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.

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When Ramkinkar Baij sculpted Rabindranath Tagore

In the following excerpt from My Days with Ramkinkar Baij, the sculptor shares with the author Somendranath Bandopadhyay, the backstory of his sculpture of Rabindranath Tagore, which he made in the presence of Tagore in Santiniketan. Translated from the Bengali by: Bhaswati Ghosh

‘Have you seen my two portraits of Rabindranath? The bent sculpture—bust—I made that later. It depicts Tagore’s last phase. The other one, a little abstract, is the earlier one. Many people think that one was made later. No.

‘Andrews had passed away then. Something was being written for his memorial ceremony. He (Tagore) was bent over his writing table. As soon as I went in, he looked at me with squinted eyebrows, as if a little miffed. After hearing my proffering he said, “In the West, an obstinate artist harassed me a great deal by measuring my face from many angles. Do you intend to do the same?” With apprehension, I quickly reassured him, “No, no, I won’t even touch you. You carry on with your work as you are. You won’t even get an inkling that I am around.”

‘He would do his work, and so would I—this was the deal. Bas—I got what I wanted.

‘I got to work in a corner of the room. A little away from his chair and table.

‘He used to remain engrossed in his work. However, I can’t say he never looked at my work at all. A couple of times, he did see it from the corner of his eyes.

‘He was a little unwell at the time. His hair had been cropped short—he didn’t have the mane. He had to bend over the table to write. It reflected a special side of his personality—and that’s what I tried to capture, my dear—the serious Rabindranath. Not the sweet and pliable Kobiguru. See, very few people have recognised this other Rabindranath. All through his life, he stressed on many things, did such a lot of work—in Shilaidaha, then here in Santiniketan—he begged until the end of his life—who ever paid attention to him? And how many people have done such bone-breaking work in our country? You think the poet only dreams. Ha, ha. We also see him only in our dreams. Look at the flesh and blood man, the real man.’

The words are clothed in deep sadness and grave perturbation. From his expression, that isn’t left to doubt.

 

Letters from a foreign shore — Rabindranath Tagore’s letters to his niece

First published in Cafe Dissensus

39

Shilaidaha

Thursday, January 9, 1892

[January 14]

For the last couple of days, the weather here has been vacillating between winter and spring. In the morning, northern winds send shivers through land and water and, in the evening, the southern breeze dances through the moonlight of the bright fortnight. It is clear that the spring is nigh. After a long time, an Indian nightingale has started singing from the garden on the other side. The human heart is somewhat excited, too. One can now hear strains of song and music from the village across, which indicates people aren’t too eager to shut their doors and windows and retreat to bed all bundled-up, while the evening is still young.

It’s a full-moon night – a giant moon stares at me from the open window to my left as if to check if I am berating it in this letter. Perhaps she thinks the earth’s residents gossip more about her blemish than her jyotsna. A lone bird calls to dispel the shore’s quietude. The river is still, no boat sails on it; the forest on the other side spreads its solemn shadow on the water. This massive moonlit sky looks a touch hazy – the way things appear when drowsy eyes try to stay awake.

Tomorrow onwards, evenings will begin getting darker again; as I cross this small river after completing my kutcherry work, I will notice a slight separation between me and my beloved away from home. Could the one who had unveiled to me her large and mysterious heart be wondering if all that self-revelation was prudent enough and thus pull back the curtain to her heart again?

Indeed, nature becomes intimate to one who lives alone abroad. I have truly felt for a few days now that I might no longer receive this swathing moonlight once the full-moon night is over; that from this foreign place, I will drift further abroad; that the familiar calm beauty that awaits me at the river bank every day after work, won’t be there for me, and that I would have to make my return journey on the boat in darkness.

But today is a full-moon night – this is the first purnima of this year’s spring, and so I record its story in writing. Perchance I might remember this still night – complete with that lone bird’s call and the gleam of the light on the boat anchored to that bank; this clear outline of the river, that coating of a quasi-dark forest and that detached, indifferent, pallid sky – after a long time…

(Jyotsna: Moonlight; Purnima: Full-moon night)

***

105

Shajadpur

July 7, 1893

This is a small village. Meandering through broken ghaats, a tin-roofed bazaar, granaries with split bamboo fencing, bamboo clumps, mango-jackfruit-palm-shimul-banana-akondo-bherenda-yam trees huddled in a bush, huge boats with raised masts anchored on the river banks, paddy submerged in water, and half-soaked jute fields, I reached Shajadpur last evening. This is going to be my abode for a while now. After spending days in the boat, it’s lovely to step into a house in Shajadpur. It’s wonderful to discover the freedom of being able to move around and stretch one’s limb at will and the impact it has on one’s mental health.

