heard, a faint sound of human voice…This is a language known only to the boatmen of East Bengal. There are no words in this language, only undulating vocalization. Across unbounded horizons spreading over the river, this sound travels long distances, becoming fainter in volume, but unchanged in its ripples.” [From Padma Nadir Majhi, translated by the author.]
The depth and breadth of Timir Baran’s prowess as a composer are on full showcase here, not just in the three songs that a boatman sings, all carrying the resilient poise of Faiz’s poetry, but also in the music director’s unusual choice of the classical veena – to overlay everyday village scenes with a sedate composure.
Then there are atmospheric sounds – the Padma’s waves, of course, but also the chatter of kids playing on its banks, the cawing of crows, the buzz of a bustling fish market and, later in the film, the big city’s honking automobiles, hawking porters and tinkling bicycles – that lend the narrative a compelling immediacy.
Lassally’s mature camerawork makes it even easier for the director to stick to verbal minimalism in the film. From the first frame, the camera moves with eloquence to capture both nature and man. While the Padma’s expanse and excitability are made almost palpable for the viewer, the close-ups of the characters’ faces strike one as archives of an ancient sadness.
In Jago, the majority of the villagers are Muslims as opposed to the Hindus in the novel. The characters and the plot are a lot less complex, too, making this nearly an original story, written for a new audience.
Most noticeable among the revised characters is that of Bandopadhyay’s Hossain Miya, an enigmatic man of wealth who could be caring or ruthless, depending on the situation. In Jago, he becomes the unidimensional Lal Miyan, a moneylender like any other, stripped of complexities.
The other big character swap is that of the protagonist’s sister-in-law’s. The novel’s Kapila is Mala in the film, played with sensual charm by Tripti Mitra. As in the book, she retains her flirtatious ways, but instead of enticing Miya, her brother-in-law, is seen to attract the attention of Kasim, Miya’s brotherly friend. Bangladeshi acting legend, Khan Ataur Rahman not only plays the role of Kasim with self-assurance, but also sings the film’s songs with tender facility. Particularly enduring is his rendition of “Beet chali hai raat/ab chhoro gham ki baat,” (The night is about to end, my friend/Let go of your songs of sorrow), a spirited nazm by Faiz that Baran has set – to an electrifying effect – to a traditional bhatiyali tune.
Of deprivation and the dawn of hope
There is less gossip and innuendo in the film, too, the extent of it being Lal Miya pointing fingers at Kasim and Mala’s open show of affection for each other. Yet, despite all these deviations, the film remains faithful to Bandopadhyay’s work in a fundamental way – in its politics.
At the core of Padma Nadir Majhi is the social discrimination, ostracism and extreme poverty the fishermen suffer. Their destitution is naked, for they have little to cover it with. But it’s still not without dignity. Miya pulls a fragile cover over his newborn son and helps his invalid wife lie down beside him with the gentlest touch. When his daughter’s leg is fractured, Kasim lifts her in his arms and takes her for treatment to the city hospital – a long and arduous journey he undertakes without a blink. Ganju, obsessed with buying a new boat off Lal Miyan, saves every penny for it despite seeing tuberculosis sniffing the life out of him.
Despite its affirmative title, Jago Hua Savera is rooted in reality. Ganju will acquire his boat but not live long enough to enjoy it. Miya will not be able to buy it, not even after collecting all his life’s savings, including the money his wife has been saving for their daughter’s wedding, the pennies in his son’s piggy bank and Kasim’s offered savings. Wistfully, and in his torn vest, he’ll keep his gaze on the treasured boat as it floats on Padma’s bosom.
And still the fisherfolk will wrest their dawn from the night – the Padma will hold them in her sway again, Miya will approve of Kasim’s relationship with Mala, and Kasim and Miya will return to the fishing boat. And the glow of its lantern.
This is a dawn that’s as unremarkable as the fishermen’s’ lives. It is still a savera, nonetheless.
Jago Hua Savera is a landmark film, not only because of its international cast and crew or the way it draws inspiration from the best of world cinema. But because it reinvents a classic in its own, cinematic, idiom.