This morning, the sun is beaming from time to time, a wind is blowing swiftly, tamarisk and lychee trees are sashaying and rustling in a sway, a variety of birds are calling out in as many different ways to enliven the forest’s morning assembly. Sitting in this large, companion-less bright and open second-floor room, I am delighted to see a row of boats on the canal and, across it, a village flanked by trees on both sides. On this side, moderate activity guides the movements of a nearby locality. The workflow of a village isn’t rushed, and yet, neither is it inert or lifeless. Work and rest seem to walk hand in hand here.

Ferry boats sail on, passengers walk along the canal with umbrellas in their hands, women dip rice-filled wicker baskets in the water to wash the grain, farmers carrying bundles of jute on their heads head towards the haat, two men rest a log on the ground and crack it with axes for firewood, a carpenter upturns a fishing boat to repair it with a chisel, the village mongrel wanders around aimlessly, a few cows lazily sit on the ground and ward off flies by shaking their ears and tails before ingesting their lunch of the monsoon grass. When crows annoy them excessively by sitting on their backs, they turn their heads just a few times to register their protest.

The sounds of this place – the monotony of cracking wood, the cheer of unclothed children in play, the plaintive high-pitched song of a cowboy, the sloshing of oars, the shrill drone of the oil-grinding block – don’t create any dissonance when they combine with bird calls and rustling  of leaves. In fact, all of it is like a peaceful dream sequence of a bigger sonata, a bit in the manner of Chopin, albeit attuned in an expansive yet controlled composition.

My mind brims with sunlight and all these sounds; I better conclude this letter and soak in it for a while.

(Ghaat: River bank; Haat: Village market)

Image courtesy: theculturetrip.com

The Art of Solitude: In Rabindranath Tagore’s letters, the gifts of a life in solitude

First published in Scroll

After a week of rain, hail and non-seasonal arctic chills, a balmy sunshine and a breeze carrying whispers of spring indulge us in the Southern Ontario suburb where I live with my husband. With a book in my hand, I step out into the backyard and find it to be the venue of an unrehearsed celebration of this climatic turnaround. All our immediate neighbours are out – the daughters of our next-door neighbours yell hellos to their school friends in the backyard across theirs; our other next-door gardener neighbour is busy tending to her perennials; my husband readies the soil for his impending vegetable garden.

Human hums and giggles enter me along with the constant chirp of the backyard birds. As I open my book Chhinnapatrabali – Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of letters, written for the most part to his niece, Indira Devi Chaudhurani, I don’t miss the rare synchronicity this moment brings, especially in our current physically distanced world. The cover of my reading material is beginning to tear up, evidence of the book’s confidant-like association with me through the decade of my life outside India.

Tagore wrote a lot of these letters from his family estate in East Bengal, which he’d been tasked to manage in his youth. While opening a window to his literary talent and creative process, the letters also serve as a manifesto of living in and celebrating solitude and its many gifts. A shift away from the human-centric way of life is one of these gifts. In letter after letter, Tagore speaks of how, whenever he lands in the rural environment of his estate from the industrially-rushed Calcutta, he senses centrifugalism of the humankind. “There’s less of man and more of earth here,” he notes in a letter and adds, “when in the village, I cease to see man as an independent entity,” likening mankind’s journey to that of rivers coursing their way through forests and cities.

Chhinnapatrabali also endears itself to me because of the way it reveals the everyday Rabindranath, shorn of his career accolades and their accompanying weight. With gentle humour and uncensored vulnerability, the letter writer brings out his deepest loves and anxieties, his humanism shining through them like the sun gleaming in our rain-sodden backyard.

In reading the letters nestled in this volume, I learn, recurrently, the need to take a pause from the staged antics of a mechanized life. For, as Tagore shows, true viewing – whether of blackbirds and squirrels in my backyard, or the rivers and trees, boatmen’s songs and women’s banter, cows chasing flies away with their tails, a silent full moon night in a Bengal village – calls for rest and repose. Not only of the outer eye that sees. But of the inner eye that makes, out of one, a seer.

Letter photo source: The Daily Star

Ganga and Mahadev by Rahi Masoom Raza

Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

My name sounds like a Muslim’s
Slaughter me and set my home ablaze
Plunder the room where my statements stay awake
Where I whisper to Tulsi’s Ramayana
And say to Kalidasa’s Meghdoot
That I, too, have a message.
My name is like that of Muslims
Kill me and torch my house
But remember that the water of Ganga courses through my veins
Throw a splash of my blood on Mahadev’s face
And say to that yogi — Mahadev
Withdraw this Ganga now
It has sunk into the bodies of the degraded Turks
Where it runs as blood.

गंगा और महादेव
राही मासूम रज़ा

मेरा नाम मुसलमानों जैसा है
मुझको कत्ल करो और मेरे घर में आग लगा दो
मेरे उस कमरे को लूटो जिसमें मेरी बयाने जाग रही हैं
और मैं जिसमें तुलसी की रामायण से सरगोशी करके
कालीदास के मेघदूत से यह कहता हूँ
मेरा भी एक संदेश है।
मेरा नाम मुसलमानों जैसा है
मुझको कत्ल करो और मेरे घर में आग लगा दो
लेकिन मेरी रग-रग में गंगा का पानी दौड़ रहा है
मेरे लहू से चुल्लू भर महादेव के मुँह पर फेंको
और उस योगी से कह दो- महादेव
अब इस गंगा को वापस ले लो
यह ज़लील तुर्कों के बदन में गढ़ा गया
लहू बनकर दौड़ रही है।

COOKING HILSA

Heat mustard oil in
a wok until you bathe in
its smoke. Drop the
fish with
fresh green
chilies in the
sizzle.

Save the oil. The ancestral
elixir your rice remembers.

Parse the fish bones
with your fingers, take
carefully-impatient bites.

Let the memory of a
week-long bone-in-the-throat
pain in your youth
be your guide.

Live in
the cloud of the fish smoke
that is now your house.
Imagine you’re in your
home city years ago
when you could scarcely
afford the fish or its obstinate
lingering.

Promise never to
buy it again; spare yourself
the agony of its fussy
bones and fishy hangover.

When you visit the
Bangladeshi store next,
fall for its charm again.

Admit that some surrenders
are irreversible. And hereditary.

Bhimpalasi

A faint note of his flute.
An abstracted Radha
wanders through a
flower garden. She loses
herself in his strains.

Why do you wander
in the forest looking for
him, Kabir teases. He’s
everywhere, in everything.
Entwined in your very being.

Bhimpalasi courts me even
now. Still as shy. Still
as persistent. Soft. Plaintive.

I seek like Radha. Sometimes I
Find like Kabir.

Malkauns

Radio waves dance between
sleep and the half light
of dawn. Yawning, Ma adjusts the
knob to wake up the station. The man
on the radio invokes the Mother in
gravelly chants. Malkauns,
waiting in the wings,
takes the stage. The beginning
begins.

Far away, in another lifetime,
a temple bell rang. The devotee,
crazy for a single glimpse of the
lord, cried his heart out. “Don’t
shatter my hopes; leave me not.”
The dark-skinned god stood still.
Wobbling across decades
of palsy, an old man’s feet
breathed life into its
stone.

Malkauns moves mountains. Cripples.
Stony gods. An adored mother goddess
and her carousel of
children. It moves sleepy heads
into a dozy trance. Malkauns
moves dark nights of the soul
into mornings that must
awaken.

Lakeshore

When shallow, water extracts
its wages in laughter peals. Children
Slosh in the lake filling buckets, spilling
More than they draw, like their giggles
splattering over the beach.
Mothers keep watch from the shore with sips
of wine, not aged yet. Grandfathers slide back
to afternoons when sibling platoons
scattered their own ruckus on the sand. Backwards
Is the aging mind’s favourite sandpit.

At the deep end, water gets more exacting.
It asks for payment in palpitations, dense
heaving. It’s voluminous crests mock
blood rush, adventure, even love.
There’s no digging at the deep end, only
swimming and sinking. You age as the water
does — angry, quickening, fateful.

Between the shallow and the deep ends,
Water makes you float. Gravity is a
slippery trickster. Not a bedrock.