[The Day Shall Dawn (1959) was selected as the Pakistani entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 32nd Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee. It was also entered into the first Moscow International Film Festival where it won a Golden Medal. Days before the film was to premier, the new government of Pakistan (under Ayub Khan) asked the film’s producer, Nauman Taseer not to release the film. The writer, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, was later imprisoned by the government for his communist beliefs. Anjum Taseer, son of the producer, had the film fully restored in 2010.]
Because time is not a
Super highway, not even a
Road. It’s the mist that rolls
Over mountains when one
Cares to notice. Drink it like
A flu patient does chicken broth.
Learn to watch like
The robin does, letting an
Entire universe unfold
Within while eying
A single worm. Listen to the
radio as it rebukes you.
It’s the friend you
Forsook, like paper and postage
Stamps did letters.
Discard the rust of
Ambition for the never-fading
Sheen of idleness.
Like the chirping of birds in
Spring, reserve all your haste
For love alone.
First published in Madras Courier
Excerpts from My Days with Ramkinkar Baij
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh
first arrived at Santiniketan in 1942, after clearing the Matriculation examination. That was the first time I saw Kinkarda. In time, our acquaintance grew closer through my father, who, as Kinkarda’s batch mate, was a member of Kala Bhavana’s first student body.
I saw Kinkarda and marvelled at his works during my student life. Then again, I saw him with his works on burning afternoons or in the evening’s shadow-caped deepening dark. But at that time, I didn’t have the requisite insight and maturity to know him well. In 1957, I joined Visva-Bharati as a teacher. That’s when I found him again, in a totally new way. For twenty-three years, between 1957 and 1980, my close association with him made our relationship much more intimate and deeper. I hold this fellowship and intimacy in great esteem.
However, I didn’t realise that this closeness had also gradually fostered in me an uncomfortable dissatisfaction and unease. At one point this became clear to me. Everyone knows Kinkarda as an outstanding artist—one of the finest exponents of neo-Indian art and perhaps the greatest of sculptors, whose originality is undoubted, who never wore labels of ‘East’ and ‘West’, who was independent and walked on his own path. Some see him or like to view him as a rootless Bohemian artist. His lifestyle is completely different from Western Bohemian artists; rather, he is closer to the bauls of Bengal, oblivious of worldly concerns. In this respect, I wholeheartedly agree with respected Manida (artist K.G. Subramaniam). That Kinkarda is driven by an inner force, empowered by sheer outstanding talent, resulting in the birth of extraordinary works of art isn’t the full story. He lives in a world of introspection—contemplating about the nature of life. Entwined with this is his world of artistic thinking, in itself fertile and rooted in life’s experiences.
What many of us do not know is that these experiences have been shaped by the sharp observation of his highly alert sight, the perceptions and realisations of his overly sensitive heart, his self-study and reflection, and many other influences. Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay—Ramkinkar’s batch mate and another talent of Kala Bhavana—also took up the pen besides pursuing painting. He wrote many valuable articles, criticisms, autobiographical and semi-autobiographical pieces. These reflect his analytically-rich intellectual strength as much as they highlight his experience and perceptiveness.
Kinkarda, though, never took up the pen. He did not have that mindset. Nor did he have the time. He had devoted his body, mind, life to ceaseless creation….I decided that if he would permit me to do so, I would come to him according to his wish and leisure. I would glean bit by bit, the best I could, from my interactions with him. In this way, at least some things could be preserved for those who want to know him, understand him deeply, or those who would never have the good fortune to see him, to listen to him.
Even as I was contemplating this, an unexpected opportunity came my way. At the time, Kinkarda used to stay at Shankhoda’s (artist Shankho Chowdhuri) mud house in Ratan Palli. That house was on the verge of collapsing. To my great delight, Kinkarda came to live in house number twenty in our Andrews Palli, right next to me. Without wasting any time, I grabbed this opportunity.
Morning, afternoon, evening, late evening—I visited him at all hours. On off days and holidays, a passion to leave everything aside and run to him would seize me. After nearly a year of such sessions, the work was complete.
Read the rest in The Beacon
First published in The Hindu Business Line
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.
Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto
Translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad
First published in The Beacon
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.